The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

February 23, 2017
by Dan

Alan Aldridge 1943-2017

British artist and designer Alan Aldridge died last week aged 73. In the words of designer Mike Dempsey, Aldridge “was a major influence on the British design and illustration scene in the 1960’s.” Although he is perhaps best known for his work for The Beatles, The Who and Elton John (not to mention his infamous poster for Andy Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls) it began, Dempsey notes, “with his controversial post as fiction art director of Penguin Books in 1965 where he challenged the status quo, upsetting many on the way.”

The Guardian obituary explains how Aldridge got his start in design:  

Sheer chutzpah won him his first job at a design agency, where he passed off his girlfriend’s portfolio of work as his own and was hired for £3 a week. “I blag beautifully,” as he put it. When he turned up to work the following Monday and was told to wear a suit, he went to Bethnal Green baths and stole one.

He drew portraits in his spare time, and as news of his abilities spread, he was recruited as a trainee by Germano Facetti, the art director at Penguin Books. Aldridge worked his way up to designing book covers, then was offered a job as a junior visualiser at the Sunday Times. The paper had the UK’s first colour supplement, offering new opportunities in design and photography that Aldridge was keen to exploit.

His most memorable contribution was his transformation of a Mini into a four-wheeled work of art, handpainted by Aldridge in a hectic 24-hour session. It was the magazine’s cover image in October 1965, with the title Automania. Meanwhile he had still been creating covers for Penguin, and was lured away from the Sunday Times to become Penguin’s fiction art director. Aldridge set about creating a radical, freewheeling new look for Penguin’s catalogue.

Aldridge talked more about this unorthodox beginning in this video:

My introduction to Aldridge was the revised 1971 edition of The Penguin Book of Comics, the book he conceived with George Perry (the cover of the first edition, originally published in 1967, is pictured above). I found it on the shelf in my grandparents house and pored over the pages of reproduced art. The book was my first introduction to American comics, and the idea that comics could be taken (somewhat) seriously. I found Aldridge’s illustrations, which also appear throughout the book, confusing and fascinating in equal measure. I know they reminded me of Heinz Edelmann’s art for Yellow Submarine — I think for a while I assumed they were by the same person — but you can read about Aldridge’s own work with The Beatles in this 2005 article from Eye Magazine

Aldridge refused to call himself an artist, illustrator, or designer. Instead he was a self-styled ‘graphic entertainer’, a precursor of today’s designer-entrepreneur, who had created a moderately successful product called ‘Put-Ons’, tattoo skin transfers. He was also always pitching projects that could turn a profit. He even convinced Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan’s manager, to produce a book of Dylan lyrics. But when Sgt. Pepper’s was released in 1967, Aldridge had an idea that promised surefire success.

‘I noticed the initials of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ spelled LSD and decided that it would be fun to explore visually the hidden meaning in the Pepper’s lyrics. I called Paul (who I’d never met, but had his home phone number) and said I’d like to interview him [about this], and much to my amazement he not only said yes, he said let’s do it now and come right away to his house in St John’s Wood. You don’t argue with an edict like that.’ The interview and accompanying illustrations appeared in 1967 in The Observer under the headline: ‘A Good Guru’s Guide to the Beatles Sinister Songbook.’ Bags of fan mail rapidly followed. ‘It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that I was on to something. So I pitched a dummy of the book, The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, which had three or four spreads of illustrated lyrics, to Peter Brown (Beatle manager Brian Epstein’s partner for many years) at Apple. The book would have all the lyrics from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘A Day In The Life’ illustrated by famous artists; I think I even mentioned getting Picasso, Dali and Magritte! Peter showed the layouts to John and Paul and got the boys’ okay.’

Having Lennon and McCartney’s sanction, however, did not mean Aldridge instantly nailed the book. He still had to present the project to Dick James, owner of Northern Songs, which published and co-owned the Lennon / McCartney lyrics. ‘Dick liked what he saw, then curve-balled me,’ Aldridge winces. ‘An American publisher had come to him with a similar deal, and had offered a lot of money, but since I had the boys’ okay he’d give me two weeks to get a publishing deal that gave him an advance of £20,000, a huge sum in 1968.’ For a week, Aldridge phoned every publishing house in London and New York, explaining the urgency. He was, however, turned down by everyone. ‘Not because of the large advance, but because they all thought the Beatle phenomena wouldn’t last another year.’

The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes: The Art of Alan Aldridge, a catalogue of Aldridge’s work, is available from Abrams.

