ed. by Pat Kirkham and Susan Weber. Bard Graduate Center, dist. by Yale University Press, December 2013. 704 p. ill. ISBN 9780300196146 (cl.), $80.00.

Reviewed March 2014
Annie Sollinger, Digital Image Metadata Librarian, Image collection Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst, annies@library.umass.edu

This survey textbook, reportedly ten years in the making, comes from the Bard Graduate Center; its essays and images cover (according to Yale University Press) “interiors, furniture, textiles and dress, glass, graphics, metalwork, ceramics, exhibitions, product design, landscape and garden design, and theatre and film design.” The editors describe the need for such a volume in academic programs to assert the study of decorative arts and design history as a field in its own right. However, they do not wish to establish a canon, “but rather to give frameworks, encourage discussion,” and stimulate research.

The text as a whole is shaped by an interdisciplinary “history-from-below” approach. The authors work to address bias and contemporary stereotyping in their essays. The contributors include art historians, curators, librarians, professors, and researchers. The text is divided chronologically into four sections: 1400-1600; 1600-1750; 1750-1900; and 1900-2000. The geographic organization within each time period is refreshing, attempting to shift the emphasis from Western art by removing the hierarchical periodization of art history. Color-coded sections divide the world into East Asia, India, the Islamic World, Africa, Europe, and the Americas, in that order. According to the introduction, future editions will include Australia and Oceania. Each of these chapters is broken down into smaller geographic regions, each addressed by one author.

While the book shares a designer with some editions of Janson’s History of Art, the approach here is more streamlined than such a survey. There are no sidebars or introductory guides for each section. Instead, the essays move at breakneck speed through history, highlighting issues such as manufacturing, patronage, sumptuary laws, trade, cosmology, or gender. This gives the text a more holistically informative feel, rather than providing a purely didactic survey. It does leave something to be desired, but this arrangement is deliberate, “primarily for reasons of accessibility and ease of reading.” While there are no glossaries or timelines, the essays are followed by eight pages of maps, citation list, suggested reading list, and index.

The book is well illustrated, and the images are generally of high quality. As is expected from a survey, the book is heavy and somewhat unwieldy. The text is naturally suited to academic programs in design and decorative arts and will also supplement programs in art history. It is appropriate for reference collections in any art library.

© 2014 ARLIS/NA