The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

April 10, 2014
by Dan Wagstaff

Jim Jarmusch on Genre


Jim Jarmusch talks to The Playlist about his new film Only Lovers Left Alive, and his interest in genre:

I just like genres… I really like the whole history of vampire films that are more the kind of marginal, the less conventional ones. Starting with “Vampyr” by Carl Dreyer in the ‘30s, and many, many interesting films – “Shadow of the Vampire” with Willem Dafoe, then in the ‘80s the “Hunger” with David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve. I liked George Romero’s film “Martin” a lot, Katheryn Bigelow’s film “Near Dark,” Abel Ferrara’s “The Addiction,” Clair Denis’ “Trouble Every Day,” Polanski’s “Fearless Vampire Killers.” I loved “Let The Right One In”—that was from like five, six years ago, beautiful… I’ve always loved… that type of approach. Rather than the sort of more obvious one and I wanted to make a love story for quite a long time. It’s had different variances to it, but somehow it got merged maybe eight years ago into my vampire film. So, I wanted to make a love story that involved vampires. Why, I can’t really tell you… It interests me. And I like genres too sometimes because they imply a kind of metaphoric element. Just by the fact that they are a genre. So you can work within [that genre] and do something different inside of that frame. So, that always appeals to me, or not always, but in the case of the few films where I’ve referred to genres, there’s something attractive there for me too.

April 9, 2014
by Dan Wagstaff
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The Lost World of Stefan Zweig


At the LA Review of Books, Tara Isabella Burton reviews The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig recently published by Pushkin Press

Zweig’s world is the world of the exile: the world of those displaced — by war, imprisonment, or by life, for whom hotels on Lake Geneva or the French Riviera are the only safe, if liminal, spaces. His characters are bereft of any sense of belonging; in the absence of a network, a sense of home, their emotions are heightened and their actions become ever more erratic. Thus in “Amok,” a doctor working in India finds himself blackmailing a patient for sex, painfully aware of how his self-imposed exile is disconnecting him from his own personal morality. In “Incident on Lake Geneva,” a Russian prisoner of war attempting to return home is stymied by a series of redrawn borders he does not understand; he tries to swim across, only to drown.

Such stories, of course, are colored by their political context: Zweig’s world is a world cut loose from itself. People’s bonds to their sense of self, of home, of country, of allegiance, have all been severed. But even consciously temporal stories like “Mendel the Bibliophile” — about a Viennese book collector sent to a concentration camp, and “The Invisible Collection,” about a blind art collector unaware of the fact that his family has sold his beloved prints to cope with rising German inflation — transcend their political context. They are, at their core, about the human need to connect, to ascribe meaning to what is not there, to look too fondly on an easier and imagined past as a means of coping with the at times impossible demands of real life.

Meanwhile, in the new issue of the London Review of Books, Michael Wood reviews the Zweig-inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel:

Zweig was born in an actual Europe and left, in the 1930s, to die in an actual Brazil… Best known during his lifetime for his vast and immensely readable biographies (of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Marie Antoinette, Mary Queen of Scots), he has recently been resurrected (in English, that is, since in French and German he hadn’t died) as the author of brilliant and bitter, if slightly too well-made fictions. It is from Joan Acocella’s fine introduction to one of them (Beware of Pity) that I take the fact that Zweig wrote a book called The World of Yesterday and the notion that he ‘saw himself as a citizen not of any one country, but of Europe as a whole.’ Of course Zweig was more serious about that world than the movie is or wants to be. He thought he had lived there. The movie thinks no one did.

April 7, 2014
by Dan Wagstaff

Recent Book Covers of Note April 2014

The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman; design by Pablo Delcán (Pantheon January 2014)

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi; design by Jo Thompson (Picador March 2014)

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi; design by Helen Yentus (Riverhead March 2014)


Chop Chop by Simon Wroe; design by Ben Wiseman (Penguin April 2014)

Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team by Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen & Mike Gibbons; design by Steve Leard (Bloomsbury April 2014)

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill; design by Gray318 (Granta March 2014)

The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison; design by Kimberly Glyder (Graywolf April 2014)


L’Exception by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir; design by David Pearson (Éditions Zulma April 2014)

David’s cover design for Rosa Candida by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (Éditions Zulma March 2011) is also stunning.