February 22, 2017
by Dan

Dick Bruna 1927-2017

Dutch illustrator and designer Dick Bruna died last week, aged 89. Much of the coverage has focused on Miffy, the picture book rabbit he created in the 1950’s, but as The Guardian obituary notes, he was also well known as a book cover designer:

Bruna was born in Utrecht, the son of Johanna Erdbrink and Albert Bruna, and the intention was that he should join the family publishing firm, AW Bruna & Zoon. But Bruna, having been sent to Paris and London to learn about publishing and bookselling, including a brief spell working for WH Smith, opted instead to train as a graphic designer. He had been a keen artist throughout his childhood, especially during the second world war years, when his family lived in the Dutch countryside and he did not go to school, educating himself instead by studying the art of Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

He studied briefly at art school in Amsterdam for six months before leaving to join the family firm in 1951. There he worked as a designer and illustrator, creating more than 100 posters and 2,000 book jackets, including, most famously and distinctively, the covers for Georges Simenon’s Maigret titles in the 1960s, with a black pipe superimposed on a variety of backgrounds.

And as obituary in New York Times makes clear, the flat minimalism of Miffy and his design work is very much part of a graphic tradition in Dutch art and design:  

Mr. Bruna never became the fine artist he had originally wanted to be, but his work has nevertheless been recognized as part of the Dutch canon of art and design.

“Bruna very much continues a Dutch tradition which we call the ‘klare lijn’ — you could translate it as the clear line, or you could just call it simplicity,” said Taco Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which in 2015 organized an exhibition devoted to a half-century of Mr. Bruna’s art and graphic designs. “You see that’s he’s part of a tradition going from Pieter Saenredam through Vermeer to Mondrian.”

During his time in Paris, Mr. Bruna was influenced by the bold lines and two-dimensionality of Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger, Mr. Dibbits said. He also used primary colors and clear lines favored by members of the Dutch de Stijl movement, a pared-down, abstract aesthetic heralded by artists like Mondrian and the designer Gerrit Rietveld.

“He eliminates anything that’s not essential from the face of this little rabbit until it’s really reduced to the absolute minimum,” Mr. Dibbits said. “And he does the same for the text of his children’s books. He uses a language that’s not simple or stupid, but he reduces to the bare essentials.”

You can find an incredible collection of Bruna’s book covers (over 3,000 of them!) here (via Present & Correct). I’m particularly fond of his De Schaduw covers for Havank:

February 16, 2017
by Dan

Bookstores Embrace Protest

At the New York Times, Julie Bosman looks at how American bookstores have become hubs of resistance: 

Political organizing is perhaps a natural extension of what bookstores have done for centuries: foster discussion, provide access to history and literature, host writers and intellectuals.

“All bookstores are mission-driven to some degree — their mission is to inspire and inform, and educate if possible,” said Elaine Katzenberger, publisher and executive director of City Lights in San Francisco, a store with a long history of left-wing activism.

“When Trump was elected, everyone was just walking around saying: ‘What do I do. What do we do?’” she added. “One of the places you might find some answers is in books, in histories, in current events, even poetry.”

February 13, 2017
by Dan

Book Covers of Note February 2017

A little later than usual — between one thing and the apocalypse — but there are some great covers out this month, including at least one contender for cover of the year:

The Bear and the Serpent by Adrian Tschaikovsky; design by Neil Lang (Pan Macmillan / February 2017)

The cover for the previous book in the series, The Tiger and the Wolf, was also designed by Neil: 

Birds Art Life Death by Kyo Maclear; design by Jonny Pelham; illustration by Kyo Maclear (Fourth Estate / February 2017)

The cover of the US edition published by Scribner, which also features illustrations by Kyo Maclear, was designed by Lauren Peters-Collaer:

The Blot by Jonathan Lethem; design by Gray318 (Jonathan Cape / February 2017)

The Brand New Catastrophe by Mike Scalise; design by Oliver Munday (Sarabande Books / January 2017)

Civil Wars by David Armitage; design by Peter Mendelsund (Yale University Press / February 2017)

Darke by Rick Gekoski; design by Pete Adlington (Canongate Press / February 2017)

Emergency Admissions by Kit Wharton; design by Jonny Pelham (Fourth Estate / February 2017)

Is That Kafka? by Reiner Stach; design by Erik Carter (New Directions / February 2017)

Erik’s design for the hardcover was included in my June post last year:


It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis; design Jim Stoddart (Penguin / January 2017)

The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico; design by Luke Bird (Faber & Faber / February 2017)

Manly Health and Training by Walt Whitman; design by Richard Ljoenes (Regan Arts / February 2017)

The Memory Book by Lara Avery; design by Sinem Erkas (Quercus / January 2017)

Never Enough by Barney Hoskyns; design by Jamie Keenan (Constable / January 2017)

Nicotine by Nell Zink; design by Julian Humphries (Fourth Estate / October 2016)

Had I seen this cover last year when the book was published, it would undoubtedly made my end of the year list.

