Ground Condition #6

This week, I’m skipping the links and heading straight to my bookshelf for summer reading recs. Plus a humble request for you, dear reader: I’ll soon be writing a design advice column for a national newspaper, and I’d love to take your queries! Need help picking a paint color for your front door? Is a spiral staircase a good or bad idea? To sofa-bed or not to sofa-bed? Will we ever host houseguests again?! Reply with your burning-est design questions and let’s get them answered in print.

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The Great Indoors by Emily Anthes (nonfiction)
The very first page of this suddenly-very-timely volume references my favorite architectural swindlers, Arakawa and Gins. The pair’s buildings were intended to “cheat death,” and although a scanty few were ever constructed, boy, are they unforgettable. (Sidenote: In early 2019, I visited their Bioscleave House, above, which was then for sale. I didn’t ever write it about it, but am mighty curious if anyone’s been quarantining there…) Anyhow: Arakawa and Gins took an extreme approach to correlating one’s living experience to their built environment. This book investigates that relationship in a more practical manner, at a variety of scales, with a maximum number of fun facts. 

Oval by Elvia Wilk (fiction)
In the not-too-distant, very-late-capitalist, not-quite-dystopian future in Berlin, there’s something strange happening with the weather: freezing slush one day, sweltering humidity the next. A ripe climate for a satirical send-up of sustainable architecture, if there ever was one. The protagonist lives in an eco-development atop a mountain built over the old Tempelhof airport; she works in a lab attempting to engineer roofs from cartilage cells. There’s also a delicious tangent about Columbus, Indiana; here, the hometown of the protagonist’s boyfriend but more commonly known as the seat of philanthropically-funded civic architecture.

Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry
Undermined Black Homeownership
by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (nonfiction)
Start here: roughly 72% of white households own their homes; for Black households, the rate of home ownership is 42%. Putting aside one’s familiarity with the systemic factors creating that disparity—from redlining to restricted covenants to FHA-backed mortgages, and on and on—Taylor’s Pulitzer-winning book surfaces a crucial argument: Touting homeownership as the path to accruing generational wealth relies on a “mistaken assumption that all people enter the housing market on an equal basis or that the housing market itself is a neutral arbiter of value.” This was, as Taylor shows, a flagrantly false premise during the speculation on urban housing markets in the 1970s, when working-class Black women were targeted in corrupt schemes designed to take advantage of the likelihood they’d default on their mortgages. The term caveat emptor has never sounded so chilling.

Design-y kids books FTW
Graphic designer Paul Rand collaborated with his first wife, Ann, an illustrator on a series of children’s books; these are a bit tricky to find and you may have to go secondhand: Little 1, Sparkle and Spin: A Book About Words, Listen! Listen!, and I Know a Lot of Things (superfans: score your first edition here). In 2016, Princeton Architectural Press published a long-lost manuscript of Ann’s, with accompanying illustrations by Ingrid Fiksdahl King, as What Can I Be?—which is in regulation rotation in our household along with Listen! Listen!.

The Nosyhood, by Tim Lahan: The artist’s first illustrated kids’ book, published by McSweeney’s, is a total delight.

I discovered Ten Black Dots, by Donald Crews, c/o Michael Bierut’s Instagram. Crews was a graduate of the Cooper Union and worked in Madison Avenue ad agencies in the ‘60s—rare for a Black graphic designer at the time. Since then, he’s published a ton of books and won two Caldecotts.

The good news: Renowned poet, novelist, and activist Langston Hughes wrote what is probably the best primer on jazz music, back in 1955. The bad news: That book, The First Book of Jazz, is long out of print. Scholastic now owns the licenses of the original publisher, Franklin Watts—should we collectively lobby for a re-issue?!

Terence Conran’s The House Book series
You are surely familiar with the seminal House Book, but did you know that there’s a whole library of Conran how-to home books? Let me tell you, these 20th-century relics hold up! The rooms depicted are either dated, so old they’re trendy again, or visionary (red for a kids’ room!), but mainly I’m talking about the easy-to-read, knowledge-imparting writing voice of the seasoned home renovator. These books are especially good if you’re seek inventive storage solutions for a small living space (Small Spaces), if you want to modernize a historic house (Conran’s Creative Home Design), or need a no-fuss breakdown of how to modify a kitchen with accessibility in mind (Kitchens: The Hub of the Home). The Conran-branded books, on the whole, are done in a practical format that even a baby will enjoy:

“The Things They Fancied” by Molly Young (zine)
A quaranzine devoted to the frivolities, collections, and hobbies of the wealthy throughout history. I had to ration this one—each chapter was more horrifying and delectable than the last. Recommended here for the pineapple section alone.

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Frothy, edging on functional: As aforementioned in this very newsletter, I’ve been seeing quilts—and fandom around quilts as an art/craft medium—evverrryyyywwhhhheeeere. (Someone pay to me write this trend piece, please.) While this patchwork number by Auntie Oti is sold out, you can still snag this royal blue kantha quilt.

Functional: I can’t tell you how many people have asked me for stovetop kettle recs over the years, the problem being this: The most attractive ones don’t have a whistle atop the spout, and the whistling ones (necessary for the easily distracted) are by and large less appealing. This one is obviously referencing vintage Dansk but, crucially, features that whistle.


I’m inspired by The Black School, a non-profit founded in 2016 that weaves together arts, education, performance, and history. The founders have been fundraising in order to build a bricks-and-mortar schoolhouse in New Orleans, and they’re halfway to their goal. Follow their progress via Instagram; donate via GoFundMe.

Take care,