Mistakes I Made at Work edited by Jessica Bacal; design by Jaya Miceli (Plume April 2014)

Quand j’étais l’Amérique by Elsa Pépin; design by David Drummond (Les Éditions XYZ April 2014)

Resurrection by Wolf Haas; design by Christopher Brian King (Melville House January 2014)

The cover for next book in the series, Come, Sweet Death! (Melville House July 2014), is great too.

There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll by Lisa Robinson; design by Alex Merto (Riverhead April 2014)

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April 6, 2014
by Dan Wagstaff

Centred Concentric Circles — It’s a Thing


This post actually started life on (one of) my other blog(s). I noticed a couple of rather similar looking covers that used a circle motif, but at the time I was sure I was missing at least one other cover. As it turned out, I was thinking of the cover of Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier which is out in paperback this month. I hadn’t realised that it was a riff on an earlier Jaron Lanier cover. Then I was reminded of James Paul Jones‘s cover design for Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun, published last month. AND then I remembered Jamie Keenan’s cover design for Kino by Jürgen Fauth from a couple of years ago (Atticus Books April 2012), which is a bit different but still uses concentric circles.

Anyway, here is an updated version of that post. I know the cover of My Life in Middlemarch was designed by Elena Giavaldi. I don’t know who designed the others. Sorry. Please leave a comment if you can help with attribution, or you can think of any other covers that fit the pattern…

You are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier (Penguin February 2011)

Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier (Penguin April 2014)

The River of No Return by Been Ridgway (Plume March 2014)

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead (Crown January 2014)

The Man Who Walked Away by Maud Casey (Bloomsbury March 2014)

Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun (Hogarth March 2014)


The North American cover design for the new David Mitchell is too on-trend to ignore:

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Random House September 2014)

And I rather like this as well:

The Time Traveler’s Almanac edited by Ann Vandermeer & Jeff Vandermeer (Tor Books March 2014)

April 2, 2014
by Dan Wagstaff

Shape: A Short Film about Design


Shape is a lovely short film about design. Designed and directed by Johnny Kelly, and written by Scott Burnett, the film was commissioned by PIVOT Dublin to encourage young people to think about the world around them and where design fits in:


Kelly and Burnett recently talked to Creative Review about the project:

The duo looked at other recent design films, including Helvetica, Urbanized and Press Pause Play. They also found influence in films from the past, including Why Man Creates by Saul Bass, and “pretty much every educational/informational film made for IBM in the 60s and 70s”, says Burnett. In the end it was Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten that proved most useful. “Powers of Ten did offer the eventual breakthrough but conceptually rather than visually,” says Burnett. “Eventually the only thing that made sense was to zoom out and not make design the subject, but have it instead as the invisible catalyst in the story. Once we realised that then a lot of the early ideas found their way into the story which we just made nice and simple – a day in the life where the changes that are happening around us all the time are made visible.”

You can find out more about the project at SHAPEMAKECHANGE.

March 31, 2014
by Dan Wagstaff

Q & A with Isabel Urbina Peña


If you’ve walked into a North American bookstore recently, or you’ve been paying attention to the book reviews on this side of the Atlantic, you will have no doubt seen the stylish black cover for All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu with its distinctive chalkboard lettering. Or perhaps you remember the hand-lettered cover for the Knopf edition of The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri? It was one of my favourite covers of the past year. Both are the work of Venezuelan designer Isabel Urbina Peña. Now based in New York City, Isabel is a cover designer for Random House and creator of a typographic zine called Rants from a Stranger.

Since relaunching her website earlier this year, Isabel’s cover designs have been featured on numerous blogs already (including here), but I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to her earlier this month about her work and career in greater depth.

Isabel and I corresponded by email. Here is our conversation:


Do you remember when you first became interested in design?

I think because of my parents, art was in my life since I can remember. But, when I was in 7th grade there was a big boom of internet start-ups in Venezuela and I remember clearly “deciding” that I wanted to be a graphic designer then…I was 13 and the concept of what graphic design was at the time was probably wrong, but that moment definitely steered me in this direction. Also, there was a moment in my “foundation year” in college where one of my type teachers talked about how the “typographer” was present in the page, but invisible to the reader and that just flipped a switch in my brain.

