The Playful Eye is a virtual feast of games and visual tricks gathered from around the world

These vintage cards and old placards display optical illusions, visual witticisms, hidden images, rebuses, and artistic paradoxes from yesteryear. They were the equivalent of Gifs back then — eye candy worth sharing. Here they are gathered in a oversized paperback for your entertainment and amazement.

The Playful Eye: An Album of Visual Delight by Julian Rothenstein, Mel Gooding Chronicle Books 2000, 112 pages, 9.9 x 0.5 x 12.7 inches, Paperback $9 Buy on Amazon

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Ideal Boy, An: Charts from India

Cheap visual charts were the main educational aid in Indian classrooms until recently. Meant to teach children good behavior, and to assist their reading skills, these inexpensive posters were plastered everywhere by local printers. They have a naive art aesthetic since the artists were unschooled themselves. Generally the charts follow a formula of filing in a grid with examples. Like comic books, their garish colors and simple forms have their own innocent charm. This book rounds up a hundred samples of what is now a rare folk art.

Ideal Boy, An: Charts from India by Sirish Rao, V. Geetha, Gita Wolf (Editors) Dewi Lewis Publishing 2001, 120 pages, 6.9 x 1.0 x 9.4 inches, Hardcover $7 Buy on Amazon

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A catalog of Indian style and design

Look, it’s Indian design! Everyone has heard of Japanese and Scandinavian design, but few know that India also has a long history of design. It doesn’t permeate the culture as deep as Japan or Scandinavia, but I know from living there that India does have a critical mass of distinctly unique objects. To help pin down the essentials of that style, this catalog of India design examples makes a case that there is a very functional design approach both in historic and modern India. This is the first book I know of that presents that style in one place.

Sar: The Essence of Indian Design by Swapnaa Tamhane and Rashmi Varma Phaidon Press 2016, 304 pages, 8.2 x 1.0 x 10.6 inches, Hardcover $52 Buy one on Amazon

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Cabinet of Natural Curiosities – A treasure trove of exquisite botanical images, copyright free

Albertus Seba was a Dutch pharmacist working in the early 1700s who collected exotic plants and animals samples that may or may not have medicinal purposes. He crammed his Amsterdam shop with 700 jars of unusual specimens. He then commissioned a dozen artists to make engravings based on his collection, which were published in hand-colored volumes. This huge oversized reproduction by Taschen is the meta-collection of those volumes. It’s a treasure trove of many thousands of exquisite botanical images, in large format, drawn with obsessive detail, in great diversity, copyright free. Perfect if you need a logo based on a squid, or a blue snake.

Cabinet of Natural Curiosities by Albertus Seba Taschen 2011, 416 pages, 9.7 x 13.3 x 1.5 inches (hardcover) $32 Buy a copy on Amazon

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Japanese Tattoos – Full of traditional and modern designs, characters and history in this photo-heavy book

My skin doesn’t have a single tattoo, but I am touched by the art in tattoos, particularly traditional ones. The Japanese have a long and deep affinity for skin paintings, and have devised a complex iconography for them. The Japanese were early to pioneer color in tattoos, and gave high regard for the full body tattoo, treating the whole torso as a canvas. They even went recursive, sometimes inking a large character that sported a full-body tattoo within the tattoo. This book is chock full of classic themes, characters, and designs, with plenty of notes on the historical significance of tattoo culture. Of course it’s great inspiration for modern tattoos, but also for any other visual art.

