Design Books That Mine the Exotic

This article is part of our latest Design special report, about creative people finding fresh ways to interpret ideas from the past.

Excavating deeply into design history, and the ways the past is continuously reinterpreted, can suggest paths to fresh ideas. These five new books reveal how much monastery desks, rosebushes tangled in ancient orchards and Art Deco dreamscapes have to offer the modern imagination.

The writer and bibliophile Reid Byers has pored through centuries of evolving concepts in shelving for “The Private Library,” which, on the book’s title page, is subtitled “Being a More or Less Compendious Disquisition on the History of the Architecture and Furnishing of the Domestic Bookroom” (Oak Knoll Press, $85, 540 pp.).

For ancient Middle Easterners, tiers of rough planks and painted chests allowed for organizing clay cuneiform tablets, papyri and scrolls. Medieval and Renaissance intellectuals deterred thieves by chaining books to lecterns, and some Japanese scholars adapted lightweight bookcases into backpacks. As 18th-century bibliophiles worldwide started socializing amid their collections, libraries that Mr. Byers describes as “book-wrapt” were furnished with seats that could be unfolded or upended to morph into stepladders.

As designers still experiment with sandblasted glass shelves and egg-shaped book pods, collectors pursue timeless goals: maximizing natural light for reading, carving out alcoves for naps and making room for new purchases. Also recurring is the tendency among book connoisseurs to critique one another. Mr. Byers reports that sometime in the first century, the Roman philosopher Seneca wondered why anyone would amass enough volumes that “their owner could barely read through in his whole life.”

Movable room partitions that emerged in Japan about 1,300 years ago have been analyzed by a team of 16 scholars for “Japanese Screens: Through a Break in the Clouds” (Abbeville, $175, 280 pp.). The luxurious volume, its black cloth cover stitched and embossed in gold, has three dozen essays explaining how silk and paper screens have served to block drafts and provide privacy. By trapping fragrances as well, they could create “a universe that was both perfumed and colorful,” the historian Torahiko Terada writes.

Artists used gold, silver, mica and colored pigments to render the screens’ scenery and portraits. The imagery reflects political shifts — during eras of openness to Western influence, processions of European traders and missionaries sprung up in the landscapes. Calendar pages, poems and bird feathers were collaged into the visual mix. The designs can be amusingly self-referential, too, depicting rooms divided by screens. Discoveries are still being made in the scholarly niche. In 2007, gilded views of Osaka on an Austrian palace’s walls turned out to be panels wrenched from a 17th-century screen, brought west by a Japanese delegation building short-lived diplomatic ties.

From walled and terraced flower beds can sprout beloved children’s fiction, as the historian Marta McDowell chronicles in “Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants & Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett” (Timber Press, $25.95, 320 pp.). Ms. Burnett’s novel “The Secret Garden,” first published in the 1910s, is about Mary Lennox, who recovers from trauma by tending a walled garden on an otherwise gloomy estate in Yorkshire.

The author’s real-life properties were scattered from southeast England to northeast Bermuda and northwest Long Island. She wrote at a table outdoors, amid the kinds of cascading roses and delphinium swaths that she fictionalized. A native of the outskirts of Manchester, England, she had grown up impoverished partly in Tennessee and escaped two bad marriages.

Starting as a teenager, she supported her family by publishing stories — she called herself “a pen-driving machine.” The profits allowed her to buy so many plants that during one Bermuda stay, she found herself stuck in traffic amid cartloads of her own orders arriving from a local nursery. In 1924, while suffering from terminal cancer, Ms. Burnett wrote of the life-extending power of anticipating the changing seasons: “As long as one has a garden, one has a future.”

In the mid-2000s, the French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre started traveling across North America, in pursuit of cinemas undergoing decay and rebirth. The result, “Movie Theaters” (Prestel, $80, 304 pp.), shows cavernous halls painted and sculpted with illusions of castles, cathedrals, piazzas and jungles.

The photographers roamed through former seating areas incongruously converted into drugstores, gyms, warehouses and parking lots. Ventilation ducts and tree roots snake past defunct footlights, and ephemera from theater owners, employees and customers — canceled checks, empty candy boxes — lie moldering. Brief texts explain which sites, since the photographers’ last visits, have been razed or reopened. In my favorite image from the book, an enigmatic handwritten sign is posted on a crumbling wall in a projectionist’s booth, amid machine parts: “Sometimes This Motor Needs Help to Start.”

Archival troves from mid-20th-century Australian tastemakers make for an eye-popping monograph, “Frances Burke: Designer of Modern Textiles” (Melbourne University Publishing, $51.99), by the historians Nanette Carter and Robyn Oswald-Jacobs.

For about six decades, starting in the 1930s, Ms. Burke prolifically produced fabrics while lecturing and publishing writings about how design could offer tools for “improving community life.” Based in Melbourne and collaborating with her life partner Fabie Chamberlin, she drew inspiration from Australian flora, Indigenous artworks and marine life. She contrasted shades of lavender and chartreuse while outfitting homes for intellectuals and coal miners as well as corporate boardrooms, resorts, maternity wards and cultural centers.

The book juxtaposes recent photos of fabric swatches with period views of customers enjoying Ms. Burke’s ocher angelfish, coral stripes and aqua dots. The authors document newly resurfaced Burke creations, as well, including a blouse patterned with hot-pink turtles and a theater curtain full of flaming orbs. Color, as Ms. Burke put it, amounted to “a living joyous thing — it vibrates.”