I’ve been following writer and professor Matt Bell on social media for years, eagerly tuning in for the wisdom he shares from the many (many) books and author interviews he has read, and frankly awed by his fierce, upbeat dedication to his writing practice. Bell’s new guide for aspiring novelists, Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts, gathers his wealth of knowledge and motivational zeal into a volume that deserves a spot on every writer’s desk. He advocates for a three-draft approach, while recognizing that “draft” can mean many different things. His chief goal is to keep you from giving up—to provide the fuel and structure to get you through the inevitable slog of novel-writing. As I embark upon another revision of a novel I’ve been working on for years, I’m thankful to have this book riding shotgun.
It’s been a minute since we’ve featured the work of an interior designer. Anna Spiro: A Life in Pattern turned my head with its springy, floral-print linen cover, just the thing to spiff up a side table. Inside, the fun continues: The photographs are spirit-lifters one and all, awash in bold colors, textures and, as is Spiro’s trademark, pattern on pattern on pattern, with glorious examples of how to avoid being matchy and yet make everything harmonize. Fans of the ebullient mix-and-matching of Justina Blakeley will also delight in Spiro’s maximalist, vibrant style. If you’ve had a hankering to try a pop of wallpaper, this book will take your face between its hands and say, “Go for it, friend!” Do you love being surrounded by your precious things? Spiro understands, and she encourages shaping your personal style around those beloved objects. “Above all, your goal should be to create an environment that is reflective of you, your life and taste,” she writes. “Collect art, furniture and other items that have meaning to you.”
Love and Justice
Model, actor and activist Laetitia Ky has amassed a significant Instagram following over the past several years, posting images of her incredible hair sculptures. She twists, bends and shapes her own hair into faces, animals, bodies, trees, breasts and other body parts, and much more. This hair art is striking at face value, but in Love and Justice: A Journey of Empowerment, Activism, and Embracing Black Beauty, Ky frames her sculptural work within personal narratives that dig into issues of mental health, internalized misogyny, African heritage, sexism, self-care, Black beauty and other themes close to her heart. As a member of a new global guard of young creatives who refuse to separate their work from their beliefs and values, Ky is poised to become a strong role model for young people finding their way in the world.
Let your artistic side run wild with three inspirational books about novel writing, interior design and activism.
Debbie Millman couldn’t have predicted that when she debuted her “Design Matters” podcast in 2005, it would so deeply satisfy her soul. Podcasts were brand-new in the early 2000s, so the show was a let’s-try-this-and-see endeavor, a creative experiment that she felt primed to conduct. “I had achieved a great deal,” she writes in the introduction to Why Design Matters: Conversations With the World’s Most Creative People, “but there was an echoing vacuum of meaning and purpose in my life.”
Certainly, Millman has an impressive resume as a design leader, serving clients like 7UP, Burger King and Star Wars during her 20 years at the helm of Sterling Brands; co-founding the graduate program in branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City; writing six previous books; placing her art in museums as well as in the New York Times and Fast Company; and much more.
In its early years, the podcast was “very much a show about graphic design, graphic designers talking to graphic designers, very inside baseball,” Millman says during a phone call to the Manhattan brownstone she shares with her wife, author Roxane Gay. But as Millman shifted her focus from looking at human behavior through the lens of branding to instead connecting with individuals, people responded. They wanted in, both as listeners and interviewees, and her interviews quickly became a central element of her life and a pursuit that has been endlessly fascinating and rewarding.
“The show evolved in two ways,” she reflects. “First, my courage in reaching out to people increased. And then I also started getting publicists reaching out to me about their clients being on the show, or fans I didn’t know were fans wanting to be on the show.”
These interviewee-fans, more than 450 of them (and counting) over the course of 16 years (and counting), run the creative gamut. They’re standouts in the fields of design, writing, fine art, street art, acting, music, marketing, cooking—and the list goes on. Each guest is smart, thoughtful and, most importantly, game to join Millman on a conversational journey from childhood to adulthood, from past to present. They’re open to plumbing the sometimes painful events, decisions and emotions that have shaped what they do and who they’ve become.
