Studies of the Great Depression often focus on the extremely poor, so this readable and beautifully illustrated book on furniture design and decorative arts provides fresh insight into middle-class households during that era. Wilson's topic is ''livable modernism,'' or the combination of a simple and efficient modern design aesthetic with an understanding of the desires and needs of a middle-class consumer-''her possible insecurities and emotional desires, her physical comfort, her delight, and what it would take her to commit her own (or her husband's) money.'' Each of three chapters-on living, dining and bedrooms, respectively-opens with a description of an object that serves as a touchstone for discussing the selling of modernism as a lifestyle. Readers accustomed to Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel catalogs will find the origins of modular furniture in the bookcases, desks and couches designed by Gilbert Rohde and Russel Wright. Many will be surprised to learn that the buffet party was a Depression-era invention, as were the whimsical serving dishes, advertisements and etiquette manuals created expressly to exploit this new phenomenon. Wilson also highlights a number of cultural and gender studies topics, including the 20th-century trend toward the ''companionate marriage,'' which is built around friendship and partnership rather than patriarchy, and the way that traditional male/female gender roles were subconsciously promoted by the designs of vanity tables. The book accompanies an exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery that will run until June 2005, and press surrounding that exhibit may bring even more readers to this intelligent and engaging book. 55 b&w and 58 color photos.
shop, Decorative arts & Design, Generality, Foreign languages