Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More

Important Artifacts (book review)

Book review for I.D. (International Design) Magazine, 2009. Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry. A novel by Leane Shapton. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2009.

She: twenty-six years old; adorable pixie blonde; a foodie who writes a weekly column on cakes for the New York Times. He: thirty-nine; tall and dark with big geek glasses; a commercial photographer who travels the world on shoots for magazines.

These winsome hipsters fall in love and exchange understated gifts (an Elgin travel clock, a McCoy vase, a Godard screenplay). They go to parties, read tattered paperbacks, and share fanciful home-cooked dinners. Yet soon enough, their romance comes apart at its vintage Schiaparelli seams as they tire of each other in the usual male/female ways. She’s too needy and volatile; he’s too distant and self-involved. (He also drinks too much, has bad breath, and prefers Count Chocula to charlotte russe.)

Sounds an awful lot like real life? This novel’s inventive format strives to overcome its wan plot and familiar characters. Titled Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, it’s a narrative assembled as an auction catalog. Author Leane Shapton presents a parade of objects from the couple’s life, improbably put up for sale following the collapse of their four-year relationship. The book features blunt black-and-white photographs of personal artifacts—from a heart-shaped silver toast rack to a taxidermied squirrel—numbered and captioned with the cool eye of an undertaker or an intern at Christie’s.

Like her female protagonist, Shapton is a New York Times employee (art director of the Op Ed page). She is also a well known illustrator and founder of the indie publishing house J&L Books, a not-for-profit venture dedicated to new art, photography, and fiction. Shapton designed the book herself, arranging its complex contents in pleasingly precise layouts. Snapshots of the couple are included among the auction lots, helping to carry the story along in a cinematic way. In these photographs, real-life fiction writer Sheila Heti poses as our heroine, while graphic designer Paul Sahre impersonates her boyfriend.

Designers will appreciate the mere fact of the book: its canny concept, its trendy insider cast, its graphic form, and its obsession with objects as the visible fallout of emotional strife. Shapton has curated a novel by describing things. Some objects tell their own stories, such as a Sleep Sound white noise machine with “irreparable damage to top and sides, as if struck by a hammer.” More often, a paper trail provides evidence of love and disaffection via notes inscribed on grocery lists, dinner menus, playbills, postcards, and the occasional printout of an email. These remnants of human conflict—tucked into books and apron pockets—are fun to read, but one sometimes doubts that an adult male with intimacy problems would actually transcribe his thoughts so willingly or so often.

Nice surprises emerge from newspaper clippings of the heroine’s on-going food column, as she chooses recipes that reflect her state of mind: a spicy Siena cake reminds us that not all desserts are sweet, while a confection laced with Guiness reveals that “Rich, dark, and bitter may be intimidating qualities in a woman, but rather nice in a cake.” Meanwhile, we glimpse our hero’s half-baked ambitions as a fine artist through his serial photographs of beef jerky and the ceilings of hotel rooms.

Other contemporary novels that experiment with graphic form include Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2006), whose games with typographic structure range from extreme letter spacing to long passages written in numerical code. Graham Rawle created his novel Woman’s World (2005) by cutting and pasting scraps of text from old magazines, assembling a dark and mesmerizing story about family trauma and sexual identity. Shapton, lacking the full-scale literary skills of Foer or Rawle, produces a tale that rarely arcs or twists. A studied boredom cloaks the whole ensemble. Two people meet, fall in love, lose interest, and move on. No shocking betrayal emerges to explain why they are selling off their possessions—including many items untainted by their deflated relationship. (Why would a gifted young food writer get rid of her cookbooks just because she broke up with her boyfriend?) For a design audience, the book’s playful format and artfully presented details may be compelling enough to make up for a story that fails to climax.