The Coolest Thing You Didn’t Know The Name Of

Yes—that’s right, I ended the title with a preposition. And the thing in question is called a volvelle. Volvelles are one of my current obsessions. I’m trying hard to keep most of my obsessions in check for the moment (no staplers, board games, Bakelite picnic sets, sewing projects, etc. etc. etc. until I get a few things in order), but this one is gonna be useful. Trust me. More on that later.

Anyway, volvelles are also known as wheel charts—you know, those little cardboard wheel sandwiches with the eyelet at the center that allows the top circle to rotate so its little windows can reveal various bits of text, a kind of circular slide rule. (Did I ever tell you about the time I won a slide rule in an algebra contest? True story.)

Now I am a sucker for charts, and small paper objects are one of the primary tools of my profession (architects don’t make buildings, we make models and drawings) so of course I love volvells (though I only just learned their name). I bought the definitive treatise on the matter—Jessica Helfand’s Reinventing the Wheel, one of those books that makes me pleased and jealous all at the same time—and some volvelle-making supplies (an eyelet setter, some eyelets, and a circle-cutter) and now I am ready to go into production.

For those curious about the book, it has large, beautiful pictures of a lot of vintage volvelles, mostly from Helfand’s collection, which she subsequently donated to the Yale University Library (who’s up for a field trip?) Unfortunately the images lack the dynamism of the volvelles themselves, and only one side of each wheel chart is shown. The images are still amazing, though, especially one image of a dissected volvelle, with its intricate verbal guts on display. The writing is somewhat less compelling than the images, but still an interesting look at the history of these gems.

Not all volvelles were created equal, of course. Quite a lot of them are unattractive new-agey revealers of factoids and mumbo jumbo. But the best of them are a kind of intricate verbal machinery that makes the interrelation of information tactile and gives the user at least the illusion of controlling a vast amount of information—all the presidents of the US!, the intricacies of punctuation!, the mysteries of farm animal feeding!—all in a convenient wheel of amazement that fits in the palm of your hand.

The book doesn’t bring the history of the volvelle up to the present day, but they continue to captivate the imaginations of designers, even in the Age of the Internets. The cover of Michael Chabon’s latest sports a (sadly static) volvelle-like illustration on the topic of manhood by Jennifer Daddio, and designers Knock Knock created a nice little line of witty volvelles (or Wheels o’ Wisdom, as they call them) on topics from where to find true love to what to do after the breakup.



This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 27th, 2010 and is filed under design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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2 Responses to “The Coolest Thing You Didn’t Know The Name Of”


  1. Catasterist » The Design of Round Things, Part III
  2. Catasterist » Kickstarting & Volvelles