EW Staff
December 22, 1999 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Look of the Century is a compact, tightly edited dictionary of a hundred years of man-made style and design in everything from toothbrushes to baby carriages. Taken together, the pair constitutes a crash course in everything our 20th-century forebears were capable of creating when they put their creative minds to it, and what could, and did, befall them when sometimes they did not.

And while not exactly a pocketbook, ”Look” is the kind of totable, attractively designed browse of a volume that works well in any room of the house. This is appropriate, because the compendium, written by Michael Tambini, is about the stuff found in Western rooms over the past hundred years — bowls, telephones, shoes, bicycles — and how they got to look and work and signify the way they do.

The choices are highly selective, but effective, too. To study a Coca-Cola bottle, remarkably unchanged in design since 1915, or a 1933 Anglepoise desk lamp, still a modern classic, is to understand how the inanimate stuff of our century has affected how we lead our lives as surely and as profoundly as war and peace have. We stand on the threshold of a new century, excited by technological newness but nostalgic for the familiarity of a design aesthetic from the past. Using computers and credit cards, we buy massive books of old photos edited, reproduced, manufactured, and distributed by modern means unimaginable to the people in those pictures. We check our Swatch watches (first marketed in 1983) and realize: The countdown to 2000 has begun!

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