And on the topic of covers of the year, here’s that early contender for 2017:

A Separation by Katie Kitamura; design by Jaya Miceli (Riverhead / February 2017)

And from the sublime to the hilarious…

Spurt by Chris Miles; design by Lucy Ruth Cummins (Simon & Schuster / February 2017)

A Simple Story by Leila Guerriero; design by Oliver Munday (New Directions / February 2017)

This is the Ritual by Rob Doyle; design by Greg Heinimann (Bloomsbury / January 2017)

Greg’s design for the hardcover of This Is The Ritual, also published by Bloomsbury, was included in my January post last year:

Who Lost Russia by Peter Conradi; design by Mark Ecob (Oneworld / February 2017)


February 10, 2017
by Dan

The Martian Invasion of 1894

Tom Gauld for The Guardian

February 10, 2017
by Dan


Based on the short story “Her Lover” by Maksim Gorky, BOLES is short animated film by Špela Čadež about a writer with writer’s block and the woman who lives next door:

February 10, 2017
by Dan


At The Guardian, Lorraine Berry looks into the curious history of compulsive book buying:

In the 19th century, book collecting became common among gentlemen, mostly in Britain, and grew into an obsession that one of its participants called “bibliomania”. Thomas Frognall Dibdin, an English cleric and bibliographer, wrote Bibliomania, or Book Madness: A Bibliographical Romance, which was a gentle satire of those he saw as afflicted with this “neurosis”. Dibdin medicalised the condition, going so far as to provide a list of symptoms manifested in the particular types of books that they obsessively sought: “First editions, true editions, black letter-printed books, large paper copies; uncut books with edges that are not sheared by binder’s tools; illustrated copies; unique copies with morocco binding or silk lining; and copies printed on vellum.”

But Dibdin himself was obsessed with the physical aspects of books, and in his descriptions paid an intense attention to the details of their bindings and printings (rather than the content) that betrayed his own love. In a letter published in an 1815 journal, he beseeched subscribers to bulk up their subscriptions to help complete a set of volumes called The Bibliographical Decameron – more beautiful than they could imagine. “I should be loth to promise what is not likely to be performed, or to incur the censure of vanity or presumption in asserting that the materials already collected, in this department of the work, are more numerous, more beautiful, and more faithful, than any which, to my knowledge, have come under the eye of the publick.”

February 9, 2017
by Dan

Goudy & Syracuse: The Tale of a Typeface Found

The tale of rediscovering Sherman, a typeface designed by American type designer Frederic Goudy in 1910 and revived by Chester Jenkins for Pentagram in 2016 for Syracuse University:

February 8, 2017
by Dan

Fade to Black

Hilton Als on James Baldwin, movies, and Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro, for The New Yorker:

One has the sense, in the sections of “I Am Not Your Negro” that are devoted to Baldwin’s relationship to film, that Peck is stepping in to make the film that Baldwin couldn’t make. From the beginning of his career, Baldwin longed to make movies. In the introduction to his 1955 landmark collection, “Notes of a Native Son,” he wrote, “About my interests: I don’t know if I have any, unless the morbid desire to own a sixteen-millimeter camera and make experimental movies can be so classified.” To my knowledge, Baldwin never satisfied that desire (morbid, perhaps, because he knew of the herculean effort that goes into getting any movie made), but he never stopped yearning to be a filmmaker. Like a number of other significant twentieth-century authors—James Agee, Truman Capote, Susan Sontag, and his friend Norman Mailer—he knew that the page was not enough in the modern world; cinema was a powerful medium with many more “readers.” What would his life as an artist have been like, and what would American cinema be like now, had it opened itself up to him?

February 7, 2017
by Dan

Chris Ware on George Herriman and Krazy Kat

The New York Review of Books has an essay by cartoonist Chris Ware on George Herriman the creator Krazy Kat, one of the most beautiful, poetic and inventive comic strips ever created:    

Krazy Kat has been described as a parable of love, a metaphor for democracy, a “surrealistic” poem, unfolding over years and years. It is all of these, but so much more: it is a portrait of America, a self-portrait of Herriman, and, I believe, the first attempt to paint the full range  of human consciousness in the language of the comic strip. Like the America it portrays, Herriman’s identity has been poised for a revision for many decades now. Michael Tisserand’s new biography Krazy does just that, clearing the shifting sands and shadows of Herriman’s ancestry, the discovery in the early 1970s of a birth certificate which described Herriman as “colored” sending up a flag among comics researchers and aficionados. Tisserand confirms what for years was hiding in plain sight in the tangled brush of Coconino County, Arizona, where Krazy Kat is supposedly set: Herriman, of mixed African-American ancestry, spent his entire adult life passing as white. He had been born in the African-American neighborhood of racially mixed, culturally polyglot 1880s New Orleans, but within a decade Herriman’s parents moved George and his three siblings to the small but growing town of Los Angeles to escape the increasing bigotry and racial animosity of postbellum Louisiana. The Herrimans melted into California life, and it was there that George, with brief professional spates in New York, would remain for the rest of his life.

