Book review: Know rules, then break them

While one book distills the basics and another upends them, both encourage further investigation into the remarkable and creative potential of design.

The current discourse about, well, everything really, is dominated by refrains of “break the rules,” a sentiment echoed repeatedly in nearly every dialogue about the design industry. But before you can break the rules, it tends to help if you actually know what they are. Not only do they exist, but many are considered “universal” when it comes to good design.

That reality is presented in a fascinating new reference book titled Universal Principles of Interior Design by Chris Grimley and Kelly Harris Smith. In it are 100 concepts and guidelines considered critical to a successful application of interior design. These principles – distilled to single-word titles and organized alphabetically, from Accessibility to Zones – are presented in a double-page spread format, with the left-hand page containing a definition and description of the principle and examples of and guidelines for its use. Side notes, which appear to the right of the text, provide elaborations and references. The right-hand page contains visual examples and related graphics to support a deeper understanding of the principle.

Universal Principles of Interior Design carries with it the comforting logic of a dictionary or encyclopedia, organized tomes of knowledge that themselves carry almost universal recognition. But how comfortable should we be with “universalities”? According to the authors of Design Emergency: Building a Better Future, if everything we once took for granted hasn’t been turned on its head already, it is high time they should be.

Alice Rawsthorn and Paola Antonelli, two well-known names in the design world, co-founded the Design Emergency project in 2020 as a research platform to explore design’s role in helping to build a better future. A product of that initiative, this book focuses on four themes – Technology, Society, Communication, and Ecology – and describes how designers are addressing complex challenges in each field and “demonstrates design’s power to nurture the lives we need and want.” This is done through 25 interviews with designers and creatives, including recognizable names such as Irma Boom, Ilse Crawford, Formafantasma and Eyal Weizman of Forensic Architecture, but also the likes of Francesca Coloni, head of design for the UNHCR’s refugee camps; Isabella Tree, who has devoted 20 years to wilding her family’s farm; and Alex Asen, campaign lead for the Great Green Wall of Africa, a land restoration project that aims to reverse drought, famine and mass migration across the Sahel region.

We live in a turbulent time, no doubt, and with it comes a growing recognition of the need for radical change on many fronts. But at the same time, “When the sky is falling, there is comfort and reassurance in formality and rituals” says Antonelli, in one of the three essays written by the two authors that precede the interviews. A reminder that while change is good, there is a reason why some things are universal.

Universal Principles of Interior Design / ISBN: 9780760372128 / Rockport Publishers


Design Emergency / ISBN: 9781838664275 / Phaidon