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Design Classics No. 3
Posted by: David Keech on 26th Feb 2008 in Design Classics

The Observer's Books
First published in 1937 by Fredrick Warne & Co. these books are compact, beautiful, ubiquitous. Seldom lauded as landmarks in the history of design. Until now that is...



Concise, well organised information, on just about every subject observable, with beautiful illustrations and type, guaranteed to be compiled by experts and in a handy format that fits snugly into the pocket - can't be bad, can it? That's more than the web can offer on many an occasion.

The Observer's books go further still. They were, and still are, cheap. As a child in the Seventies, I remember them as frequent birthday and Christmas presents; common currency of a generation of kids into collecting things, spotting things and knowing the names of things. Nowadays they can be found in charity shops, second-hand book stores and markets, always available for between two and four quid. The equation of inherent value multiplied by aesthetic beauty over cost to buyer is one that adds up perfectly, and is what makes these books design classics.





They are unique in being such small hard-bound books, and it is this that gives them their intrinsic value. Incidentally The Observer's Book of British Birds, the first book published in the series, and later as Birds, sold over 3 million copies during its life time, so the design/marketing formula obviously worked.

There are 98 numbered titles in all, ranging from the nature based ones in the early days (Birds, Butterflies, Trees etc.) to the more esoteric and wonderfully diverse higher numbers such as Jazz, Firearms and The Lake District. Number 99 was, you guessed it The Observer's Book Of Observer's Books. And number 100? Wayside And Woodland - but don't ask me why.

Here are some of my favourites:

No. 18The Observer's Book Of Birds' Eggs
No. 52The Observer's Book Of Unmanned Spaceflight
No. 95The Observer's Book Of Canals

Some may think them a bit dated, and at worst from a bygone era, but how sad that in these environmentally troubled times the Observer's Books of Lichens, Larger Moths and Common Fungi are not to be found on everyone's bookshelves. If you really need them updating then here are a couple of suggestions:

The Observer's Book Of Trainers
Seriously - that would be a nice one.
The Observer's Book Of Superfoods (That would be a modern take on the nostalgically uncomplicated No.67The Observer's Book Of Vegetables)
The Observer's Book Of Design Classics
Edited by Keechdesign of course!