But imagine knowing something about yourself that’s considered so damning, so dire, so disgusting, that you must, at all cost, never tell anyone. Imagine leaving behind a life to which you cannot claim allegiance or affection. Imagine suddenly gaining advantages and opportunity while you see others like you, who have not followed in the footsteps of your deception, suffering. Herriman, once he was considered white, didn’t even have a way of voicing this identity. Until he started drawing Krazy Kat.

Krazy, the new biography of Herriman by Michael Tisserand that Chris Ware mentions, was also recently reviewed for New York Times Book Review by Nelson George: 

Though Herriman’s “Krazy Kat” comic strip was admired in his lifetime, it wasn’t until years after his death in 1944 that his vast influence received widespread critical respect. Herriman’s depiction of the tangled relationships among the black cat Krazy, his white mouse tormentor and sometime love interest Ignatz and the bulldog Officer Pupp, set against a desert backdrop in fictional Coconino County (taken from a real area of Arizona), inspired several generations of cartoonists. Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts,” Ralph Bakshi’s “Fritz the Cat” and Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” all owe a debt to Herriman’s draftsmanship and poetic sense.

Schulz got turned on to “Krazy Kat” right after World War II, he said, and it “did much to inspire me to create a feature that went beyond the mere actions of ordinary children.” Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), whose animal characters strongly resemble Herriman’s, told a biographer, “At its best, the comic strip is an art form of such terrific wumpf! that I’d much rather spend any evening of any week rereading the beautifully insane sanities of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat than to sit myself down in some opera house to hear some smiling Irish tenor murdering Pagliacci.” The iconoclastic Robert Crumb called Herriman the “Leonardo da Vinci of comics,” while the ambitious Spiegelman argued that “Krazy Kat” “crossed all kinds of boundaries, between high and low, between vulgar and genteel.” All this alone would have made Herriman worth serious study.

But then in the early 1970s, a quarter-century after his death, a birth certificate was found stating that Herriman was born “colored” to Creole parents in that 19th-century hotbed of miscegenation, New Orleans. Clearly his work had to be re-examined. Not to question its genius, but to see how much of it dealt with hiding a huge part of himself in plain sight.

If you haven’t read any Krazy Kat, seek it out. The strange language, the small, inky art, and the repetitiousness of the strips — collected together into numerous, beautifully designed, paperbacks by Fantagraphics — can seem a little intimidating at first, but it really pays off if you stick with it. 

From “Krazy Kat,” April 16, 1922.

January 27, 2017
by Dan


1984 by George Orwell; design by WH Chong (Text Publishing)

The dystopia described in George Orwell’s nearly 70-year-old novel “1984” suddenly feels all too familiar. A world in which Big Brother (or maybe the National Security Agency) is always listening in, and high-tech devices can eavesdrop in people’s homes. (Hey, Alexa, what’s up?) A world of endless war, where fear and hate are drummed up against foreigners, and movies show boatloads of refugees dying at sea. A world in which the government insists that reality is not “something objective, external, existing in its own right” — but rather, “whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth.”

“1984” shot to No. 1 on Amazon’s best-seller list this week, after Kellyanne Conway, an adviser to President Trump, described demonstrable falsehoods told by the White House press secretary Sean Spicer — regarding the size of inaugural crowds — as “alternative facts.” It was a phrase chillingly reminiscent, for many readers, of the Ministry of Truth’s efforts in “1984” at “reality control.” To Big Brother and the Party, Orwell wrote, “the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.” Regardless of the facts, “Big Brother is omnipotent” and “the Party is infallible.”

Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

As Nineteen Eighty-Four is suddenly more relevant than ever, I thought I would share a few of the recent covers for Orwell’s classic novel…

1984 by George Orwell; design by David Pearson (Penguin Classics)

1984 by George Orwell; design by Gray318 (Penguin)

1984 by George Orwell; illustration Daniel Mitchell (Penguin Random House Spain)

1984 by George Orwell; illustration by Marion Deuchars (Penguin Modern Classics)

1984 by George Orwell; design by Shepard Fairey (Penguin)



January 20, 2017
by Dan

The life-Changing Magic of Decluttering in a Post-Apocalyptic World

See all Tom Gauld‘s post-apocalyptic decluttering tips at The New Yorker

%d bloggers like this: