4 Books That Reflect on Faces, Fragments and Torments

This article is part of our Design special section on how the recent push for diversity is changing the way the world looks.

Calling attention to commonplace accessories, humdrum crafts, misplaced masterpieces and blithe inequities is a focus of much contemporary design scholarship. We see it on a global scale in several new books.

In “The Full-Length Mirror: A Global Visual History”(Reaktion/University of Chicago Press, $35, 271 pp.), Wu Hung, a professor at the University of Chicago, recounts how reflective glass did more than cater to vanity over the millenniums.

An ancient Chinese ruler known as the Muddle-Headed Marquis was buried with a bronze mirror trimmed in paintings of fierce beasts, which he was convinced would bring prosperity and “dispel evil and inauspiciousness.” Mirrors enabled wealthy ancient Romans to observe their bodily functions in bathrooms and bedrooms. Louis XIV’s henchmen used industrial espionage to steal Venetian mirror-making formulas, which called for toxic layers of mercury. And American abolitionist photographers posed formerly enslaved people alongside mirrors. The simultaneous face and profile views made for emotionally powerful photos, which were sold for the benefit of schools for Black children.

As the book suggests, there was anxiety over reflections, too, which long predated vampire novels and starlets; an emperor in 7th-century China once ripped out his mirrors after a government minister warned that the ruler’s images “scattered everywhere” in the halls of power posed a risk of offending the gods.

Fabric remnants that are recycled for furnishings and clothing are believed to ward off evil and store memories, as the textiles expert Catherine Legrand explains in “Patchwork: A World Tour” (Thames & Hudson, $50, 208 pp.).

Pieced-together bedding has demonstrated thriftiness, whether for contemporary Japanese householders enveloping futons in plaid fragments, or Gilded Age wives making coverlets out of golden silk ribbons from their husbands’ cigar packages. Cloth stars and helping hands are stitched onto appliqué hats in both Benin and Vietnam. And Dutch survivors of Nazi persecution have fashioned “liberation skirts” out of bits of fabric owned by lost loved ones.

In “Uncrating the Japanese House: Junzo Yoshimura, Antonin and Noémi Raymond and George Nakashima” (August Editions/Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia, $45, 160 pp.), the scholars Yuka Yokoyama, William Whitaker and Ken Tadashi Oshima and the photographer Elizabeth Felicella give readers a look inside one portable building’s precedents, journeys and influence.

In the 1950s, Japanese officials paid handsomely to export a teahouse for display in the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art. The goal for this venture was cultural diplomacy. With movable paper walls, a wraparound veranda and curved roof planes covered in cypress bark, it drew hundreds of thousands of visitors and then was shipped westward to Fairmount Park in Philadelphia.

The MoMA attraction’s architect, Mr. Yoshimura, had worked in the United States before World War II and befriended American designers and architects living in Japan, including Mr. Nakashima and the Raymonds. In wartime, the Raymonds settled in New Hope, Penn., and rescued the Nakashima family from the Minidoka internment camp in rural Idaho. The two families built adjacent compounds in New Hope that were inspired by Japanese design, which have been preserved. But the prewar teahouse that Mr. Yoshimura and the Raymonds installed at a Japanese institute’s headquarters at Rockefeller Center was dismantled in 1942 and has vanished.

Elizabeth Tunstall, the dean of the design faculty at OCAD University in Toronto, gives step-by-step instructions for reducing bigotry’s impact on the built environment in “Decolonizing Design: A Cultural Justice Guidebook” (MIT Press, $22.95, 136 pp.).

She describes her own visceral reactions to signs of racism, such as documentation of 17th-century Virginia colonists’ crippling legal restrictions on nonwhite people, and the thousands of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at North American residential schools.

She widely encounters forms of design that suggest “I don’t belong,” she writes, such as eyeglasses unfitted to the bridge of her nose and “medical adhesives not in my flesh color.” At OCAD and elsewhere, she has campaigned to broaden faculty hiring practices and inspire more objects that, she writes, “transmit liberatory joy to the body and community.”

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