Is anyone else in your family creative?

Both of my parents are architects and they really motivated my sister and me creatively while growing up.

We spent half of our childhoods going to museums, plays, as well as ceramic, poetry and creative writing classes. My dad also paints and belongs to a drawing circle. When I was little he would sit with me and walk me through art books or give me a canvas and ask me to paint from inspiration, or even from some big painting like Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Paul Klee, Gauguin and Chagall are a few of the artists that I discovered through them when I was six or seven… I have to say my mind was blown, I still cherish those moments.


Were there a lot of books in your house growing up?

A ton. My dad also reads a LOT… So he wanted me to be “a reader.” I would get books for Christmas, birthdays, holidays, regular days…no Nintendo growing up… believe me that was tough, haha. He really sparked a love for reading and I would find new material everywhere; at my grandma’s I would read through all my uncle’s adventure books; at garage sales I started picking up Penguin paperbacks because they looked so simple and literary. Reading felt like something my dad and I shared, but it was also mine to discover.

Did you study design in Venezuela?

Yes, I studied at a small school called ProDiseño. Until very recently the “campus” was literally a two-flight house with a tub and a living room. Classes were really small, so everyone knew each other. The school started after a group of 80 students from IDD (Instituto de Diseño Neumann) left to start their own school. Neumann was founded by a large group of European immigrants who taught them design through the Bauhaus principles. Prodiseño had a very strong inclination towards clean, conceptual design. Everything had a purpose and “a why.” The content always came first; then the form. It was a very special experience and it prepared me to do anything (design, typography, illustration, animation, motion graphics…) and most importantly taught me to learn how to “think.” It was a very complete, Renaissance-style education.


Is there a strong arts/design community in Caracas?

Definitely, though it is a rather small one compared to New York City, it is very interesting.

There are a lot of events that support the arts and design and mostly DIY culture. A lot of self-proposed shows and collectives that put on parties with great visuals and self-produced posters. Also, a lot of zines and self-published publications are popping all over town.

How is living in New York different?

Well, New York is different in every way: from the variety of people you meet to the cultural experiences that are available to you. Living here, for me, has been a rich experience loaded with references of all kinds, and motivation. If anything it makes me expect more from myself and aim higher.

How long have you lived there?

This is my 6th year in New York, but it honestly feels like I just got here. Of course, I’ve learned so much and evolved, but it feels like it never gets old.


Does what’s going on in Venezuela worry you?

YES, I am glad you asked.

I am extremely worried by what’s going on in Venezuela and I think not enough people know about our situation. Protests started almost two months ago and people are being murdered and attacked on the streets daily and there doesn’t seem to be any change in the attitude of the current government. The truth is the people have the right to protest for the many problems that Venezuelan people are dealing with right now (the extreme insecurity they live in, the rapidly increasing inflation rates, the scarcity of many basic necessities and the extreme corruption, just to name a few) and the way that the government is handling this protests is, just, criminal. There are human right violations occurring left and right and even though there is proof (video and photos) for a lot of these events, the government is turning a blind eye and not doing anything to impart justice. Instead they focus their efforts in bullying opposition leaders and undermining the people’s rights. It is very, very sad and scary for all Venezuelan people and unfortunately change won’t come easily… but Venezuelans are still fighting hard, hopefully with a brighter future awaiting for all.

Can you describe your process for designing a book cover?

I start by reading the book and the TI (Title Info) sheet, getting familiar with the author and his backlist, if there is one. I take a bunch of notes and list ideas while and after I’m reading. I try to list everything—you never know when the “silliest” idea will spark something good. I’ll do a mood board and sketch a selection of these ideas in small (2 x 3 inches or so) detailed thumbnails with pencil and paper. Depending on the book, developing these ideas might be on or off the computer. I do a lot of paperback-size pencil sketches to define a lot of the lettering shapes and details.

Sometimes I will ink and do minimal clean up in the computer and sometimes I digitize the lettering in a font editing software and make the comps. Once I do that, I usually present a range of “developed” ideas and looks to my art director. We discuss if we need to adjust or tighten anything and then show the editors.


What are your favourite kinds of projects to work on?

