by Justus Nieland. University of Minnesota Press, February 2020. 424 p. ill. ISBN 9781517902056 (pbk.), $39.95.

Reviewed 2020
Maggie Portis, Librarian, Design & Architecture, Pratt Institute,

nielandHappiness by Design: Modernism and Media in the Eames Era is an in-depth examination of the use of film in and beyond the design practice of mid-century designers, including the Eames, Moholy-Nagy, and Will Burtin, among others. The author, Justus Nieland, professor of film studies at Michigan State University, argues that designers used film and multimedia creations to guide and educate the public. By creating films which celebrated the making, manufacture, and use of a new design, designers were using the technology of film to allay larger fears about technology in the post-war era.

While the book covers the wider so-called-Eames Era, the first two chapters focus on Charles and Ray Eames’ output and experiments with film including their work with and for Herman Miller and pedagogical collaborations with the University of Georgia and George Nelson for Art-X. Later chapters expand in scope with the examination of film and communication at international conferences - the International Design Conference in Aspen and Will Burtin’s Vision Conferences in the third and fourth chapters respectively. In the fifth and sixth chapters, Nieland, himself a scholar of film theory rather than design history, discusses the designer filmmaker’s relationship to the then still-developing field of film theory.

To mid-century designers, film was just another form of technological communication for their toolbox, and they used the medium with pedagogical intent. Design education, encompassing multiple, far-ranging disciplines, was the overarching goal. Through this well-rounded interdisciplinarity, post-war Americans could become their happiest selves. Happiness By Design’s focus on designers who refused to limit the boundaries of design, but instead worked across disciplines and formed partnerships in domains of education, industry, arts, and government, reads as especially timely now, given design education's renewed focus on interdisciplinarity.

Fittingly this is a nicely-designed book, with many black and white illustrations throughout and a separate section of color plates. An Eames typeface, Eames Century Modern, is used for chapter titles and headings, and Eames ornaments judiciously draw in the reader’s attention. The book’s design reinforces its subjects’ focus on knowledge organization and delivery. The index is comprehensive and the notes are extensive, though it could have benefited from a separate bibliography and list of illustrations. It is a pity there is no integrated way to access the films discussed in Happiness by Design, but a quick internet search will lead a reader to many of them.

This title is a good choice for academic libraries supporting programs in design and art history or film and media studies. It is best suited for upper level students or those with some knowledge of major players in mid-century culture, as those less familiar may find it inaccessible in both language and content.


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