Jessica Helfand, Reinventing the Wheel, Princeton Architectural Press, 2002

[Review Guidelines]

This lovely book—an artifact in itself, a product of very sharp design—is a work of art whose main purpose is the collection, description, and dissemination of information on those strange and now mostly defunct artifacts, volvelles (turnable wheels—think secret decoder wheels, wheel calculators, wheel charts). It is in some ways both a curiosity and a product of curiosity, as if we are seeing Helfand coming to conclusions about what all these wheels and her interest in them means even as we read. It is also a cultural history of the turnable wheel seen through the lens of the obsessive collector.
      With a book like this, it is undesirable and impossible to separate what text there is from the design. Considering that there's not a lot of actual writing in the book, the design and reproductions must make up the meat of what's here for us, and it better all come together. And so it does. The exhibits here are bookended by a helpful preface that acts as a primer on the history of the volvelle as a practical object and an iteration of some of the author's interests in the form and the pleasures of obsessive collection itself as well as a kind of appendix that ruminates more generally on the uses of wheels and circles, and segues into more contemporary art objects involving volvelles—the reinventions of the wheel referenced in the title. The only real flaw in the book is that these elements—the thinking, the writing—could be a stronger presence in the book as a whole, but as the real emphasis here is on the collection itself, it's not too much of a disappointment.
      Luckily the book's production values and design are exquisite: the plates are crisp and, unfettered by a bunch of useless typographical junk; they take center stage. This is no doubt due in part to the routinely excellent work of the Princeton Architectural Press, whose books are always a pleasure in a publishing world that is going increasingly cheaper. In this case, Helfand herself had a hand in the design (one imagines, though this isn't made exactly clear: the book credits Winterhouse Design, a design studio in Northwest Connecticut, for the production, and since Helfand is half of Winterhouse Design, we can make the connection). And her presence in the design is another example of the controlling hand of the collector, the showman, and the enthusiast, offering us both a textual and visual taxonomy of the form. Great stuff.