9th June 2000 at 01:00
TWENTIETH-CENTURY DESIGN SERIES 1900-20: The birth of modernism. By Jackie Gaff. 20s amp; 30s: Between the wars. By Jackie Gaff. 40s amp; 50s: War and post-war years. By Helen Jones. The 60s: The plastic age. By Julia Bigham. 70s amp; 80s: The high-tech age. By Jackie Gaff. The 90s: The digital age. By Hannah Ford. Heinemann Library, pound;10.99 each (pound;5.99 each paperback)

This series offers an absorbing and exciting history of 20th century design.

Its overall purpose is to allow pupils aged between 10 and 13 to track the progress of design through the century and get a sense of its impact on everyday life.This aim is brilliantly achieved.

The books spread their net wide, offering a fascinating historical narrative and a judicious contextual survey of the relationship between design and the wider cultural and political life of the century.

The volumes attend to "popular" design culture (such as the miniskirt, hairstyles and album sleeves) as well as more eclectic cultural forms (such as Op art and Bauhaus). They cover design innovations from the first vacuum cleaner (patented in 1901) to the PlayStation and the iMac. Each book is generously illustrated with photographs and graphics, to which the accompanying textis clear, concise and informative.

As the examples demonstrate, Twentieth-Century Design interprets its topic in a wide sense - fashion, furniture and interiors certainly, but also transport, architecture and technology. Nor do the authors dodge the challenge of the influence of esoteric cultural forms on contemporary design. Hannah Ford, for instance, rises impressively to the challenge of explaining post-modernism to pre-teens. Here, as throughout, contemporary manifestations of design are placed in their intellectual and social contexts.

Detailed descriptions and illustrations of technological and industrial processes are allied to discussion of the social import of design. The account of synthetics in Julia Bigham's volume on the 1960s demonstrates how acrylic is manufactured, but attention is also paid to the social significance of fashion in the 1960s in terms of sexual politics and its resonance within the wider youth subculture.

Informed by history, media studies and sociology, this narrative of design history actually might be said to offer a de facto alternative history of the century and, as such, the set is a valuable cross-curricular resource at upper key stages 2 and 3.

Joanne Strachan

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