The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

June 16, 2014
by Dan
1 Comment

Memento Mori

Book of Skulls cover

The threat of death… A warning… A memento mori…

A comprehensive visual history of the human skull is surely an entire Steven Heller book in the making (I guess we’ll just have to make do with a Wikipedia page for now). But as Faye Dowling’s contemporary compendium The Book of Skulls1 makes plain, what was once taboo — terrifying even — has become a pop culture phenomenon. Images of skulls now appear in art, design, fashion, and illustration. Apparently we like to be reminded we are all going to die. Even book covers are not immune. Here are a few recent examples that caught my eye.:

Actors Anonymous by James Franco; design by Lynn Buckley (New Harvest October 2013)

Darkmans by Nicola Barker; design by Leo Nickolls (Fourth Estate March 2008)


A Dark Stranger by Julien Gracq; design by David Pearson (Pushkin Press December 2013)

Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck by Eric G. Wilson; design by  Rodrigo Corrall, hand-lettering by Jennifer Carrow, photograph by Simon Lee (FSG March 2012)

Fiend by Peter Stenson; design by Christopher Brand (Crown July 2013)

Hamlet Doctrine
The Hamlet Doctrine by Simon Critchley & Jamieson Webster; design by David A. Gee (Verso September 2013)

How the Dead Live by Derek Raymond; design by Christopher King (Melville House October 2011)

La Isla del Tesoro (Treasure Island) by Robert Louis Stevenson; design by Raúl Arias (Bolchiro February 2013)

The Intern’s Handbook by Shane Kuhn; design by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich (Simon & Schuster April 2014)

The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders; design by Ervin Serrano (Thomas Dunne July 2013)

Junky by William Burroughs; artwork by Martha Rich (Penguin April 2012)

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross; design by Peter Mendelsund (Knopf June 2010)

Piratas de lo público by Antón Losada; design by Javier Jaén (Deusto November 2013)

A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims; design by Holly MacDonald (Oneworld June 2014)


The Return by Michael Gruber; design by Chris Sergio (Henry Holt & Co. September 2013)

Royauté by Alexie Morin design by Catherine D’Amours (Le Quartanier October 2013)

The Scarborough by Michael Lista; design by David Drummond (Véhicule Press September 2014)

Sete by Albero Riva; design by Manuele Scalia (Mondadori May 2011)

Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh; design by Will Staehle (Random House February 2014)

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick Dewitt, design by Dan Stiles (Ecco May 2011)

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut; design by Lynn Buckley; illustrations and hand-lettering by Kurt Vonnegut (Dial Press 2009)

Tequila Sunset by Sam Hawken; design by Tony Lyons at Estuary English (Serpent’s Tail December 2013)

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh; design by Sarah-Jane Smith (Vintage March 2013)


¡Viva La Muerte! by Rafael Núñez and Elena Núñez González ; design by Manuel Estrada (Marcial Pons Historia March 2014).

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris; design by Chip Kidd (Little Brown & Co. July 2008)

June 10, 2014
by Dan

Shepard Fairey: Obey This Film


Love it or hate it, Shepard Fairey’s bold graphic style with its limited colour-palette and appropriated pop culture imagery, is immediately recognizable and much-imitated.

In this interesting short film by Brett Novak,  the Los Angeles-based artist talks openly about his work, influences, and, yes, the Obama ‘Hope’ poster:


An exhibition of new work by Fairey is currently on display – alongside prints by the artist Jasper Johns – at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in the Fairey’s home town of Charleston, South Carolina.

June 9, 2014
by Dan

Easily Influenced

easily-influencedI’ve posted Tom Gauld‘s cartoons for The Guardian pretty regularly here for the past few years (and you can read my 2011 Q & A with him here), but he’s really been on great form of late. If you still haven’t checked out his collection of cartoons, You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, I highly recommend you do.

June 6, 2014
by Dan

New Book Covers by Luke Pearson


Working with art director Richard Bravery, illustrator Luke Pearson has created new covers for Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Charlie Mortdecai novels published by Penguin. You can read more about the process at Creative Review.



This is not Luke’s first cover for Penguin. He also provided artwork for their recent reissue of Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (also AD’ed by Richard Bravery):


You can read my 2013 Q & A with Luke here. (And if you haven’t picked up a copy of Luke’s new Hilda book, you really should you know!)

June 3, 2014
by Dan

Times New Roman: Designing The Times

Originally designed for The Times in 1931, Times New Roman is now virtually ubiquitous – a default most people don’t even think about. In this lovely looking film – part of a series of beautifully produced short films about the history Times and Sunday Times newspapers – designers and typographers re-evaluate the font and its legacy.

(via Creative Review)

June 2, 2014
by Dan

Book Covers of Note June 2014

Well, this seems to have become a regular thing doesn’t it? I have to confess that I still haven’t quite figured out exactly what covers to include in these monthly posts, only that they’re recent and I like them. It’s even harder to decide what to leave out. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this month’s selection. Leave your thoughts in the comments…
Abroad by Katie Crouch; design by Rodrigo Corral (FSG June 2014)

Archetype by M. D. Waters; design by Jaya Miceli (Plume June 2014)

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison; design by Tom Darracott (Granta June 2014)

Foxes on the Trampoline by Charlotte Boulay; design Steve Attardo (HarperCollins April 2014)

Falling Out of Time by David Grossman; design by Kelly Blair (Jonathan Cape February 2014)

Half Bad by Sally Green; design by Tim Green / Faceout Studio (Viking March 2014)

The Iceland by Sakutaro Hagiwara; design by Paul Sahre (New Directions June 2014)

The Lullaby of Polish Girls by Dagmara Dominczyk; design by Alex Merto, photograph Eleanor Hardwick (Spiegel & Grau February 2014)

Mount London by Tom Chivers & Martin Kratz; design by Ben Anslow (Penned in the Margins May 2014)

Outlaws by Javier Cercas; design by David Mann (Bloomsbury June 2014)

Night Work by Jáchym Topol; design by Bobby Evans / Telegramme Studio (Portobello Books May 2014)

The Secret World of Oil by Ken Silverstein; design by Matt Dorfman (Verso May 2014)

Sick Rose
The Sick Rose or; Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration by Richard Barnett; design by Daniel Streat / Barnbrook Studios (Thames & Hudson June 2014)

The Good Suicides by Antonio Hill; design by Christopher Brand (Crown June 2014)

Thirty Girls by Susan Minot; design by Kate Gaughran (4th Estate February 2014)

The Vacationers by Emma Straub; design by Janet Hansen (Riverhead May 2014)

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