ANATOMY OF DESIGN
In a typically hilarious Seinfeld episode, Kramer proposes to write a coffee table
book (the term used to describe large-format illustrated books) that is a real
coffee table with folding legs. It may have sounded absurd at the time, yet in
recent years books have been designed more as objects (read with haughty
French accent) than traditional page-turners—and a few are indeed so huge they
can be mistaken for coffee tables. Objectness among certain trade publishers,
which has roots in the more rarified artists’ book movements of the early to
late twentieth century, has two goals: (1) to transcend ordinariness while (2)
testing the tolerances of convention. One of the earliest of these commercial
books was a small illustrated volume devoted to miniature golf covered with
real Astroturf (Abbeville Press, 1987). Later came the bolted metal-covered
Sex book (Callaway Editions, 1992), and others abound. Although
expensive to produce, some publishers have built their reputation on rampant
production, ambition, and adventurism.
Art director Julia Hasting is a doyenne of high-concept book design, and
in 2005 she produced one of Phaidon’s most ambitiously designed books,
SAMPLE: 100 Fashion Designers, 010 Curators. Given its bunched-up and gathered,
unevenly cut pages, at first glance it appears that the binding machine ran
amok or the printing gods were playing a cruel trick. Au contraire. SAMPLE is a
tour de force of production profligacy. From its pleated, pure white glossy
paper-over-board cover, wrapped by an elastic band (bearing a striking
resemblance to the tops of tighty-whities) to the book title, which is
embroidered on a small hanging label sewn onto the bottom of the elastic, it
looks like a garment salesman’s sample binder.
Hasting, however, explains that the cover was actually influenced by a
pleated dress: “I was trying to emphasize materiality and structure to form an
overall three-dimensional object. Using form, light, and shadow, rather than photos
or illustrations, seemed more appropriate for a book on clothing.” Interior
photographs and drawings of haute couture, cheap-chic clothing, and accessories
represent the likes of Viktor & Rolf, Angela Missoni, Blaak, Bless, and A Bathing
Ape. Although many of the images are mostly in color (with some in sultry black
and white), the extra-wide margins on these shiny pages celebrate whiteness.
“White leaves space for imagination and presentation,” Hasting adds.
SAMPLE is also advertently and inadvertently a composite of shared special
effects. Tactile materials and fabrics, for instance, are frequently used today—a
miniature prayer rug found in a book on the Koran, basketball netting for a book on
hoops, more Astroturf on a book about gardening. Labels, bellybands, and hangtags
(usually found on retail products) are also more common. Sewing, stitching, and
embroidery are recurring techniques, as graphic design returns to its craft origins.
While sometimes highly mechanical, expressively stitched scripts are also vogue.
Most of all,
SAMPLE owes a debt to those books that pioneered the stair-step page
and tabular format, from Lissitzky’s 1923 avant-garde masterpiece For the Voice to
the Barrett Cravens Company c. 1940s parts catalog for handling equipment.
Designer: Julia Hasting
2005 SAMPLE-100 Fashion Designers, 10 Curators, book cover
d: Julia Hasting c: Phaidon Press
A high-concept book designed to look like a fabric swatch book
Fringed and tabbed pages