Japanese Tattoos: History, Culture, Design by Brian Ashcraft and Hori Benny Tuttle Publishing 2016, 160 pages, 7.5 x 10 x 0.7 inches (softcover) $11 Buy a copy on Amazon

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How to Wrap Five Eggs is a real inspiration for both designer and maker

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How to Wrap Five Eggs: Japanese Design in Traditional Packaging by Hideyuki Oka (author) and Michikazu Sakai (photographer) Harper & Row 1967, 203 pages, 10 x 11.6 x 1.2 inches (hardcover) From $35 Buy a copy on Amazon

This book is a museum of traditional packaging artifacts from Japan. Before the age of plastic, the Japanese perfected the art of packing consumables in incredibly ingenious ways. They excelled in using natural materials such as paper, straw, clay, and wood. Much of the packaging looks astonishingly modern, even though the form may be hundreds, if not thousands of years old. In fact, packages in Japan today often are wrapped in the same way. I recently received a gift from Japan that contained seven layers of boxes within boxes, wraps within wraps, each layer its own exquisite art, the packing at least equal to the cost and worth of the gift inside. There is a mesmerizing variety of packing collected during the last years of traditional Japan on display here. Each artifact is featured in stunning black and white photographs. It is a real inspiration for both designer and maker. Long out of print, this masterpiece of design was first published in 1967; used copies can be found today at rare book prices. It has also been republished in a modified paperback form, that contains some of the original content at a smaller scale. Read the rest

The most unusual and beautiful evolutionary tree maps from the last 200 years

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Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution by Theodore W. Pietsch Johns Hopkins University Press 2013, 376 pages, 8 x 10 x 1.1 inches (softcover) Starting at $22 Buy a copy on Amazon

The primary metaphor for visualizing evolution is as a tree. The trunk is the oldest ancestor species which branch off newer species, which branch further leaves of the newest species. Ever since Darwin, biologists have been drawing trees to attempt to capture the complexity of evolution in various domains. These evolutionary trees are not only scientifically useful, but works of art. Over the years, many approaches to the trees have been tried – some minimal, some ornate, some abstract. This tome collects the finest, most unusual, most beautiful evolutionary tree maps produced in the last 200 years. They not only inform biology, they are fantastic examples of great design.

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New Recomendo newsletter, Issue No. 1

Beginning today, the editors of Cool Tools will be recommending 6 items in an extremely short email every week. Mark, myself, and Claudia — the entire staff of Cool Tools — will suggest good stuff we have personally used, consumed, or experienced. We’ll try to keep each recommendation light and fast. They won’t be definitive reviews; rather they’ll be quick recommendations. Going back again to our roots, we’ve named it Recomendo — which, believe it or not, was the name of Cool Tools before I renamed it.

If you want great tools, stay on (or sign onto) the Cool Tools newsletter. To get all the other kinds of things we encounter and enjoy sharing, sign up for Recomendo here. As usual, we don’t do anything with your info except send you short and sweet one-screen news once a week.

Here's the first issue of Recomendo:

DESTINATION: The world's coolest nature museum: The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England (pictured above). It's a day trip from London. Take the 1-hour train to Oxford, then walk 15 minutes from the station to the museum, co-housed with the Oxford University Nature Museum. Enter into a lost world of curiosity. You are surrounded by three floors of artifacts collected over centuries by eccentric British explorers. Displays include shrunken heads, voodoo dolls, tomb relics, weird insects, ancient folk tools, dinosaurs skeletons, taxidermy galore, uncountable biological and mineralogical specimens, all stacked in glassy cabinets with typed cards and labels. It's supremely old-school and hugely satisfying. Read the rest

Shot in the '70s, North African Villages shows medieval villages unchanged by modernity

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North African Villages: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia by Norman F. Carver Documan Pr Ltd 1989, 200 pages, 9 x 10.5 x 0.5 inches (softcover) $24 Buy a copy on Amazon

In the 1970s an architectural student drove a VW van around Italy, the Iberian peninsula, and northern Africa, recording the intact medieval villages still operating in their mountain areas. The hill towns at that time in Italy, Spain, Morocco and Tunisia kept a traditional way of building without architects, using indigenous materials, without straight streets, producing towns of uncommon attractiveness. The architect, Norman Carver, later self published a series of photo books documenting these remote villages which had not yet been interrupted with modernity. They looked, for most purposes, like they looked 1,000 years ago. All of Carter’s books are worthwhile, but my favorite is North African Villages. Here you get a portrait of not just the timeless architecture, but also a small glimpse of the lives that yielded that harmony of the built upon the born. It’s an ideal of organic design, that is, design that is accumulated over time. Read the rest

In the future you will own nothing and have access to everything

In 1988 Kevin Kelly (my friend and business partner at Cool Tools) edited Signal, a book about “Communications Tools for the Information Age.” With articles about smart phones, artificial life, computer viruses, interactive literature, online databases, teleconferencing, image processing, and the “world information economy,” Signal was years ahead of its time. (In 1993 it served as the prototype for Wired, the magazine Kevin co-founded.) Signal changed the way readers thought about technology – we weren’t in a computer revolution – we were in a communications revolution. Kevin understood that people were co-evolving with technology, transforming the way we received, processed, and transmitted information, both as individuals and a society.

Kevin has never stopped thinking about the implications of the communications revolution. He co-founded the first Hackers Conference in 1984, was a founding board member of the WELL (an early online service launched in 1985) and in 1990 he launched the first virtual reality conference. His first book, Out of Control, about technology’s lifelike patterns and behavior, was called “essential reading for all executives,” by Forbes. His latest book, released in June, is called The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future. This clear-eyed guide explains the twelve inevitable, interrelated technological trends (including robotics, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality) that are already disrupting every imaginable human activity, from the way we work, learn, and play, to the way we exist as a species. Kevin Kelly's The Inevitable is available from Amazon.

In this excerpt from The Inevitable, Kevin imagines a future were people own nothing but have access to everything-- Mark

In the coming 30 years the tendency toward the dematerialized, the decentralized, the simultaneous, the platform enabled, and the cloud will continue unabated. Read the rest

Things Organized Neatly: The Art of Arranging the Everyday

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Things Organized Neatly: The Art of Arranging the Everyday by Austin Radcliffe Universe 2016, 104 pages, 7.8 x 10 x 0.8 inches $17 Buy a copy on Amazon

Simply as advertised. Rows and rows of diverse things neatly organized. This process is often called knolling. The applied organizing logic varies: it can be by size, by color, by age; in rows, in grids, in fitted mosaics. The effect is always hypnotic. Seemingly meaningless collections gain intelligence and order which focuses attention on the parts. The book ranges wide and far in the type of things that are inspected. You will soon knoll your own.

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The Sartorialist – NYC stylish strangers happily caught by a candid camera

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The Sartorialist by Scott Schuman Penguin Books 2009, 512 pages, 5.2 x 7.4 x 1.6 inches (softcover) $19 Buy a copy on Amazon

Scott Schuman once worked in the fashion industry but found that the outfits that amateurs wore on the streets of New York City to be a lot more interesting than those from famous designers. He began photographing people on the street who caught his eye, and, with their permission, posted their images on his blog, The Sartorialist. His street photos had their own style, and soon fashion followers were happy to be caught by Schumans’s candid camera. Soon The Sartorialist blog became legendary in the fashion world. It was also the first of many photo blogs to feature street fashion – showcasing what people with a personal flair wore everyday. This brick of a book collects the best of The Sartorialist’s first 10 years of images. It works as a one-stop shop of hip clothing designs; it also works as a document of “what they wore” in 2010; and it also works as a cool gallery of contemporary fashion photography. It lacks the richness of the life stories in Humans of New York, but it gains something by focusing so obsessively on the design decisions of creative people. A second volume called The Sartorialist X, takes Schuman outside of New York to other cities of the world. Read the rest

Humans of New York - Photos of random strangers in NYC and their life stories

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Brendon Stanton started photographing random strangers in New York City in 2010. He treated each of them like a celebrity, portraying them in a classy portrait on the street. He then added a little bit of their life story in their own words. These mini-autobiographies were the secret sauce that transformed random snapshots of strangers into a remarkable series of portraits of real people that you could connect with. Brandon posted his photos-plus-bio on his blog, Humans of New York, which quickly went viral on social media until he had millions of followers. The 400 best of his portraits were fan-funded into this printed book.