Honestly, I am quite new at this, and I try to get the most out of any project. Figuring out what best represents the book I’m working on is one of the things I enjoy the most. That said, I really love doing all the cover art from scratch, and creating a “unique” design with custom lettering and illustrations.

Can you tell me about your zine “Rants from a Stranger”?

Rants from a Stranger is a self-published “booklet” inspired by zines, graphic novels, comics and the DIY culture. I like to call it a “typographic novel,” though it doesn’t really qualify as a graphic novel because of its length, and it is more on the zine realm. I love type and lettering and this was the perfect excuse to hand-letter more and produce a periodical self-published piece where I had full control of the creative direction.

I thought it would be fun and different to develop a series of “comics” without illustrations and solely use lettering as the “characters” of the story. So far there are two black and white issues and the third issue (special edition, in color) is coming out in late April as a collaboration with a very talented musician and artist from Venezuela, Mariana Martin Capriles, aka Mpeach. I’m really excited about this issue because of our collaboration, and also because it comes with a paper record player and a flexi EP record of her new song, “Boogaloo Mutante.”

Who are some of your design heroes?

Gerd Leufert, Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt) and Nedo Mión Ferraro were very important figures in my formation as a designer and I still look through their books every time I have a chance. Their students, now well known graphic designers, and former teachers of mine, like Álvaro Sotillo, Gabriela Fontanillas and Carlos Rodríguez have always inspired me through their impeccable work and dedication.

Doyald Young’s lettering work take my breath away, and old school type designers like W.A. Dwiggins and Frederic Goudy are daily inspirations.

Who do you think is doing interesting work right now?

So many brilliant folks out there! Freddy Arenas, my super talented other half, does amazing motion graphics and illustration.

In the cover design world, my co-workers are doing great stuff, all the time. Linda Huang, Joan Wong, Pablo Delcán, Kelly Blair, Megan Wilson, Peter Mendelsund, Carol Carson, Stephanie Ross… From the type, design, art and illustration world Jesse Ragan, Village, Kris Sowersby, OCD, Steve Powers (ESPO), Sergio Barrios, Wayne WhiteCraig Ward, Alex Trochut, Elizabeth Carey Smith, Gustavo Dao, Suzi Sadler, Ryan Bernis, Priyanka Batra, Sasha Prood, Ping Zhu, Victo Ngai, Elana Schenkler, Geoff McFetridge, Nobrow Press, quite a mix…

I could keep going…

What advice would you give a designer starting their career?

Try harder. I think it’s really important to be critical of your own work and be able to accept its faults. Always, strive for more and be hungry. At the same time, embrace your mistakes, learn from them and move on to the next project. I am a big fan of tweaking and fixing til the end of days… but sometimes you just have to learn to let go of projects and keep going. Erik van Blokland said to our Cooper Type class (regarding typeface design), “Release early and release often; recognize what you did wrong in the project and try again.” I remind myself to do that everyday.

I think you should always try to work in what you love and feel passionate about. Even if it means reinventing yourself and making up your own projects in your spare time. This is where the good work will be. Don’t be afraid to make changes and try different things if you need to.


What’s in your ‘to read’ pile?

I’m currently reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Inter Views by James Hillman. I really want to read Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt from this past season.

Someday, I’d love to re-read Cortazar’s Hopscotch (Rayuela) and all of Jorge Luis Borges.

The list goes on…

Do you have system for organizing your books?

Ha, no. I used to be very organized and had them alphabetically, color code them, etc… Those days are over… Nowadays, I move them around pretty often and they stay wherever they land.

Do you have a favourite book?

Not really a favourite single book, but I do have an influential shortlist: Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, L’Étranger by Albert Camus, Cuentos de Amor, Locura y Muerte by Horacio Quiroga, Piedra de Mar by Francisco Massiani, Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges, Oscar Wilde’s Collection by Siruela (Biblioteca de Babel).

Thanks Isabel!

March 28, 2014
by Dan Wagstaff

Hold or fold


At the TLS, Leah Price reviews On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History by Nicholas A. Basbanes:

You may be reading this across a fold of paper, or you may be squinting at an electronic screen. Two centuries ago, the former would have seemed almost as futuristic as the latter. Wood-based paper wasn’t successfully patented until 1845, after inventors had cooked straw, boiled banana peels, crushed walnut shells and dried seaweed. The coinage “pulp fiction” followed once it became clear that the new technology produced pages more brittle than those manufactured from costlier linen rags. By the dawn of the digital age, W. J. T. Mitchell could dismiss books as “tree flakes encased in dead cow”.