For Why Design Matters, characterized in its introduction as “a love letter to creativity, a testament to the power of curiosity,” Millman distills that library of interviews into 50-plus Q&A conversations in five categories: Legends, Truth Tellers, Culture Makers, Trendsetters and Visionaries.
Choosing 50 interviews from more than 450 was a challenge for Millman. “I ended up going through all of them in one way or another, whether it be listening or transcribing and reading,” she says. “I wanted there to be a timelessness to what they were talking about . . . [and] an evergreen quality to the interviews, so they could be relevant whenever they were being read and experienced.”
The book’s veritable parade of fascinating, accomplished people begins with late design legend Milton Glaser (best known for his “I Heart NY” logo) and ends with Eve Ensler (who now goes by “V”) of The Vagina Monologues fame, with the likes of Alison Bechdel, Chanel Miller, Malcolm Gladwell, Amanda Palmer, Saeed Jones, Marina Abramović and David Byrne occupying the pages in between. Millman points to how each interviewee has shaped their career, life and body of work with fierce individuality. “They’ve lived their lives so differently,” she says, “and the ways they’ve coped with obstacles have been so varied.”
For example, James Beard Award-winning chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton (Blood, Bones & Butter) reveals that in opening her restaurant, Prune, she set aside her long-held dream of writing fiction. Shepard Fairey, known for his OBEY street art, talks politics and explains why he won’t call himself an artist. And in discussing her short stories, Carmen Maria Machado quips that “a novel is like being beat up over the course of a day, and a short story is like one punch to the nose.”
There are full-page portraits and illustrations, playful type treatments and blocks of text that don’t always go in a straight line, just like in any good conversation. Millman has previously compared a successful interview to a game of pool, but through the design of this book, a new metaphor comes forward: the scribble. Striking hand-drawn scribbles scrawled by Millman herself appear on the cover and throughout the book, hinting toward the notion of interplay, of thoughts and conversational paths that ricochet off and tumble toward one another. “For me, [the scribble] really portrays conceptually the arc of a conversation,” she says. “You know it could go anywhere; it could be an infinite loop. It is an infinite loop!”
Another infinite pursuit, of course, is creativity itself. But where does creative success come from? What pushes a person into the stratosphere of, per the book’s subtitle, the “World’s Most Creative People”? Millman believes it’s “faith in their own work, self-awareness of what they’re capable of and a relentless sort of restlessness, a real restlessness about constantly evolving and growing and uncovering new ground.”
That restlessness is something Millman also possesses, whether she’s learning from her compassionate exploration of the human condition in her “Design Matters” interviews, working with students at the School of Visual Arts or pursuing her ever-percolating new projects.
“There are so many things I want to do,” Millman says, “including two more books I have in mind. Stirrings of a lot of different new things I want to try.” But she demurs at the thought of including herself on a “Most Creative” list: “I think I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to earn that title.”
Photo of Debbie Millman by John Madere
In Why Design Matters, Debbie Millman dives deep into revelatory conversations from her groundbreaking podcast.
James Beard Award-winning chef Abra Berens and her collaborators have created a most magical combination of aesthetics, soul and practical guidance in Grist, a cookbook focused on humble stuff: beans, legumes, grains and seeds. Let it be said that I love beans, and I really love the way Berens provides, along with specific recipes, a number of templates to follow for any combination of ingredients you crave or happen to have on hand. For example, a bean + vegetable + flavor + texture chart starts with beans (any kind), then lists four suggested ingredients for each step: add veg, add flavor, add extra texture and serve. Elsewhere, she walks us through a week’s worth of lentils without boredom, and her recipes regularly include three or more variations. Topping it all off are Lucy Engelman’s beautiful illustrations, which make this a true work of cookbook art.
