The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

November 27, 2015
by Dan

Pluto Press Wildcat Series Design by Jamie Keenan

When I posted included the cover for The Southern Insurgency by Immanuel Ness in my round-up earlier this month, I hadn’t realised it is in fact part of a fantastic series of covers by Jamie Keenan for Pluto Press designed to look like hand-printed posters.

Pluto Press Spirit design by Jamie Keenan

Pluto Press Southern design by Jamie Keenan

Pluto Press Work design by Jamie Keenan

November 27, 2015
by Dan

This is…Scarfolk


After illustrating other famous cities around the world,  Miroslav Šašek apparently decided to visit to Scarfolk, England…

November 21, 2015
by Dan

The Art of the Gag: Ever Frame a Painting on Buster Keaton

The latest video from Tony Zhou’s wonderful Every Frame a Painting looks at the genius of silent movie star Buster Keaton:

November 20, 2015
by Dan

Penguin Short Stories

Penguin book of the British Short Story Tom Gauld

Cor Blimey! Tom Gauld for The Guardian.

And, if you’re curious, the rather splendid covers for the actual two volumes of The Penguin Book of the British Short Story were designed by Matthew Young:

November 17, 2015
by Dan

Super Science Friends


It has been an undeniably grim few days, but if you’re looking for a moment of light-relief, take 15 minutes and watch the brilliant (and joyously silly) ‘Super Science Friends’pilot episode. Successfully kickstarted November 2014, ‘Super Science Friends’ was created by Brett Jubinville, and animated by Toronto-based  Tinman Creative. It features a team of time-travelling super scientists led by Winston Churchill who travel through time to fight Nazis, Soviet zombie cosmonauts, and all manner of evil science villains:

November 17, 2015
by Dan

Robert Hughes on Robert Rauschenberg


The New York Review Books has an excerpt from the late Robert Hughes’s unfinished memoir — to be published for the first time this month by Knopf in The Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert Hughes — on artist Robert Rauschenberg:

Rauschenberg’s references to other media aren’t just tricks. They’re an integral part of the way he connects the language of his images to that of a wider world. Collagists had always done this, ever since the invention of collage. Braque and Picasso brought newspaper clippings and headlines into their images, though these had to be scaled to the actual size of the printed page—you couldn’t effectively do a cubist collage six feet high, it would need too many elements.

The same was true of Kurt Schwitters, with his bus tickets and cigarette wrappers and bits of wood or rusty iron. But around 1962, Rauschenberg began to use not things but the images of things. He gathered photos and enlarged them into silk screens, so that they could be printed directly on the canvas. This had two main effects. First, it enormously increased his image bank, because just about everything in the world, from mountains to beetles, from spermatozoa to Thor-Agena rockets, has been photographed. And second, by reusing silk-screened images from one painting to the next, it let him use repetition and counterpoint across a series of works in a way that wasn’t possible, or not easily possible, if he had been using things themselves. In doing this, he was adapting to the great central fact of American communication, its takeover by the imagery of television.

November 11, 2015
by Dan

Christoph Niemann’s Coffee Break


Christoph Niemann for The New Yorker.

November 9, 2015
by Dan

Picador Twentieth Anniversary Modern Classics

Virgin Suicides_rounded


Originally founded in 1995 as a publishing house for sophisticated hardcovers and reprint paperbacks, Picador USA is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this month with a set of four small limited edition modern classics with covers designed by Kelly Blair. Printed on pearlized cream stock, with rounded corners and colourful full-bleed imagery, the books look like exquisite pocket-sized treats.

According to creative director (and long-time friend of the blog) Henry Sene Yee, the books were the brainchild of Stefan von Holtzbrinck, head of Macmillan Publishing. “With Picador’s 20th Anniversary approaching, Stefan wanted us to celebrate it with some special printings. There were these tiny volumes in Europe that caught his eye, and he wanted us to do something like that.”

While still deciding which titles to include, and on the exact format and size, Henry worked out some early ideas in a notebook-sized format, using lines and shapes to represent the theme or narrative of each book. Facing a tight deadline however, Henry didn’t have time to finish the project by himself. He had a difficult decision to make. “Giving away a dream project is the hardest thing to do, but you have to be selfless and match up the best talent with the books.”

Henry, who has been at Picador from the very beginning, was determined to acknowledge the art department’s contribution to the publisher’s history. “One of my very first assistants was Kelly Blair. She is a brilliant designer and illustrator, and is now herself an Art Director at Pantheon / Knopf. If this project was going to celebrate the history of Picador and I couldn’t design it myself, I thought it should be someone who was there with me at the very beginning. Kelly made poetic sense, and made it feel better about letting go. A little.”

Kelly’s initial ideas included illustrations and some all-type solutions. “All were great,” says Henry, “but Kelly wanted to send me one more last-minute idea even though she wasn’t sure she liked it as much as her first ones. Of course that was the one we all loved and printed! Sometimes when a solution seems simple, we doubt its value.”

In addition to the new covers, Steven Seighman redesigned and re-typeset each book making them easy and inviting to read, even at the smaller size. “Even though they look great online,” says Henry, “it’s not until you have the actual wrapped and bound book in your hands that you appreciate its power and the beauty of print in the small format size.”



Jesus Son_rounded

The Twentieth Anniversary Picador Modern Classics — Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse, and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides — were published last week in the US. Thanks to art director Henry Sene Yee for talking to me about the project. 

