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Unnatural gloss

review

According to the dust-wrapper, this book 'presents nature as the ultimate sourcebook for design', and a flick through its glossy pages suggests that it is little more than a designer-book for the designer- coffee-table - filled with evocative comparisons between natural and man-made forms, and printed in heightened colours which nature generally reserves for her most exotic creatures.

First impressions are, up to a point, misleading. The text, set in long lines of a small, very light sans serif, is not designed to be read with ease, but proves to be both elegant and, within the limitations of the form, erudite. Powers begins well with 'a natural history of design' which in a few pages takes us from ancient Greece to deep ecology via Chartres and Southwell, Descartes and Blake, Constable and Ruskin. It's that sort of book, but this is in fact a minor masterpiece of compression, spicing a familiar story with less well-known quotations and examples.

'Design in nature' is similarly thoughtful - engineering to fractals and 'holism' - but thereafter different design values assert themselves. Titles become cringe-makingly twee ('Creature comforts', 'Furs and feathers') and images dominate text. Chapters are reduced to around 1200 words of introduction followed by several two-page spreads with short commentaries. Many of these, almost inevitably, read like something out of an up-market glossy magazine. The topics addressed - architecture, engineering, fashion, manufacturing and graphic design - are of such scope that the coverage is inevitably superficial, reducing complex cultural artefacts to single images, linked visually by supposed natural reference, material or purpose.

The subject is timely and the book may sell on the strength of its pictures - although at £30 it is by no means a bargain - but the contents are largely reduced to a parade of designer-chic. Analysis is overwhelmed by packaging: natural forms, picturesque 'primitive' cultures, 'design classics', and the latest darlings of the design world slide seamlessly together. Some of the spreads are attractive, although to me the relentless high-gloss Kodachrome reproductions are vulgar, about as far from the subtleties of natural surfaces and colours as you can get.

Despite the shortcomings of the form, Alan Powers is well worth reading - I had not come across Stendhal's description of England as 'le carefully careless', for instance - and the picture research has thrown up some interesting and unfamiliar material.

My favourite, undoubtedly, is Sir Thomas Lipton's tree house (circa 1900) at Ossidge, in which, one guesses, the owner and male guest are attended by four servants - two white, two Indian - and a doting black labrador. One longs to know more: had Sir Thomas spent time in the sub-continent, and seen something like the Indian tree house shown on the same page? Were such arboreal fantasies common a century ago? This is not the sort of book to answer such contextual questions: the all-consuming eye looks, and having looked, moves on.

Richard Weston is a professor at the Welsh School of Architecture

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