Where They Purr
A bedroom decked out in lush linens and pillows—and a cat, luxuriating on the bespoke duvet. A kitchen with floor-to-ceiling windows—and a cat, nonchalantly surveying the room from atop the dining table. This is the fabulous world of Where They Purr: Inspirational Interiors and the Cats Who Call Them Home, in which images of sleek interiors foreground the homes’ feline overlords. Photographer Paul Barbera got the idea for a cat-centric home design book while working on a previous project, Where They Create, and the result takes those “how they styled it” shots we’ve all seen while shopping online—a sofa, say, captured with the owner’s pet proudly lounging—to the next-next level. The homes featured here are mostly high-end and very modern, full of sharp angles and long lines. You might be inclined to call some of them cold, except how could you when fluffy Pud or Pippi or Gustov is lurking or perched or sprawled in their midst? As a cat lover, my only quibble with this purrfectly delightful book is that there are too few orange tabbies in the mix. I suppose we all, like our cats, have our own prefurences.
As I prepare for a solo journey to the Southwest, I’m happy to have in my pocket Wanderess: The Unearth Women Guide to Traveling Smart, Safe, and Solo, a guide for women, by women, and geared toward solo travelers. Whether you’re going it alone for the first time or planning a girls’ trip, the editors from Unearth Women have assembled in this colorful book all the resources, hacks and advice you could ask for, including tips for traveling while pregnant and specific recommendations for women of color and travelers who are trans, lesbian or queer. The writers also offer an outline for creating your own Feminist City Guide, which centers women-owned businesses; if you like, you can pitch your guide(s) to Unearth Women for possible publication.
From the humble bean to the high and mighty feline, the books in this month’s lifestyles column colorfully celebrate the joys of food, art and travel.
I like to imagine the process of assembling the exquisite compendium that is The V&A Sourcebook of Pattern and Ornament. What a dizzying and delightful task! London’s Victoria & Albert Museum is home to one of the world’s largest collections of decorative and designed objects in the world, and in this tome, one can peruse thousands upon thousands of images adapted from the museum’s holdings. Spanning pottery, textiles, paintings, wallpaper, sculpture and pretty much any other patterned thing you can imagine, the contents are arranged into four categories—plants; animals; earth and the universe; and abstract patterns—with most pages featuring a grid of three or more images and a succinct set of captions identifying the source objects and their makers. As you page through swiftly or slowly, the effect is kaleidoscopic. It’s a veritable feast of patterns for the eyes and mind, full of color, intricate details and beautiful repetition. You’ll wish for two copies: one to keep and savor; one to cut up for collage art. Frankly, I’m besotted.
Sketch by Sketch
I recently purchased my first iPad and began exploring Procreate, a digital tool that, when paired with the Apple Pencil, opens one up to a new realm of two-dimensional artmaking. I’m finding a daily drawing practice to be a profoundly joyful and meditative pursuit. Sheila Darcey, founder of the SketchPoetic community on Instagram (@sketchpoetic), knows all about the therapeutic potential of low-stakes sketching, and in Sketch by Sketch, she encourages readers to try 21 exercises designed to help them dig deep internally and work through difficult emotions. Darcey doesn’t care how well you draw, and her exercises are not meant to build artistic skill. If you create something that makes you smile, all the better, but self-discovery, not technical mastery, is the goal. “This is not art,” she writes. “It is a visual learner’s version of freewriting.” Testimonials throughout from SketchPoetic acolytes demonstrate how the process has worked for others.
Snails & Monkey Tails
Speaking of details . . . it’s an interesting time for punctuation, isn’t it? Texting has completely upended the rules, such that a period now suggests a hostile vibe to some (my teenager confirms this), and even the meaning of certain emoticons seems to be shifting with the generations. But these symbols persist in print matter, and they are lovingly and fetchingly celebrated in Snails & Monkey Tails, graphic designer Michael Arndt’s spiffy salute to the “tiny designs that run interference among the letterforms.” If you don’t know what a grawlix is, you sure as $@%!* will if you read this book. Afterward, you may never call @ an “at” symbol again. Rather, try “little duck” as they do in Finland, or “cinnamon bun” like the Swedes. From silcrows to pilcrows to guillemets and the dinkus, Arndt’s book will up your word-nerd quotient, and it will do so with impeccable style.
