Wednesday 29 October 2008

'Amity' a-mundo

Bernard Fleetwood-Walker's 'Amity', an eye-catching painting from 1933 with a certain Midwich Cuckoos air about it, is the latest addition to the massed ranks of one image doing service on multiple book covers.

Here it is on the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition of Colette's Ripening Seed, and here it is again on the new Persephone Classics edition of Monica Dickens' Mariana.

Holy Shit!

The one thing about this Patrick White book is that as long as you're reading it, you can't be looking at the cover!

UPDATE: Jen Wang designed the cover, while Jason Freedman created the collage. That's not bad collaging--I assumed it was a single photograph.

I should note, as I have said in the comments, that I don't hate this cover--it's very effective, to be honest. It just gives me the fear.

Penguin on Design

In the last month or so, Penguin Modern Classics re-released a set of four books on visual art and design as the 'Penguin on Design' series. I've just finished Bruno Munari's Design as Art, which is a fascinating, wise and entertaining guide to making things look good, work effectively, and not letting form destroy function. His appealing writing style struck gave Design... the effect of being a playful textbook written by Primo Levi in collaboration with Jorge Luis Borges.

Here's the new edition, with a cover design by an entity called YES (using a number of Munari's pictographs), and the original Pelican edition from 1971 with cover by Munari and the great Germano Facetti. (UPDATE: YES has a website full of their drool-inducing work, mostly outside of the books field; thanks to Daniel Gray for the information.)

The second book in this series is Susan Sontag's immensely wise history/philosophy book, On Photography.

(UPDATE: This is not the final cover, as it turns out, though it is the version that appears on Penguin's site as well as every online bookseller. Until the real book appears in Australia and I can photograph it, you'll need to visit Daniel Gray's excellent blog to see it.)

(UPDATE 2: See the end of the post!)

Every other edition of this book, both American and British, has featured exactly the same cover image: a striking 1850s daguerreotype by an unknown photographer.

John Berger, blurbing Sontag on the 1979 Penguin edition above, is the author of the third book on the series, Ways of Seeing, from his 1972 TV series.

Title type and publisher logo aside, this book has not changed at all in over 30 years. Here are the 1970s Pelican edition and a 1990 Penguin edition.

Finally, there's Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore's The Medium is the Massage.

This looks very different from its 1967 original.


Bonus fact I only discovered today: Germano Facetti collaborated with Chris Marker on the great and moody end-of-the-world, nuclear-apocalypse, time-travel short-movie 1962 masterpiece La Jetée. Here's the cover of the photo-novel (or 'photo-roman') of the film.


UPDATE THE LAST: YES were kind enough to allow me to use this image of the whole set of Penguin Design Classics, which includes the final Sontag cover. Please click for a bigger version.

Monday 27 October 2008

Nicholas Motte Follow-Up

In the comments to the Nicholas Motte interview, Dalkey's book designer Danielle Dutton expanded further on the book design process. I thought it was too good to leave there, so here it is, with pictures!

Nick's work came to us at a really interesting time. We at Dalkey had talked for a while about doing covers that used a detail from some larger artwork and had just a tiny piece sticking onto the bottom of the cover. This was the idea behind the Hotel Crystal cover (which was one of the first I designed with Nick's art) where I took a detail from one of his drawings and left most of the cover white.

We liked that minimalism and this became the basis for the designs of the other covers. What we liked about Nick's art was his unexpected use of color but also, primarily, the looseness of his lines. There's a story about a Paul Klee scholar who happened to line up 50 or so of Klee's nonrepresentational pencil sketches and noticed that the lines from one ran into another. When he organized them a certain way, the result was a giant portrait, which Klee had secretly cut to pieces after it was done in order to isolate the rhythms of the lines themselves.

Above: Paul Klee's Contemplation
Below: Klee in his studio

This is more or less what we've tried to do with Nick's work. He sends us pieces without knowing what the books are, and I typically pull some detail or details to stretch or turn etc. to create the cover design. Lately, there have been a few cases where Nick did a straight-up representational image for us because the book needed that - that was the case with A Nest of Ninnies, for example.

For the most part, though, what's made these covers seem so vibrant to us is precisely the element of surprise that comes from this combination of constraint and collaboration. It's a kind of OULIPAN attitude toward cover design, I guess, which seems appropriate given that, as Nick says, he came to us/we came to him through his father, Warren Motte.

Friday 24 October 2008

An Interview with Nicholas Motte

A recent post looked at the beautiful and striking new covers drawn for Dalkey Archive books by Nicholas Motte. Mr Motte was kind enough to agree to be the first artist interviewed on Caustic Cover Critic.


CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: I know your work from the new Dalkey Archive covers: how did you come to be involved in this?

NICHOLAS MOTTE: My father, Warren Motte, had been working with Dalkey Archives for a while—he’d put out his Fables of the Novel through the press in 2003. Warren had finished work on his most recent book entitled Fiction Now, and he asked me if I’d like to design the cover. I was immensely touched by the offer and set about making the image.

I submitted the design to Dalkey and they responded really favorably. John O’Brien and Danielle Dutton asked me if I’d like to provide more material of similar tone for other books in their catalogue.

CCC: What's it like doing covers for such a wide range of books?

NM: It’s a real pleasure. I love getting a crisp bundle of books wrapped in my drawings hot off the press, and Dalkey’s a joy to work with.

The work has been an odd coupling of restriction and freedom. On one hand, it has been useful to produce work that is thematically unspecific because the designs can be applied to a wide spectrum of books. I have to parse my drawings with those restrictions in mind. On the other hand, the Dalkey team has not sought to limit my submissions in any way at all. I’m free to provide them with anything I find attractive/evocative—work is PLAY for these books.

