September 13, 2016 | by Jack Womack
How the book designers of the fifties and sixties tackled alien invasions.
It’s impossible to know what sort of cover design will make a book fly off the shelves. Through timidity, this often leads to a certain monotony in covers, especially when they’re genre specific—“If it worked before, it’ll have to work again, eventually.” At times the uniformity is comical: it’s hard for book people of a certain age not to remember, say, the gothic romance subgenre without bringing to mind the same cover that was on every one by the end of the sixties—a woman, at night, dashing (often in a white nightgown) from a darkened mansion in sinister woods. Familiarity bred contentment; every reader knew what to expect when they saw the lady running.
Flying saucers as a phrase entered the modern English vocabulary at the end of June 1947, immediately after the initial sightings by Kenneth Arnold in Washington State—which, as it happened, turned out to be the first of thousands of such sightings. The subject was becoming more popular by the week, and publishing houses such as Henry Holt, Fawcett, and Citadel were quick to recognize the need for books on it. But what kind of a cover should go on a book about flying saucers? At the outset, there was no consensus as to what the saucers even actually looked like: they were described as blinking lights, purple blobs, flying wings, boomerangs, shiny metal balls, floating kerosene lamps, pie plates, hubcaps from an old Terraplane; in photos, during the first ten years, the most popular model resembled either the top of a chicken incubator, or part of the casing of a 1937 Electrolux vacuum cleaner. Read More »
October 27, 2015 | by Charlotte Strick
I’d always thought that designing new packaging for a classic film was like designing a jacket for a new edition of a well-known book: both are associated, in the popular imagination, with familiar, even beloved, graphics. If the designer strays too far from the original vision, the potential for public outcry is high. But where a book offers visual freedom—our minds are free to imagine the scenes and the various characters—a movie comes with a profusion of visual material that’s not soon forgotten. There’s the original theatrical poster, and then, of course, there’s the very film itself, and all the iconic images we associate with it. For designers, translating a director’s vision is hard enough the first time. How do you do it again?
The Criterion Collection is known for its impeccable taste in classic and contemporary films, and for the artful packaging that puts these films in a much-needed new light. Late last year, I sat down with their head art director of more than a decade, Sarah Habibi, and designer/art director Eric Skillman, who were celebrating the recent publication of a book they’d produced at breakneck speed in time for Criterion’s thirtieth anniversary: Criterion Designs, an illumination of their process in imagining some of the collection’s most successful projects. Read More »
August 3, 2015 | by Adrienne Raphel
Adventures in typography.
I was a teenage font addict. On Microsoft Word I’d lovingly scroll through the drop-down font menu: Avenir Book, Baskerville, Goudy, Goudy Old Style. For every story or poem I started to write, I first spent hours choosing the font. The dystopian soap opera could only be in Geneva; surrealist time travel, Book Antiqua.
In college, my writing was corralled into twelve-point Times New Roman, regardless of how beautiful it might have been in Hoefler Text. I chafed at this restriction, but a true typographical enthusiast finds ways to express her creativity. Font manipulation became a tool to avoid real editing. To make a paper longer, change the spaces to size fourteen; make the punctuation thinner to squeeze more into the page. Read More »
April 10, 2015 | by J. C. Gabel
At the time of her death, at age thirty-nine, Flannery O’Connor had published only two novels, thirty-one short stories, and a small book’s worth of literary criticism and critical essays. “In most English classes,” she once wrote, “the short story has become a kind of literary specimen to be dissected.” O’Connor, of course, was referring to her readers experiencing the work, not picking it apart in a writers’ workshop. That same principle drove Charlotte Strick and June Glasson in their recent redesign of the covers of O’Connor’s five books. Strick, the former art director of Farrar, Straus and Giroux and current coprinciple of the design firm Strick&Williams (as well as the art editor of The Paris Review), approached Glasson, an illustrator, about the project in 2013. Four of the five redesigned jackets have been released, with the last coming next month.
Glasson and Strick met through happenstance—a journey that began at a doctor’s office. “Years ago,” Strick says, “while absentmindedly flipping through a magazine in my doctor’s waiting room, I serendipitously stumbled upon a piece about June. I thought her work had a strange, seductive and unique beauty all its own.”