Design takes center stage in this month’s lifestyles column, from intricate filigrees found in museums to the elegant curve of a silcrow.
History fans have big treats in store this year, including groundbreaking books on American history and baseball, plus visual extravaganzas devoted to legendary women and design innovations. There are even lessons in how to survive a sea monster attack—because you just never know.
Relics: A History of the World Told in 133 Objects is my idea of the perfect coffee-table gift book. Billed as “four billion years in the palm of your hand,” it’s small enough not to be cumbersome, weighty enough to be substantial and full of colorful photos and intriguing text. Open it to any random page and get lost in the images of tiny relics and their histories, ranging from a 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid fragment to a tiny piece of Winston Churchill’s faux leopard-skin hand muff. (Poor circulation in his later years caused Churchill’s hands to get cold.) The book is part of the Mini Museum project, intended to share a collection of hand-held bits of wonders from around the world—a whole exhibition, Polly Pocket-style.
Young and old will be enticed by the variety of natural, historical and cultural tidbits, including a specimen of petrified lightning from the Sahara, a piece of a Martian meteorite, coal from the Titanic and a morsel of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding cake. Enjoy at your leisure, with no museum crowds invading your space.
★ Original Sisters
Award-winning artist Anita Kunz certainly made the most of her COVID-19 lockdown: She began researching and painting portraits of more than 150 extraordinary women from ancient times to the present, many whose stories have been lost to history or whose glory has been stolen by men. The result, Original Sisters: Portraits of Tenacity and Courage, brings these heroines to life in wonderfully bold portraits, each accompanied by a paragraphsummarizing her notable life. These portraits are so vivid that readers will feel as though they are meeting these women face-to-face—and believe me, you will feel their power.
You’ll recognize many women’s names, like Temple Grandin, Nina Simone and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but others may be new, such as Amanirenas, the partially blind African warrior queen who defeated Augustus Caesar. Patricia Bath, the first Black female ophthalmologist, invented a medical device to remove cataracts. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee was a Chinese American suffragist who led a parade on horseback in New York City to advocate for voting rights. A wonderful gift for friends, family or yourself, Original Sisters is an inspiring springboard for further study of these noteworthy souls.
★ The 1619 Project
For any lover of American history or letters, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story is a visionary work that casts a sweeping, introspective gaze over what many have aptly termed the country’s original sin: the moment in 1619, one year before the Mayflower arrived, when a ship docked at the colony of Virginia to deliver 20 to 30 enslaved people from Africa. While many books have addressed enslavement and its repercussions, few, if any, have done so in such an imaginative, all-encompassing way, incorporating history, journalism, fiction, poetry and photography to show the cataclysmic repercussions of that pivotal moment.
A superb expansion of the New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project” issue, this book contains 18 essays as well as 36 poems and stories that examine how slavery and its legacy of racial injustice have shaped the U.S. over the last 400 years. Each piece was curated by MacArthur “genius grant” winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, who pitched the original “1619 Project” to the Times and won the Pulitzer Prize for her contribution to it. The book’s many talented contributors include Ibram X. Kendi, Terry McMillan, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, ZZ Packer, Darryl Pinckney, Claudia Rankine, Jason Reynolds, Bryan Stevenson and Jesmyn Ward. Seven essays are new, and existing essays have been substantially revised and expanded to include additional details. Black-and-white portraits have also been added—both historical and present-day images—as another way of allowing readers to look history in the eye.
A new concluding essay from Hannah-Jones explores economic justice, and her wonderful preface is a special standout. It’s a powerful, personal essay in which she notes that she is “the daughter and granddaughter of people born onto a repurposed slave-labor camp in the deepest South, people who could not have imagined their progeny would one day rise to a position to bring forth such a project.”
