Professor Jonathan Woodham's 2005 Dictionary of Modern Design is a major, internationally acclaimed and best-selling reference book on contemporary design culture.
A Dictionary of Modern Design, Oxford University Press, 2005 (hb) and 2006 (pb).
Having seen the difficulties and fierce critiques attaching to publications such as Simon Jervis’ Penguin Dictionary of Design of 1984, a time when I was at the end of the first decade of my academic career, the idea of writing a dictionary of design myself never occurred to me as a serious proposition until about a decade ago. Readily apparent, even in 1984, were the limitations of dealing almost entirely with mainstream designers whose careers had been acted out on the stage of the first industrialized world, or of focusing on styles and products with cultural connotations. Also evident at the time was a tacit acceptance that much of what ordinary people encountered in their everyday lives was not the 'stuff' of which dictionaries of design were generally made.
Just over a decade later I had gained some experience of writing dictionary and encyclopaedia entries, having been commissioned by the multi-volumed Macmillan Dictionary of Art (1996) to write on twentieth century British furniture and by Éditions du Regard in Paris to write all the British entries for Le Dictionnaire International des Arts Appliqués et du Design, Paris (1997) as well as having been invited to make extensive contributions on the Paris 1925 and 1937 International Expositions, a substantial definitive essay on Modernism, together with other entries for the Fitzroy Dearborn Encyclopaedia of Interior Design, London (1997). However, it was really as a result of the invitation to co-edit and contribute to Prestel Verlag’s Icons of Design: the Twentieth Century, Munich, (2000; paperback issued 2004) that I became interested in thinking both about the potential meanings of icons, whether revered museum piece or elements of everyday and popular culture.
Whilst it was straightforward enough to write about Alec Issigonis’ Morris Mini of 1959 (something about which I had been invited to speak about for the City of Birmingham/University of Central England Millennium Lecture Series in 1997: ‘The Mini Car: A Symbol of National Identity’) or Dante Giacosa’s Fiat 500 Topolino of 1936, it seemed to me to be rather more challenging and potentially useful to present a more inclusive view of twentieth century design by including in some detail such exemples as Frank X Wagner’s Underwood typewriter No5 of 1900, George Blaisdell’s ubiquitous Zippo cigarette lighter of 1933, Paul Fuller’s Wurlitzer Jukebox 1015 of 1946 or the Bic Crystal ballpoint biro of 1953. Such an outlook established two things: an emphasis on the importance of everyday, sometimes anonymous, objects and also, where known, designers not generally included in histories of design.
The significance of the everyday had been stressed in the introduction to my Twentieth Century Design for Oxford University Press (1997) although, like the Dictionary of Modern Design under discussion here, the ability to take a highly radical stand was to some extent constrained by the underlying purpose of both texts: accessibility and a comprehensive knowledge base combined with an introduction to new approaches to the field of design history, a wider geographical and thematic spread than adopted in most previous approaches to the such genres of publication, and a a greater proportion of ordinary, yet culturally significant, objects than usual. Important too was my growing awareness of 'lost' and 'hidden' national and regional histories of design, as discussed in Scholarly Portfolio 1, whether in terms of the geographically proximity of the countries of Eastern Europe, whose design output and consumption were largely obscured for political reasons for long periods of the twentieth century, or the emerging design cultures of South East Asia or other parts of the world such as South America which had not been included in most histories of design. Whilst it was not possible to redress this in any dramatic way, I sought to extend the range of objects, organisations, designers, theorists, writers, themes and countries generally encountered in dictionaries of design. So, just as one might encounter the Bauhaus, Samuel Bing, Roland Barthes, Giu Bonsiepe, Benetton, Biba or Bang & Olufsen, so might one come across Branding, Barbie, De Bijenkorf, BRIO, BIC or the British Empire Exhibition 1924.
Similarly, as I state in my introductory essay, the letter '"M", for example, includes such examples as Charles Rennie Mackintosh, William Morris, Jasper Morrison and Alphonse Mucha, but also McDonald’s, Mercedez-benz, Moskovitch, Marimekko, Matsushita, Meccano and the Munich Vereinigte Werkstätten für Kunst im Handwerk. Other aspects are reflected in the inclusion of the Mainichi Design Prize, Modernism, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Tomás Maldonado and Marshall McLuhan.'
My Dictionary of Modern Design has been translated into Korean and Chinese, is a constituent part of Oxford University’s Premium Online reference service and many of its entries have been licensed to Ask.com and Answers.com. Reviews include the following:
A Dictionary of Modern Design covers the gamut of cultural artifacts and fashion touched by the concept of ‘design.’ A comprehensive lexicon that will prove to be a useful tool for both artist and designer.
(**** Art Times, March 2005)
Woodham's useful dictionary of modern design covers influential designers, movements, companies, materials, and technologies from Arts & Crafts in the 1860s to contemporary practices and practitioners...Cross-referencing and indexing are exemplary...Recommended.
Woodham explains postmodernism and every other trend, trope and personality in design in the last 150 years, keeping in mind the changing definitions of 'design'.
(Reference & Research Book News)
An excellent lexicon of design concepts from the past 150 years.... Bottom Line: This marvellously compiled dictionary will answer just about any reference question on modern design. A delight to browse; highly recommended for all public and academic libraries.
(Library Journal [US], Starred Review, 15 February 2005)
Sometimes a book's cover, or in this case, the book jacket, is an indication of what is between the boards. The stylish use of the ISBN number and large colorful bar code are emblematic of good modern design. As well as being a dictionary of modern design, this book is also a concise history.... A wealth of information in a well-designed book makes this a required purchase for libraries supporting design programs and for most academic libraries and large public libraries.