The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

June 2, 2016
by Dan
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A Window onto a Window

photograph by Ike Edeani

photograph by Ike Edeani

In this profile of Peter Mendelsund in the June issue of Rhapsody Magazine, there is a lovely bit about the designer’s architect-artist father:

In the living room of Knopf associate art director Peter Mendelsund’s Upper Manhattan apartment, inspiration is everywhere: a battered, sea-green first edition of Ulysses; a toy version of the rocket Tintin takes to the moon; the vertebra of a blue whale; and, on top of his baby grand piano, a wooden model of a convention center made by his father, in the mid-’70s, when he worked for a New York architecture firm. It was never built, because the firm didn’t win the competition (Renzo Piano did), nor were any of his other models, because, in his late 30s, Benjamin Mendelsund was diagnosed with a brain tumor and devoted the rest of his life—he died at 48—to sculpture and painting. “He cut out all the bureaucracy of architecture,” Mendelsund says, “and turned to this.” He points to a small canvas painted entirely black except for two rectangles—two faded photos of a barn’s loft, its window open to the bright of day.

That image of a window onto a window is central to the signature style that’s made Mendelsund one of our preeminent book jacket designers: geometric, fascinated with negative space, striving to capture infinity through simplicity. You see the painting echoed in his cover for Martin Amis’s 2006 novel, House of Meetings, for which he photographed a tiny simulacrum of a room, its perspective slanting toward a miniature door. You see it in his many book jackets with drop-cuts—holes carved out of an image—like the diamond torn from a woman’s face on an early cover for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, back in 2005 when it was called The Man Who Hated Women. And you see it in his May 11, 2015, New Yorker cover, which features an American flag smashed like a storefront window, a single star-shaped hole evoking the myriad emotions of last year’s civil unrest in Baltimore.

His father’s second act as an artist also helps explain how, at 33, Mendelsund had the confidence to abandon his career as a classical pianist (“Eventually, I realized that I’d never truly be world class”) and reinvent himself. His wife suggested he try something visual—he was always drawing; he had designed their wedding invitation. “Sometimes the obvious things take a long time to see.”

June 2, 2016
by Dan
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Working for the Building

high-rise-paint

In a long and fascinating interview with the Ballardian, Ben Wheatley talks about J.G. Ballard and his adaptation of High-Rise:

Initially, I really enjoyed the cult appeal of [Ballard’s] work, or more specifically the counter-cultural aspect. His books, particularly Crash and High-Rise, were like rites of passage for anyone trying to read subversive and counter-cultural literature. Alongside Naked Lunch and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, they were books you had to read. But I was especially struck by Ballard’s use of language and turns of phrase, which didn’t feel like any other writer I had come across.

Although I enjoy SF, and that was also part of the charm of his novels, I also think it was books like The Atrocity Exhibition and then his 70s books that really hooked me in. When I was a teenager, there were two writers that really appealed to me: Burroughs and Ballard. They weren’t just authors and novelists in the traditional sense, they seemed much more dangerous and enigmatic than other writers. Burroughs naturally has a mystique because he shot his wife in the head and was a junkie, and therefore the extremity of his fiction was partially mirrored in his real life.

But the thing is, there was something about Ballard that was even stranger and perhaps more insidious, in the sense that he didn’t do those extreme things and was living a quiet, suburban life as a father to three children while also pouring out these amazingly perverse books. That had a big effect on me, but I was also aware of him through music, comics and other media. I wasn’t a particularly voracious reader of novels, so in some ways I experienced Ballard through a kind of cultural response to his work.

This is the best, most in-depth interview with Wheatley I’ve read on the subject of adapting Ballard and making High-Rise.

June 1, 2016
by Dan
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ELCAF 2016 Official Poster

elcaf_poster_jean_jullien

The official poster for the fifth East London Comics Art Festival by Jean Jullien.

May 31, 2016
by Dan
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Find Your Stories in the Dirt

cover design by Steven Seighman

cover design by Steven Seighman

I mentioned Andrew F. Sullivan’s piece on High-Rise last week, and I recently spoke to the author about his own novel WASTE, and about influence of David Lynch on his writing in a Q & A for Publishers Group Canada:

Initially, I think I was very resistant to Lynch. I think I thought a lot of it was just nonsense for the sake of nonsense. It was Blue Velvet that won me over, that showed me you could implicate and confront your audience, you could tell a sad, vicious truth and people would want to hear it/see it. Lynch opened up so many opportunities to leave the explanation out, to make the work immersive and unsettling while still dancing around the established conventions for storytelling. What he was doing seemed very singular, but also invested in the everyday, in waking up, going to work, putting in the hours. He created a world, especially in Twin Peaks, that began as just slightly askew, plausible even. He lured you into the nightmare and then told you it was real. And everyone questions the theories their friends have, there is no code to break. His work exposes the peculiarities of each audience member in their own response—their passions, fears and obsessions. How can they make this story make sense? What demons does it awaken?

Lynch is still doing that. He is always doing that.

May 28, 2016
by Dan
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Title Fight

At The Paris Review blog, author Tony Tulathimutte (PRIVATE CITIZENS) considers how the titles of books get chosen:

Every literary generation has its naming conventions, and it’s as hard to imagine the sixty-five-word original title for Robinson Crusoe passing muster today as it is to imagine a nineteenth-century novel called Never Let Me Go. It’s easy to spot the fashions of our publishing moment: short-story collections are named after the collection’s centerpiece practically by default. Titles for longer literary works are often staked to a central relationship—The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Abortionist’s Daughter, The Orphan Master’s Son—or a group in a setting: The Swans of Fifth Avenue, The Mystics of Mile End, The Dogs of Littlefield. Publishing favors the memorable, the concrete, and the vivid; it also has grammatical preferences, like solitary adjectives (Mislaid, Thrown, Wild, Lit), rousing imperatives (See Me, Find Me, Find Her, Lean In), and quirky pleonasms like Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever or What’s Important Is Feeling… And for whatever reason—maybe a surge of interest in young women’s lives, maybe Lena Dunham—we may soon hit Peak Girl, with The Girl on the Train, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, Girl Through Glass, Girls on Fire, Girl at War, Gone Girl, The Girls 

May 28, 2016
by Dan
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Less Common Villains

Less Common Villains Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld for The Guardian.

May 28, 2016
by Dan
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Moholy-Nagy: Future Present

“Photogram” (1926) by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy.

“Photogram” (1926) by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy

The New York Times on a new exhibition of work by Hungarian artist and designer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy at the Guggenheim in New York:

The first large Moholy-Nagy exhibition in this country in over 50 years may also be, its organizers say, the largest anywhere. It packs around 300 works into Frank Lloyd Wright’s great spiral — perhaps a record itself. They represent some dozen mediums including painting and sculpture, film and projection, works on paper as well as graphic, set and exhibition design and several forms of photography.

The show provides a bracing picture of both the extent and the unity of Moholy-Nagy’s art as it moves up the ramp, superbly styled for the occasion by Kelly Cullinan, the museum’s senior exhibition designer. Her scheme separates Moholy-Nagy’s achievement into separate strands and then braids them together fluidly. The abstract paintings and sculptures dominate the museum’s signature bays; most films are displayed in small alcoves between the ramps. Moholy-Nagy’s extensive writings and graphic design are displayed on each level in vitrines, whose bright rectangular lids manage to evoke the colorful trapezoids in his paintings. And his complex involvement with photography is played out on free-standing partitions, enabling close study of the interplay of documentary, photomontage and camera-less photograms — a term he invented — sometimes made using his own sculpture. Certain forms and motifs reappear in different mediums, and the give and take between photography and painting is one of the show’s driving forces.

It sounds like a must-see.

Moholy-Nagy: Future Present is at the Guggenheim until September 7. The exhibition is also travelling to Chicago and Los Angeles.

May 25, 2016
by Dan
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Fable

Fable Tom Gauld

Not an actual book cover, but a new Tom Gauld illustration for a Charles Yu (Sorry Please Thank You) short story in The New Yorker.

Tom has also just joined Instagram if that’s your thing.

May 25, 2016
by Dan
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Darwyn Cooke 1962 — 2016

parker darwyn cooke
parker darwyn cooke 2

I was sadden to hear that Canadian cartoonist Darwyn Cooke had died earlier this month from lung cancer, age 53. I never had the opportunity to meet Cooke in person, but I liked his adaptations of Donald Westlake’s Parker novels very much, and thought that The New Frontier, his elegant tribute to Silver Age comics, could reinvigorate a superhero genre mired in cynicism. His work — reminiscent of Will Eisner, whose The Spirit he also drew — was full of charm and joy. Cooke’s friend Nathalie Atkinson wrote his obituary for the Globe & Mail:

Although he was a proud Canadian, it was John F. Kennedy’s Camelot – with its Cold War tensions, social upheaval and cool aesthetics – that held an enduring fascination for him. His masterwork ‘DC: The New Frontier’ (2004) sets the origins of the Justice League and the characters of the DC Silver Age into a powerful narrative set in the America of that era. The six-issue comic book series, named for the JFK’s 1960 Democratic nomination acceptance speech, would win Mr. Cooke the first of his 13 Eisner Awards, the industry’s most prestigious accolade, and he won many of its others – Reubens, Harveys and several Shusters, the Canadian comics awards named for the Canadian co-creator of Superman… His dynamic illustration, panel design and thoughtful approach to writing transcended mere nostalgia, whether he was telling hard-boiled stories of anti-heroes or exploring heroism through superheroes. Although whenever it was suggested to Mr. Cooke that he was an auteur he’d reply, “I’m more like John McTiernan,” the director of Die Hard, one of his favourite movies. “That’s the kind of creator he thought he was,” his friend Michael Cho says. “An entertainer.”