In 2012, Strick commissioned Glasson to create illustrations to accompany an essay by author Rich Cohen about French-American pirate Jean Lafitte and 1800s piracy in New Orleans, which appeared in The Paris Review no. 201. This collaboration triggered Strick’s art-director instinct, and she returned to Glasson when it came time to reenvision O’Connor’s works. “June is capable of imbuing her paintings with a curious maleficence,” Strick told me. “She seemed up for the task of tackling O’Connor.” Read More »
November 15, 2014 | by Charlotte Strick
A husband-and-wife team and their influential midcentury designs.
Lucky is the designer who can see in both two and three dimensions. Luckier still is she or he to be married to someone with equal gifts—especially if that mate is a collaborator and not a competitor. So appears to have been the case with Dorothy and Otis Shepard, whose enviable creative lives have been captured in the absorbing, moving, and lushly illustrated new book Dorothy and Otis: Designing the American Dream, by Norman Hathaway and Dan Nadel.
Both Dorothy and Shep (his nickname since childhood) got their start as commercial artists during San Francisco’s billboard boom of the 1920s. The Federal Highway Act, signed in 1921, helped fund the expansion of U.S. roadways, and advertisers took the opportunity to reach audiences beyond the traditional black-and-white pages of mail catalogs by posting colorful advertisements along America’s highways. Shep, a veteran of World War I, was a man of great adventure, with a strong and lasting interest in the theater. He was well regarded as a commercial painter while employed as an art director at Foster & Kleiser Outdoor Advertising Company, a top Bay Area agency of the period. In 1927, he wisely hired the gifted and highly praised Dorothy Van Gorder straight out of the California School of Arts and Crafts, from which she had graduated in only three years, as valedictorian. According to family lore, Dorothy was unabashedly outspoken (and just plain unabashed—she was once evicted from an apartment for sunbathing nude on the roof), and it cost her the Foster & Kleiser job, but almost as soon as she was let go, she was rehired for her prized skills. Hathaway and Nadel write that either in spite of or because of Dorothy’s brashness, Shep, the “raconteur,” soon began courting the “young bon vivant.”
And so their joint artistic adventure began—most markedly with a honeymoon in 1929 to Paris, Venice, Zurich, and Vienna. While there, they purchased Bauhaus furniture and had the good fortune to meet the great modernist Joseph Binder, who was a leader in the European abstract graphic style. “Shep and Dorothy already wanted their work to convey meaning through compositional structure—instead of realism,” write Hathaway and Nadel, but Binder’s reduction of “an image to a series of shapes and forms and [integration of] typography into his pictures” helped refine their approach to design and illustration. Both Dorothy and Otis had been following the modernist movement with great interest back home, but seeing this work and the new techniques in person and to scale had a profound and lasting effect on them. Read More »
May 20, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Krumbach is an Austrian market town with a population of about one thousand—it has a handsome eleventh-century castle and, as of this year, seven of the most arresting bus stops in the world. As part of a new project, BUS:STOP, seven international architects have designed Buswartehüsle—small shelters—“in a dialogue with the people, landscape, and local culture, building upon the traditions of skilled trade in the area.”
Sou Fujimoto calls his stop, pictured above, “a transparent forest of columns,” and emphasizes its variousness as a public space: “Both bus passengers and non–bus users can use this bus stop as a meeting point,” he writes, and though maybe no human alive has ever actively identified as a “non–bus user,” his larger point rings true: “Everyone may climb the tower-like bus stop to enjoy panoramic views of Krumbach.”
The other contributing architects hail from Belgium, Chile, Russia, Norway, Spain, and China, and given the impressive designs they’ve brought, it’s hard to fault Krumbach’s official culture site for a bit of characteristically Teutonic rhetoric: “People from the Bregenzerwald are generally seen as proud of their roots and open to new ideas. This has shaped our region down to the present day: the collaboration between humankind and nature, tradition and modernism, handcraft and the culture of building.”
DesignBoom has a gallery of photographs worth viewing in full. One might object to the primacy of form over function here. It’s hard to picture someone comfortably waiting at Fujimoto’s shelter, for instance, especially if it’s raining. But none of these stops are entirely without utility: they are all, however tenuously, places where you go to catch a bus. I’ve tried in vain to find statistics on public transit in Krumbach—how many of its thousand citizens use the bus system, anyway?—but even if these shelters are seldom used, it’s still a pleasure to imagine them out there, flecking the Austrian countryside. Greyhound: take notes.