Unlike those cows, however, paper remains in robust health. One reason is that it combines apparently irreconcilable properties – durability (it outlasts papyrus and floppy disks alike), portability (a precondition of modern postal systems) and foldability (one of Nicholas A. Basbanes’s most engrossing chapters concerns origami). That trio allowed it to displace other writing surfaces that were fragile, unwieldy or both: clay, stone, papyrus, parchment, metal, bark, bones and even seashells.

And inscription is just the beginning. Basbanes points out that during the Second World War, the same long paper-making tradition that allowed Japan to devise bomb-bearing paper balloons rendered its cities uniquely vulnerable to incendiary bombs: more civilians died in the blazes spread by paper windows and screens than from either of the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Meanwhile, generals were deciding how much toilet paper to issue to soldiers: the British got three sheets a day, American GIs twenty-two.

March 27, 2014
by Dan Wagstaff

Mourning Local Bookstores

Writing for the New York Times, Julie Bosman recently looked at how surging rents are forcing bookstores from Manhattan:

The closings have alarmed preservationists, publishers and authors, who said the fading away of bookstores amounted to a crisis that called for intervention from the newly minted mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, who has vowed to offer greater support to small businesses.

[Author Robert] Caro said in an interview that he is heartbroken by the loss of bookstores from Manhattan, calling it “a profoundly significant and depressing indication of where our culture is.”

“How can Manhattan be a cultural or literary center of the world when the number of bookstores has become so insignificant?” he asked. “You really say, has nobody in city government ever considered this and what can be done about it?”

There has, of course, been a similar trend in Toronto with the Cookbook store, the Annex location of Book City, and the Bloor West Village Chapters all closing (or about to) in recent months.

On a happier note though, Bosman notes that some stores are thriving by locating to other, more affordable neighbourhoods in New York (and beyond):

just as many writers have fled to Brooklyn or Queens in search of more affordable housing, some bookstore owners have followed. Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene opened in 2009 to robust business and year-over-year increases in sales.

In December, Christine Onorati, the co-owner of Word bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, opened a second store in Jersey City. Ms. Onorati said she never looked seriously at Manhattan because the rents were so unaffordable…

…After spending years scouring Manhattan for a second location, Ms. McNally of McNally Jackson abandoned her search. At the urging of a former employee, she began looking in Brooklyn and settled on Williamsburg, where she found a “magnificent,” loftlike space with a 20-foot ceiling.

I hope this will be true of Toronto too even though it is much smaller than New York (New York has more than twice the population of Toronto). But here, despite some well-defined neighbourhoods, bookstores seem to have been slow to follow their customers (and their families) to more affordable areas of the city. My neighbourhood, where I’ve lived for 8 years, is filling up with young families and yet many store fronts remain stubbornly empty. And while I consider myself lucky to still have a bookstore, Book City’s Danforth location, only four subway stops away, it feel like a very different neighbourhood. I would love to be able to walk to a bookstore with my kids, or stop in to browse on my way home.

Perhaps the bookstores further afield, in communities like Burlington and Hamilton, are doing better? I hope so.

Still, I will leave the final word to Rebecca Mead, author of My Life in Middlemarch, who has written a sharp response to the New York Times article for  The New Yorker:

Those of us who cherish our local bookstores do so not simply because they are convenient—how great to be able to run out for milk and also pick up the new Karl Ove Knausgaard!—but also because we feel a duty to support them, because we believe in their mission. When books can be bought so cheaply online, or at one of the dwindling number of discount retailers, paying more to shop at a local bookstore feels virtuous, like buying locally sourced organic vegetables, or checking to see if a T-shirt is made in the U.S.A. It can be gratifying to the point of smugness to feel that one is being pluralistic, liberal, and humane; shopping at an independent bookstore may be one of the diminishing opportunities to experience that feeling in first-class New York City. Still, when I consider the vanished bookstores of Manhattan, I mourn not just their passing but the loss of a certain kind of book-buying innocence—a time when where one bought a book did not constitute a political statement, and reading it did not feel like participating in a requiem.

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