new frontier darwyn cooke

May 20, 2016
by Dan
2 Comments

A Dirge for a New World

Empire Design

Empire Design

Andrew F. Sullivan, author of ultra-violent urban noir WASTE,1 reviews Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of High-Rise by J.G. Ballard for TIFF.Net:

Wheatley and Ballard point to a pattern—a dissolution of social order that cannot be prevented by technology or progress. Even the most unnatural setting seems to only drive humanity back to its base needs—food, water, shelter, flesh. The past, the basest parts of being human, carry more weight than any building, any new technological development. Elevators become new traps for the hunters. The supermarket on the seventh floor is one last place to forage. Even the soundtrack reimagines this future past for the audience, Portishead performing ABBA’s pop hit “S.O.S.” as a warning for the residents and viewers alike—a dirge for a new world.

Residents begin to harvest the building itself for what they need and reject the outside world. Wheatley’s design team has mimicked the 70s-era incredibly well, but everything is innovative. The products and designs on the shelves are made specifically for this brave new world. The future is behind us. The high-rise becomes a place unto itself—a slow motion horrorshow.

Much like his previous work, Wheatley refuses to provide a straight narrative for the audience and at times, the film descends into an anarchic blend of images without the rules to bind them—as it should. We scurry past a horse on a rooftop, a gang of TV presenters armed with baseball bats and chair legs, a dog drowned in the pool. Parties turn into rituals, sacrifices, religious ceremonies and then dissolve back into chaos once again. Wheatley’s camera starts out sleek and mannered, transitioning smoothly from one floor to the next. However, once the social order slides, the narrative structure breaks under the strain. Viewers slider from one party to another, the camera following bodies as they rise and fall. The film itself opens with an ending.

 

Edwin Turner has also written about High-Rise at Biblioklept. Ed’s opinion of the movie is less favourable than Andrew’s, but his post also pointed me to Tasha Robinson’s interesting review of the film at The Verge:

There’s a touch of Luis Buñuel’s ‘Exterminating Angel’ in the way everyone in the building seems to be stuck there, isolated from the outside by mutual consent, for no reason anyone cares to address. But Wheatley’s visual style never feels beholden to Buñuel. It’s more familiar from 1960s speculative-fiction films. The Brutalist architecture and cold sterility of the building suggests Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Alphaville,’ and the polished futurism and stiffly remote characters are reminiscent of François Truffaut’s ‘Fahrenheit 451.’ The retro cars, suits, and architecture all put ‘High-Rise’ more in a quaint, remote past than a dystopian future. They also add to the sense of otherworldliness that hangs over the film.

And so does the sense that High-Rise is driven more by Wheatley’s poster-ready striking images —€” a suicide falling from a high balcony in ultra slow motion, Laing expressionless and spattered with paint — than by any sort of human drives. “Laing would surrender to a logic more powerful than reason,” Hiddleston narrates, hand-waving away any irrational behavior. No one in the film really operates on reason, they just represent emotional factions. Wilder becomes a feral, untrustworthy spirit of the denied and oppressed. Ann becomes an equally monstrous symbol of the selfish, out-of-touch aristocracy that actively enjoys spitting on everyone below them. Both sides are poisonous. Laing isn’t an innocent caught in the middle, he’s desperately looking for a place to fit in, and his narrative isn’t about saving anyone, not even himself.

Empire Design

Empire Design

 

May 16, 2016
by Dan
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Rogue Bibliophile

rogue bibliophile 2500AD Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld‘s cartoon on the future for book lovers for The Guardian this weekend.

Tom also did the cover and interior illustration in this weekend’s Guardian Review for an article on plot by John Mullan.

joy of plot tom gauld

May 14, 2016
by Dan
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Roy Kuhlman Archive

Early this week I posted about the Robert Brownjohn online archive created by his daughter, Eliza. Today, a new website dedicated to the work of the graphic designer Roy Kuhlman curated by his daughter, Arden Kuhlman Riordan, has gone live.

Kuhlman is best known, of course, for the brilliant mid-century modern book covers he designed for Grove Press. The site is not comprehensive — at least not yet — but given the number of covers  and other pieces Kuhlman must have designed over his career that is, perhaps, not surprising. Archiving his work must be a massive undertaking. Hopefully there is much more to come.

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