The sheer breadth of this book is refreshing and illuminating, challenging each and every reader to confront America’s past, present and future.
As Hannah-Jones writes in The 1619 Project, “Slavery was mentioned briefly in the chapter on this nation’s most deadly war, and then Black people disappeared again for a full century, until magically reappearing as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech about a dream.” What happened in between? Make Good the Promises: Reclaiming Reconstruction and Its Legacies, edited by Kinshasha Holman Conwill and Paul Gardullo, attempts to fill in those gaps, leading readers through Black history from 1865 to today.
Presented by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the book has a beautifully rendered and highly accessible narrative that’s also methodically organized, with helpful timelines, colorful illustrations and photographs. The book does a particularly good job of laying out the long view of events and their consequences while shining a light on more recent incidents, such as #SayHerName, George Floyd’s murder and the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Make Good the Promises is a distressing yet essential, enlightening read.
How to Slay a Dragon
Medieval historian Cait Stevenson admits that she has sometimes “trampled over scholarly conventions in ways that will leave other medievalists curled up in agony.” But armed with her passion for the Middle Ages, she has carved out a unique niche for herself, straddling the worlds of scholarly and popular history. Her fervor is contagious in How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages.
In a tongue-in-cheek but firmly historical way, Stevenson addresses the stereotypical events that happen in popular media set in and inspired by the Middle Ages, like saving a princess, digging for treasure, slaying a dragon and defeating barbarian hordes. Her writing is informative yet humorous (there’s a chapter titled “How to Not Get Eaten”), so even if you’re not a gamer or “Game of Thrones” fan, you’ll find yourself riveted. In a section on bathing, she notes, “Twelfth-century abbess and prophet Hildegard of Bingen went so far as to suggest that natural hot springs were heated by the underground fires of purgatory, cleansing bathers’ souls as well as their bodies.” Stevenson may not be able to tell you where to find real dragons, but readers will have a blast getting ready for their quests.
★ The Baseball 100
Major League Baseball fans, you just won the lottery. In The Baseball 100, noted sports writer Joe Posnanski presents 880 pages of sheer baseball bliss, discussing the history of the game by examining the lives, obstacles and achievements of his nominations for the 100 greatest players of all time, including MLB stars and players from the Negro Leagues. It’s a true masterwork, and his writing is so good that it’s likely to engross even those who know nothing about the sport.
Avid baseball fans will easily become absorbed in these pages, and when they reemerge, they’ll be all too ready to debate Posnanski’s rankings. He’s prepared for this, writing, “I stand firmly behind them, and I expect you to come hard at me with vigorous disagreements. What fun would it be otherwise?” In fact, the author even teases, “I have a list of more than 100 players who could have made this list. I think I’ll save them in case the Baseball 100 ever needs a volume 2.” Perhaps he’d better start writing now.
At over 1,000 pages, Patented: 1,000 Design Patents is thicker than an old phone book but much more fun to thumb through. Architectural designer Thomas Rinaldi frequently found himself getting lost in “odd internet searches” of design patents, eventually realizing that he was uncovering “a design historian’s El Dorado, a proverbial rabbit hole of unfathomable depth.” He sifted through more than 750,000 patents issued from 1900 to the present to come up with this collection of visual treats.
The patents are presented chronologically, with line drawings and key information such as the date and designer’s name. It’s an interesting mix of many universally owned, everyday objects—ranging from teapots to barbecue grills, from salt and pepper shakers to the Fitbit—along with patents for much larger things, such as Pizza Huts and Boeing airplanes, unusual entries like the Mars Rover and famous designs like Eames chairs.
For some, this will become a trusted reference, but Patented will also appeal to historians, engineers and kids interested in how things used to look, plus anyone passionate about design, innovation and technology. One could even turn the pages and play a “name that item” game. Some are a cinch to guess, while others, like a 1930 “ozonizing apparatus,” will likely leave you stumped. Once you start browsing, however, you may find yourself hooked.
History fans have big treats in store this year, including groundbreaking gift books on American history and baseball, plus visual extravaganzas devoted to legendary women and design innovations.
Four fresh art and design books inspire, enlighten and cultivate creativity. Perfect for accomplished artists, occasional dabblers or anyone in search of a new hobby, these terrific titles provide instant inspiration.
The 99% Invisible City
Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt are the dynamic duo behind the architecture and design podcast “99% Invisible,” and their intriguing book, The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design, draws upon the podcast’s concepts by picking out smartly conceived, frequently overlooked components of the urban landscape and explaining how they contribute to a thriving civic environment.
From traffic lights, public signage and historical plaques to manhole covers and city monuments, the book examines design elements big and small, revealing the ways in which they bring clarity to the chaos of modern life. The volume is organized into brief, easy-to-process sections, and it touches down in boroughs around the globe. Filled with nifty line illustrations in bold black and white, this eye-opening book will give readers a fresh appreciation for the beauty and functionality that are inherent—but not immediately apparent—in the urban world.
Open Studio: Do-It-Yourself Art Projects by Contemporary Artists gives readers the chance to craft along with major makers. The authors, curator Sharon Coplan Hurowitz and journalist-filmmaker Amanda Benchley, recruited a group of A-list participants for the volume (Marina Abramovic, William Wegman, Maya Lin—the list goes on), which is packed with brilliant photography, including candid shots of the artists at work.
The book’s 17 wide-ranging projects offer something for everyone. Sculptor Rachel Feinstein’s “Rococo Hut” is a small-scale architectural wonder that you can recreate with cutouts, while multimedia artist Wangechi Mutu’s “Earth Androids,” composed of paper pulp, soil, ink and paint, are simply out of this world. Painter Will Cotton’s foil-paper “The Royal Crown of Candyland” will bring out the kid in any crafter. The step-by-step instructions and how-to photos that accompany each project make staying on track a snap. Open Studio shows that getting creative is easy—especially when you can take cues from world-class artists.
Life in the Studio
Stimulation, motivation and encouragement—that’s what artistic minds will find in Life in the Studio: Inspiration and Lessons on Creativity, Frances Palmer’s guide to starting—and maintaining—a creative practice. In this beautifully photographed book, Palmer, a celebrated ceramics artist, art historian and successful businesswoman, delivers big-picture advice without neglecting the small details. She shares tips on how to establish a creative routine, identify sources of inspiration and stay engaged. She also provides guidance on hands-on matters such as setting up a studio, with an overview of must-have tools and more.
Throughout the volume, Palmer reflects on how her skills and methods have evolved over her 30-year career. Through pottery projects, flower-arranging tutorials and recipes, she proves that creativity can manifest itself in unexpected ways. Both the seasoned artist and the beginner will be enriched by this stunning guide.
Abigail Crompton’s Truth Bomb: Inspiration From the Mouths and Minds of Women Artists is as provocative as the title suggests. With a design that combines audacious colors and not-to-be-ignored graphics, the volume spotlights 22 prominent female artists—women from diverse backgrounds working in a wide range of media, including photography, video, painting and performance art.
Crompton, an artist and design-studio entrepreneur, assembled a stellar lineup for the book: Judy Chicago, Mickalene Thomas, Miranda July, Yayoi Kusama and the Guerrilla Girls are among the featured makers. She provides profiles of each, delving into their creative processes and techniques. Along the way, these extraordinary women share bits of hard-won wisdom, words of encouragement and practical advice. The book is also filled with beautifully reproduced examples of their work. Truth Bomb is an invaluable resource for anyone with creative inclinations. From start to finish, it’s a spirited homage to the artistic life.
Four fresh art and design books inspire, enlighten and cultivate creativity.
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The Arcanum Training Institute, where students master fantastical abilities as they float high above the clouds, is the setting of bestselling author Dhonielle Clayton’s first middle grade novel, The Marvellers. Take a peek at some of the wonders that await as Clayton reveals her inspirations, Easter eggs and more.