November 9, 2015
by Dan

Book Covers of Note November 2015

Next month I’ll say goodbye to 2015 with my annual list of my favourite covers of the year. Until then, here’s November’s book covers of note, my last monthly covers post for the 2015:

baddeley brothers design David Pearson
Baddeley Brothers by The Gentle Author; design David Pearson (October 2015)

The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya; design by Devin Washburn (FSG / November 2015)

(I previously included Devin’s cover in my November 2014 post before discovering that publication had been postponed until 2015. It’s so good that I figure it deserved a second shot now the book is finally coming out this month.)

A Brief History of Seven Killings Special Edition design James Paul Jones
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (Special Edition); design James Paul Jones (Oneworld / November 2015)

Book of Magic design Matthew Young
The Book of Magic by Brian Copenhaver; design Matthew Young (Penguin / November 2015)

Dont Suck Dont Die design by Lindsay Starr
Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt by Kristin Hersh; design by  Lindsay Starr (University of Texas; October 2015)

Drinking in America Rex Bonomelli
Drinking in America by Susan Cheever; design by Rex Bonomelli (Twelve Books / October 2015)

Early Stories of Truman Capote design David Pearson
Early Stories of Truman Capote; design by David Pearson (Penguin / November 2015)

Eternal Zero design by Peter Mendelsund
The Eternal Zero Naoki Hyakuta; design by Peter Mendelsund (Vertical / November 2015)

Hausfrau design by Gabrielle Bordwin Photographer Mihaela Ninic
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum; design by Gabrielle Bordwin; Photographer Mihaela Ninic (Random House / August 2015)

Home is Burning design by Rodrigo Corral
Home is Burning by Dan Marshall; design by Rodrigo Corral (Flatiron / October 2015)

Just an Ordinary Day design Edel Rodriguez

Just an Ordinary Day by Shirley Jackson; design Edel Rodriguez (Random House / August 2015?)1

Let Me Tell You design by Edel Rodriguez
Let Me Tell You by Shirley Jackson; design by Edel Rodriguez (Random House / August 2015)

The Mare design by Oliver Munday
The Mare by Mary Gaitskill; design by Oliver Munday (Pantheon / November 2015)

Mass Disruption design CS RIchardson
Mass Disruption by John Stackhouse; design by Scott Richardson (Random House Canada / October 2015)

Norwegian Wood
Norwegian Wood by Lars Mytting; design by John Gall (Abrams / October 2015)

Only Street in Paris design by Strick&Williams
The Only Street in Paris by Elaine Schiolino; design by Strick & Williams (W.W. Norton / November 2015)

The Reflection design by Adly Elewa
The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken; design by Adly Elewa (Melville House / September 2015)

Some Recollections of a Busy Life by T.S. Hawkins; design by Jessica Hische; illustration by Wesley Allsbrook (McSweeney’s / November 2015)

Souffles-Anfas design Anne Jordan and Mitch Goldstein
Souffles-Anfas edited by Olivia C. Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio; design Anne Jordan and Mitch Goldstein (Stanford University Press / November 2015)

Southern Insurgency design by Jamie Keenan
Southern Insurgency by Immanuel Ness; design by Jamie Keenan (Pluto Press / November 2015)

trace design by Debbie Berne
Trace by Lauret Savory; design by Debbie Berne (Counterpoint / November 2015)

Unfaithful Music design by Spencer Kimble
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello; design by Spencer Kimble (Blue Rider Press / October 2015)

October 31, 2015
by Dan

Eric Skillman on Designing for Criterion


On the Waterfront, illustration by Sean Phillips

At AI-AP, Robert Newman interviews Eric Skillman, designer and art director at Criterion Collection:

Because film is a visual medium, each project comes with an established aesthetic, which for a designer can be inspiring but also sometimes limiting. The challenge is in figuring out how best to channel that aesthetic—either by distilling it down to a single still composition, or somehow bouncing off of it in an interesting way.

I try not to make such a strong distinction between “illustration” and “design.” Almost everything I make involves some custom-created components, whether it’s type or image or decorative elements or whatever, so for me it’s not such a hard line between the two disciplines. Whatever technique will best solve a problem—assuming it’s within the limits of my abilities—I’ll give it a try.

Because we have access to such great films, we’re lucky enough to be able to call on the best illustrators in the world to work on them, so really it’s total hubris that I ever design anything myself. When I draw something myself, it’s usually because I have such a strong, specific idea of what it has to be that I would be literally dictating exactly what to draw and how, which is no fun for anyone. You’ve got to leave room for the artist to surprise you, otherwise why bother?

And on Newman’s own blog, Skillman selects his 10 favourite Criterion DVD covers.

wise blood

Wise Blood, illustration by Josh Cochran

October 30, 2015
by Dan

George Saunders Writing Education

Manner of Being

The New Yorker has a lovely essay by George Saunders, excerpted from a new book called A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors, on his education as a writer:

For me, a light goes on: we are supposed to be—are required to be—interesting. We’re not only allowed to think about audience, we’d better. What we’re doing in writing is not all that different from what we’ve been doing all our lives, i.e., using our personalities as a way of coping with life. Writing is about charm, about finding and accessing and honing ones’ particular charms. To say that “a light goes on” is not quite right—it’s more like: a fixture gets installed. Only many years later… will the light go on.

%d bloggers like this: