The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

April 2, 2016
by Dan

Inside Typographer Alan Kitching’s Home

Alan Kitching 3614

The Guardian visits the London home of designer, artist and typographer Alan Kitching:

The rooms in Alan Kitching’s home are arranged like one of his letterpress prints. Some are stacked, some are wedged, some aren’t in the right place. One dominates, while others bow out. But each room, like each letter, makes an impact and has a purpose.

From the outside, it’s obvious this isn’t an ordinary home: three large, shop-style window panels showcase Kitching’s iconic prints – word-based images in big, bold type. A fourth is given over to local notices: jumble sales and student art shows. “That was Celia’s idea,” Kitching says. “She was more gregarious than me.” Celia Stothard, his late wife, bought the property 19 years ago. She chose it for its flexibility: a place for them to live and hold talks, exhibitions and performances. She was a designer and artist, too, as well as a jazz singer.

The building is a former alehouse in Kennington, south London, buttressed up against a courthouse (local folklore has it that Charlie Chaplin used to come here to fetch jugs of ale for his mother). Storage rooms cascade off the back of the ground floor, where Kitching runs the Typography Workshop, into a cellar crammed with his extensive, 19th-century type collection. Upstairs, a high-ceilinged mezzanine has a reading nook reachable only by the swivel of a library ladder.

March 30, 2016
by Dan

Lost Literature

texthunter tom gauld

Tom Gauld on lost literature for The Guardian.

And in related news, Tom’s new book Mooncop will be published by Drawn & Quarterly in September. Can’t wait.



March 30, 2016
by Dan

Graphic Means


Before the desktop computer revolutionized the way the graphic design industry worked, type and image were painstakingly put together by hand with the aid of various ingenious machines and tools.

Currently in production, the documentary, Graphic Means explores graphic design production of the 1950s through the 1990s—from linecaster to photocomposition, and from paste-up to PDF.

It looks fascinating:

You can support the production the film by pre-ordering a copy from the Graphic Means website.

March 28, 2016
by Dan

On the Media: Print is Back, Back Again

In a special report, WNYC’s On the Media recently took a look at the publishing industry and print books. It covers a lot of ground — including the subversive history of adult colouring books, Amazon’s bricks-and-mortar bookstore, and South Korea’s quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature — but the opening segment, ‘Why the Publishing Industry Isn’t in Peril‘, with LA Times books editor Carolyn Kellogg is an excellent overview of the current state of US publishing:

March 22, 2016
by Dan

Lead the Autobiographical Novelist to the Literary Prize

autobiographical novelist Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld on Karl Ove Knausgaard for The Guardian.

March 22, 2016
by Dan

Brooklyn’s Most Cluttered Bookstore

The New Yorker visits the Community Bookstore in Brooklyn as owner John Scioli begins to clean out his “cavern of books” in preparation of the store’s closing in May:

March 21, 2016
by Dan

David Pearson Found on the Shelves

Corpulence design David Pearson

At The Bookseller, designer David Pearson talks about his new cover designs for Pushkin Press’s ‘Found on the Shelves’ series celebrating 175 years of the London Library:

At the heart of successful series design is motif – be it colour, type, grid, imagery, or other visual touchpoints – yet Pearson’s latest covers for Pushkin are perhaps less obviously groupable. “The series identifier is a subtle one,” he says, “but it is present in the use of decorative borders. I had begun to explore this idea of active border-making with some of Pushkin’s Collection Covers; the idea being that a decorative border can provide a layer of meaning or a tension point within the cover, and not simply act as a framing device.

“For The London Library series, this takes the form of overlapping tyre treads in ‘Cycling: The Craze of the Hour’; snaking, northbound steam in ‘The Lure of the North. It’s a small thing to hang your ideas on – and it matters little if no one notices it – but it ensured that I didn’t flounder at the beginning of the design process, as I had something to kick against, an inbuilt challenge to wrestle with.”

Pearson attributes much of the covers’ liveliness to the illustration, which he is quick to credit: “I intend to broaden the illustrative scope [further titles are scheduled for November] but for this first selection I’m relying on tried, trusted and incredibly talented hands. Joe Mclaren produced the illustrations for ‘On Corpulence’ and ‘Life in a Bustle’ – and as with all of Joe’s work, the result is joyous.” The additional images were sourced from illustrations within the texts themselves, giving some of the covers a distinctly vintage appearance.

Each of the covers will print using a spot colour – one outside the gamut of four-colour CMYK printing, as it cannot be created using a combination of cyan, magenta, yellow and black (“key”); as a consequence of this it is bolder, more vibrant and less ubiquitous (and therefore more striking) – and will feature black foil-blocking on uncoated paper stock.


On Reading design David Pearson Life in a Bustle design David Pearson Cycling David Pearson

March 18, 2016
by Dan

Inside High-Rise


I’m a bit late to this, but the Creative Review talked to graphic artists Michael Eaton and Felicity Hickson about their fantastic looking work on Ben Wheatley’s film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, which included designing book covers, record sleeves, cigarette packets, supermarket products and apartment plans…

ME: It was a really fun one – from a design point of view, everything just looked so cool from that time. One of the first things I did was the Learn French book… I looked at old 70s school textbooks. And quite early on with Felicity, we worked out what the main fonts of the film would be.

We had fonts on the office wall that Ben and Mark Tildesley, the production designer, liked – certain things would have their own font; the high rise itself, the supermarket and everything had a sort of ‘brand’ within the building. So from the start, you were aware of how you could stick to a certain aesthetic. Then you’d be given your task by the set decorator [Paki Smith] from the script.

FH: We had a few references, but [for the supermarket] Paki had the wonderful idea of using colour as the main graphic; so you’d have these blocks of colour. We did blocks of products, so as you went down the aisle, rather than seeing individual products you saw bold, graphic shapes. It wasn’t a line of ten different brands on the shelf, you had all these own-label ‘Market’ brands. It was a ‘stylised’ view of dressing.

ME: We realised when we saw the shelves just how much it would take to fill the space. We looked at references for that – Andreas Gursky’s shots of supermarkets with loads of repeats of the same packaging, that was the starting point. We also looked at old images of phone books, any kind of instructional manual, toy kits.

We looked at covers of things, such as Penguin books and magazines. Also, the buyers on the film would be out buying props and every so often they’d come in with, say, a box of comics, or TV guides from the 70s. So we had all this great stuff lying around the office we could look through.




March 17, 2016
by Dan

The Custodian of Forgotten Books

In a lovely piece for The New YorkerDaniel A. Gross talks to blogger Brad Bigelow, the man behind the Neglected Books, about rediscovering forgotten literature:

Most novels are forgotten. Glance at the names of writers who were famous in the nineteenth century, or who won the Nobel Prize at the beginning of the twentieth, or who were on best-seller lists just a few decades ago, and chances are that most of them won’t even ring a bell. When “The Moonflower Vine” resurfaced and ricocheted around the publishing world, it became an unlikely exception.

What’s strange about the journey of that book—and about our moment in the history of publishing—is that its rediscovery was made possible by an independent blogger, named Brad Bigelow. Bigelow, fifty-eight, is not a professional publisher, author, or critic. He’s a self-appointed custodian of obscurity. For much of his career, he worked as an I.T. adviser for the United States Air Force. At his home, in Brussels, Belgium, he spends nights and weekends scouring old books and magazines for writers worthy of resurrection.

“It can just be a series of almost random things that can make the difference between something being remembered or something being forgotten,” Bigelow told me recently. On his blog, Neglected Books, he has written posts about roughly seven hundred books—impressive numbers for a hobbyist, though they’re modest next to the thousands of books we forget each year. “It’s one little step against entropy,” he said. “Against the breakdown of everything into chaos.”

March 16, 2016
by Dan

Making It Up: The Bookseller Interviews Mr Keenan and Gray318

Mr Keenan and Gray318

I love this Bookseller interview with designers Jamie Keenan and Jon Gray, co-founders of the Academy of British Cover Design (among other things):

ABCD tends to recognise and reward brave, striking and fresh approaches, rather than more “conventional” cover aesthetics. I ask the pair whether they feel designers have more freedom these days; whether, as books become imbibed with more longevity and are seen as less disposable, publishers are more amenable to the idea of cover art as art, rather than as a marketing tool. They are reticent; Keenan responds: “It’s strange, because when you do see a weirdo cover – for a reason, not just for the sake of it – quite often they are really successful. If you think of a book as an actual package and compare that to other forms of packaging, its really old-fashioned in a lot of ways.

“Imagine a poster for, say, the next iPhone, and it has a quote on it like you’d see on a book cover – ‘this is the best phone I have ever had!’ – you just think, this is so old-fashioned, that kind of endorsement idea. On a book cover it’s the norm. A lot of advertising you see, you aren’t really sure what it’s for but it draws you in, whereas a lot of book covers are really overt – they tell you exactly what the book is about. We’re supposedly becoming more and more visually literate, but book covers are still, in some ways, quite naïve.”

Gray concurs: “It feels like a real nervous habit, the quote on the front. Is that really helping a book to be sold? Can [shoppers] not just read that on the back and get the same idea…on the front, is it really making someone think: ‘aha!’?”

“The greatest and the worst thing about book cover design is that no one really knows if it’s incredibly powerful or a complete waste of time,” Keenan says. “Quite often when you get a brief, you’ll be sent other covers that the [client] likes and some of them will look absolutely terrible…but it was a bestselling book! So that automatically becomes, in their eyes, a sort of ‘good cover’.”

“There’s no science to it,” Gray agrees.

You can almost hear them sipping their pints.

March 15, 2016
by Dan

Lustig Elements Font Revival on Kickstarter

Lustig Elements

Working with the legendary Elaine Lustig Cohen, designer Craig Welsh has launched Kickstarter campaign to revive a font originally designed by Alvin Lustig in the 1930s that they’re calling ‘Lustig Elements’. The project is about halfway to its funding goal, but there are only a couple more weeks to back it, so maybe give them a boost if you are fan of the Lustig’s work (and I know you are!):

March 14, 2016
by Dan

Book Covers of Note March 2016

Much later than usual, here are this month’s book cover selections…

Cambodia Noir design Alex Merto
Cambodia Noir by Nick Seeley; design by Alex Merto (Simon & Schuster / March 2016)

Heads design by Alex Camlin
Heads by Jesse Jarnow; design by Alex Camlin (Da Capo / March 2016)

House Full of Daughters design Cressida Bell
A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson; design by Cressida Bell (Chatto & Windus / March 2016)

How To Slowly Kill Yourself design Greg Heinimann
How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon; design by Greg Heinimann (Bloomsbury / March 2016)

Insignifica design Alban Fischer
Insignificana by Dolan Morgan; design by Alban Fischer (CCM / March 2016)

Knockout design by Matt Dorfman
Knockout by John Jodzio; design by Matt Dorfman (Soft Skull / March 2016)

Latecomer design Doublenaut
The Latecomer by Dimitri Verhulst; design Ross Proulx / Doublenaut (Portobello Books / March 2016)

Lonely City
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing; design Henry Sene Yee; photograph by Jerome Liebling (Picador USA / March 2016)

Love Like Salt design Nico Taylor image Sarah Gillespie
Love Like Salt by Helen Stevenson; design by Nico Talyor; image by Sarah Gillespie (Virago / March 2016)

lover design Neil Lang
Lover by Anna Raverat; design by Neil Lang (Picador / March 2016)

Lust and Wonder cover design Olga Grlic
Lust & Wonder by Augusten Burroughs; design by Olga Grlic (St. Martin’s Press / March 2016)

Paper Tigers design Alban Fischer
Paper Tigers by Damien Angelica Walters; design by Alban Fischer (Dark House Press / February 2016)

Mademoiselle S design Gabriele Wilson
The Passion of Mademoiselle S. edited by Jean-Yves Berthault; design Gabriele Wilson (Spiegel & Grau / February 2016)

Seeing Red design by Anna Zylicz
Seeing Red by Lina Meruane; design by Anna Zylicz (Deep Vellum / March 2016)

Socialist Optimism design Emma J Hardy
Socialist Optimism by Paul Auerbach; design by Emma J. Hardy (Palgrave / March 2016)

Sudden Death design Rachel Willey
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue; design by Rachel Willey (Riverhead / March 2016)

Trees design David Mann
The Trees by Ali Shaw; design by David Mann (Bloomsbury / March 2016)

Two Family House design Sara Wood
The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman; design by Sara Wood (St. Martin’s Press / March 2016)

Weve Already Gone this Far design Lucy Kim
We’ve Already Gone This Far by Patrick Dacey; design by Lucy Kim (Henry Holt / March 2016)

What is Yours design Helen Yentus
What Is Not Your Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi; design by Helen Yentus (Riverhead / March 2016)

When Everything Feels Like the Movies design Ceara Elliot lettering Martina Flor
When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid; design Ceara Elliot; lettering and illustration Martina Flor (Atom / February 2016)

XX design Sara Wood
XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century by Campbell McGrath; design Sara Wood (Ecco / March 2016)

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