Danielle is great at laying these things out. She’s got a fine sense for typefaces and she’s able to drop the designs into contexts of the titles nicely.

CCC: What cover work do you have coming up?

NM: The next line of Dalkey books, I hope.

CCC: What's your illustration/design background?

NM: I’ve loved drawing since I was little. I collected “albums” and comics as a kid and tried to mimic those drawings, studied architecture in college, started a t-shirt brand in 2001 (rxmance), worked as a ‘concept artist’ for a while and moved to Boulder in 2006 to work as a designer.

CCC: You work in a mix of pen and digital design: what's the process? Are the sketches done in pen and then coloured?

NM: I love the quill pen very much because of the varying line-weight that one can achieve with a single stroke. I love Chinese brush for the same reason, but the resulting work from that form is often too big to easily scan.

The scanner’s great because it totally transforms the native scale—a 2” drawing can become a building-sized monster. Because of the scanner, I’ve been drawing smaller and smaller. I guess my goal is to make all the lines in a drawing please me. Smaller drawings have fewer strokes, and my chances of making every line ‘correct’ increases at that scale.

I bring the black and white drawings into Illustrator and drop blocks of colour behind the lines.

CCC: What would your dream book be to work on, from any era, if you could do all of the design, the covers and interior art?

NM: One Thousand and One Nights!

CCC: Are there any other book designers do you admire?

NM: Jack Kirby, Moebius, Hugo Pratt, Enki Bilal.

CCC: Ever been asked to design/cover/illustrate a book you couldn't stand?

NM: No, but I was asked to make a McCain cool hip t-shirt. I submitted some cellphone camera shots of the inside of my throat.

CCC: Thank you, Mr Motte!

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Unfortunate Linguistic Drift

Sometimes a word develops a different meaning over time, making an already existing book just a wee bit less appealing.

(For those outside the Commonwealth, "nonce" these days tends to mean paedophile.)

This cover image was also used elsewhere.

Both of these images taken from the fantastic and huge BookScans site.


I've long been a fan of the eclectic literature put out by the fine Dalkey Archive, a non-profit press based at the University of Illinois whose aim to is to keep fine books in print and bring them to a wider audience; a significant chunk of their list is the sort of wonderful literature in translation most publishers don't see enough money in publishing, but which we are poorer for not having available to us. Also, how can you not love a publisher who takes their name from the work of Flann O'Brien?

One thing I haven't particularly admired in the past has been Dalkey's covers: they've tended towards the dull but worthy. But recently they've been having a bit of an overhaul under the artistic direction of one Danielle Dutton, with illustrator Nicholas Motte providing bold pen-and-digital sketches with large areas of flat colour, giving the books a unified, striking look.

As you can see, they're about to republish A Nest of Ninnies by James Schuyler and John Ashberry. If you haven't read the two brilliant novellas by Shuyler already available from NYRB...

..then you must go and get them and read them NOW.

Monday 20 October 2008

Paper Space Opera!

The last time I talked about Gollancz rebadging a bunch of books, I wasn't that kind. When I first saw their next attempt at the same, I felt similarly. Over the last few days, though, the covers have grown on me (with some reservations).

They are the 10 titles in Gollancz's 'Totally Space Opera' series, a horrible title for a range bringing together some of the big-ideas/huge-distances/great-swathes-of-time classics of science-fiction. All of the books utilise simple, mostly abstract black-and-white imagery which I assume must be computer-generated. Nicely, they're all variations on objects, structures or patterns made of paper--very old technology representing big, futuristic ideas.

(UPDATE: The designer is Sanda Zahirovic, a painfully young and talented designer who also has a blog here.)

First is Larry Niven's Ringworld, set on a "planet" that's a vast ring. It's been a while since I read it, so maybe this structure does appear in the book, but it does seem a bit of a misfire.

Stapledon's Last and First Men is not a conventional novel, but a survey of the next two billion years of human evolution. This cover is rather nice, though it does also suggest it might be a gay romance.

Harrison's Centauri Device is about a quest for a vastly powerful futuristic weapon. Nice cover idea, well executed.

Anderson's Tau Zero is an adventures set on a spaceship which is stuck going faster and faster and faster towards light speed. Again, a nice and simple cover idea.

I haven't read Century Rain, a time-travel/global-warming tale, nor have I read Eternal Light, so I'm not sure about either of these. The McAuley cover does appeal, though.

Ilium takes its inspiration from Homer, and covers vast eras of time. Another appealing, simple cover.

Bear's Eon is a great, dark book, about the end of the world and a bizarre space artifact containing what may be a tunnel of infinite length. You can see what they were going for here, but it's a bit dull and a little bit like somebody's first attempt at using a Photoshop filter.

I've read Stone, one of Adam Roberts' good books before he pissed away his talent on inferior ideas and endless unfunny parody books (Star Warped, The Va Dinci Cod, The Soddit, The McAtrix, et-fucking-cetera), but I can't remember what this cover might be a reference to. Looks good, though. (As an aside, another Roberts novel, Snow, would have benefited from a cover like these, as the concepts of 'whiteness' and 'blankness' and empty paper are at its core. It was still a dud book, though.)

Finally, the Clarke classic of "big dumb object" science-fiction. Again, you can see what they were going for, and it works when you see all of the books in the range together and you get the paper theme, but on its own it's pretty dull.

So that's a qualified thumbs-up for the covers, and a big one for the idea. It's always nice to see science-fiction covers getting an unusual treatment.