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Street Craft: Yarnbombing, Guerilla Gardening, Light Tagging, Lace Graffiti and More

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Beyond graffiti. The artists featured in Street Craft apply non-paint to the urban landscape. Instead of spray cans they use yarn, cloth, plastic, plants, and sculpture. This “street crafting” is full of surprises in ways that are original and brilliant, witty and profound. The craftsmanship is excellent. The concepts can be subversive, or uplifting. Think of it as public art without permission. The book is a glorious catalog of some of the best pieces which have appeared on streets of the world. No matter what you create, they’ll be some great ideas here.art Read the rest

Sharks and Dinosaurs – Pop-up books on steroids

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There are only five “pages” in each of these books despite their 3-inch thickness. That is because each page is stuffed with layers and layers of ingenious interacting bits of printed paper, which magically assemble themselves into an alternate reality when each page is opened. Yes, it is a pop-up book, but a pop-up raised to an exponential level. A pop-up on steroids, or acid. Pop-up as extreme sport. The engineering is astounding. As a page is opened a 3D apparition appears, often with its own narrative, first one part and then another. The resulting paper sculpture is the story made real. The textual story is minimal; all the action is in the structures. Kids love to see how they work. The only downside to these books that belong on paper is not letting children paws tear the mechanics. These two books feature all kinds of pre-historic dinosaurs, and sharks of all types. But the artist behind them, Robert Sabuda, has half a dozen other books with the same kind of extreme pop-up-ness.

Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Sharks and Other Sea Monsters by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart Candlewick 2006, 12 pages, 7.8 x 9.9 x 2.1 inches $1 - $50 Buy a copy on Amazon

Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Dinosaurs by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart Candlewick 2005, 12 pages, 8 x 10 x 2.5 inches $24 Buy a copy on Amazon Read the rest

Some call Miyazaki's Nausicaa the greatest graphic novel ever

Some call this the greatest graphic novel ever. I tend to agree. Written and drawn by a young Hayao Miyazaki between 1982 and 1994, his final Japanese manga reached 1,100 pages. The current English translation consists of an oversized 2-volume hardcover boxed set (or a smaller format 7 volume paperback set). The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic earth and is rife with concern for the environment as well as feral fantasy creatures. Miyazaki would later animate it into his first feature length film by the same name. The obsessive detail in each drawing sucks you into a complete immersion into his world. Like all Miyazaki creations, it is lyrical, uplifting yet slightly dark, with villains who have redeeming qualities, and vice versa. It’s suitable for young adults.

Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind Vol. 1 by Hayao Miyazaki VIZ Media 2004, 136 pages, 7.1 x 10.1 x 0.5 inches (paperback) $9 Buy one on Amazon

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40 Days in the Desert - timeless, eternal mythical tale by Moebius

When you are trying to imagine the details of an alternative world, try Moebius. Moebius (one of the pseudonyms for the French artist Jean Giraud) practically invented the now-common idea of a well worn future – that place far ahead that is gritty, patched up, organic, and old and new at the same time. Think Star Wars, cyberpunk, Blade Runner. Moebius is a fabulist. His strange drawings, designs and comics have shaped movies such as The Fifth Element and Alien, and influenced directors such as Fellini and Miyazaki. Moebius was a prolific artist, starring in his own series Heavy Metal, and appeared in many other publications, yet little of his work remains in print in English. Out of all Moebius’ (Giraud’s) work, I suggest this book, 40 Days in the Desert. Long out of print, and rare even when first published, this is an extended visual poem. The version of the book that I have is Japanese, but that is okay because there are no words in this story. It is timeless and eternal and other-worldly. With thin sure lines, this wordless sequence tells a mythical story in some alien place. There are about 100 drawings depicting surreal worlds with an ominous tension. Something is about to happen, or just happened, but you are not sure what. All you know is that you have never seen anything like this, and that maybe it is true. It makes me want to unleash my imagination.

40 Days in the Desert by Moebius Asukashin-Sha 2009, 152 pages, 6.5 x 10.5 x 0.8 inches $49 Buy one on Amazon Read the rest

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