Books Gift Guide

Art

Designing the Good Life: Norman M. Giller & the Development of Miami Modernism

by Norman M. Giller and Sarah Giller Nelson
University Press of Florida, 192 pp., $39.95

Weeki Wachee: City of Mermaids, A History of One of Florida's Oldest Roadside Attractions

by Lu Vickers & Sara Dionne
University Press of Florida, 320 pp., $34.95

The Highwaymen: Florida's African-American Landscape Painters

by Gary Monroe
University Press of Florida, 128 pp., $34.95

Harold Newton: The Original Highwayman

by Gary Monroe
University Press of Florida, 160 pp., $34.95

In the post-postmodern re-embrace of modernism, few rearview mirrors serve as well as Florida. As "back to the future" glimpses into the past's vision of today and beyond, the cultural movements of the Sunshine State cast a curious glow, reflecting postwar hopes and dreams of many who flocked there throughout her various land booms. University of Florida Press has released a number of coffeetable books that train and home that lens – intentionally or not – onto certain facets of American midcentury design.

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Designing the Good Life: Norman M. Giller & the Development of Miami Modernism is an autobiographical memoir by the draftsman responsible for much of the "weightless" look of post-art-deco Miami Beach. The book is loaded with vintage photos and architectural renderings carefully organized by theme and project. Attention to historical detail and context is surely thanks in part to Giller's daughter, an art historian who co-authors.

Loaded to the gills with historically and hysterically kitschy tourist ephemera, Weeki Wachee: City of Mermaids boasts 270 pages of memories from the mouths of the mermaids themselves. The park attracted stars like Bob Hope, Esther Williams, and Elvis Presley in its heyday. Now, this infamous home to performing sea sirens may well disappear alongside other roadside wonders. While Disney may have taken the mantle from the mermaids, nothing quite says "Florida" like a lovely young lass with a tail fin drinking a bottle of soda 30 feet underwater.

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In the segregated 1950s, a ragtag alliance of African-American artists known for producing archetypal electricolor dreamscapes with oil on Upson board unwittingly added definition to the already established Florida mythology of lilting palms, Spanish moss, rumbling thunderheads, and raging surf. By the late Nineties, fans began to rediscover this group's artwork in attics and thrift stores; even The New York Times began to recognize the significance of the group dubbed "the Highwaymen."

In this first of a trilogy, The Highwaymen: Florida's African-American Landscape Painters, photographer Gary Monroe traces the mythical art movement. So-called for their spontaneous sales routes set up along the highways and byways of burgeoning boomtown Florida, the Highwaymen were known across the Sunshine State, selling their evocative scenics for $25 a pop out of the trunks of their cars to bankers, real estate agents, interior designers.

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Monroe's second book, Harold Newton: The Original Highwayman, offers an update and a focus on one artist. Heralded as the finest artist of the group, Newton was admired by peers, customers, and mentors alike. His story is pieced together in sometimes contradictory detail by Newton's loved ones and friends, then woven together by Monroe within the larger tale of the emergent outsider art collective.

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Narrative text makes up the first 25 or so pages of each book, detailing the sketchy history of what became a viable Florida art movement despite itself. The treasure here, however, is the plates – page upon page of glorious saturated reproduction: primeval Florida at its most romantic. Monroe's third book, exploring the extensive prison murals by Highwayman and inmate Al Black, is due out in 2008.


Check the Chronicle's design blog, Chronique, for more extensive reviews on these and other design topics.

Also recommended in Art ...

30,000 Years of Art by the editors of Phaidon (Phaidon Press Inc., $49.95), A Lifetime of Secrets: A PostSecret Book by Frank Warren (William Morrow, $27.95).

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