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Category Archives: Review

Book Review: The 3D Type Book

Recently I got another swell, visually resplendent book from the folks at Laurence King Publishing. The 3D Type Book is pretty much what the title says: an exploration of creative typography off the printed page and executed in our own, living world. For this project, London-based designers Agathe Jacquillat and Tomi Vollauschek assembled more than 300 alphabets rendered in neon lights, cut paper, clothing, sticks, stones, garbage, grated cheese and the human body (the alphabet made of skin squashed with clothespins is guaranteed to make you squirm). Most of the examples are pictured in simple, A to Z fashion — whatever is lost in legibility is gained in the sheer ingenuity on display.

Although many pieces in The 3D Type Book are the handiwork of designers working in the commercial arena, several examples push the boundaries into fine art suitable for a museum display. One of my favorite examples is the CMYK Alphabet from London-based Evelin Kasikov. Kasilov’s ethereal letterforms, rotated on top of themselves and beautifully rendered in embroidery, nicely bridge the gab between computer technology and the D.I.Y. aesthetic espoused by Etsy and other crafty communities. Cool as it is, it’s just one sample of many that inspire an “oh, wow” reaction. On the whole, the book is very Euro-centric (a minor complaint) but also a great record of creativity being found in the oddest, most unusual places.

Addendum: Vollauschek has alerted me to 3d-type.com, the book’s official site, where the complete contents can be previewed.

The 3D Type Book is published by Laurence King. Buy at Amazon.com here.

Book Review: America’s Doll House

book_doll1I had just about given up with the idea of reviewing books here until America’s Doll House: The Miniature World of Faith Bradford arrived from Princeton Architectural Press. This was a fascinating little book on a historic doll house that still attracts admirers at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. The first half consists of author William L. Bird’s chronicle of dollhouse enthusiast Faith Bradford and her efforts to find permanent homes for her intricate (and rarely played with) creations. Although the narrative deals plenty with the life and eccentricity of archetypal spinster Bradford, it takes an interesting and more worthwhile detour in detailing the Smithsonian’s growing pains in the ’50s and ’60s. “The Nation’s Attic,” it seemed, had an ambivalent attitude towards Bradford’s popular yet historically suspect flights of fancy.

Turn to the book’s second half and you get to see what the fuss was about: close-up images of the rooms in Bradford’s magnum opus, The Dolls’ House. The four-story, 20 room Dolls’ House is a nostalgic early 20th century manor inhabited by Peter and Rose Doll, ten children, two grandparents, five household staff, and twenty assorted pets. Bradford’s charming handiwork extended beyond the home’s walls, as she also gave each family member a back story and cataloged tiny swatches of curtains, rugs, wallpapers and such in neatly typed notebooks (pages from which are also shown in the book). In our instant age of internet-fueled, out-of-context idiocy, such meticulousness is to be admired.

Buy America’s Doll House: The Miniature World of Faith Bradford at Amazon.com here.

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Book Review: Designing Disney

hench_bookReading John Hench’s Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show reminded me a bit of my trip to Las Vegas last December. Although we usually think of Imagineering in terms of Disney theme parks, the core ideas of the job apply to most anywhere people gather to relax and have fun. In that respect, Vegas must be the biggest example of Imagineering on Earth. While exploring the various casinos, I was very aware of how everything was designed in a way to create a world away from the world, preferably to get patrons plopped down at the slots. While some casinos treat this idea as an afterthought, the immersive themeing of places like New York New York or Paris, Las Vegas (where even the men’s bathrooms have a quaint “Paris in 1900” aura) never failed to impress. It made me wish that everything in my life was Imagineered.

Which brings me to this book! Amongst Disney Imagineers, John Hench had the most durability (having served at Disney for an astonishing 65 years) and was the one whose ambition and scope most resembled Walt Disney’s own. He’s the one responsible for conceptualizing much of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland (original and 1967 remodel), the Enchanted Tiki Room and Main Street U.S.A. Beautiful achievements all, and all the more impressive when one realizes the work encompasses architecture, signage, interior design, costumes and even the floors below guests’ feet. The proof of this is displayed throughout the book in fabulous renderings that called to mind the work of Syd Mead. Check out the costume designs below — wonderful!

The renderings are really what makes this book special. Unfortunately the great imagery is offset with lousy, unprofessional looking fonts. Hench’s text itself (co-authored with Peggy Van Pelt) is rather rudimentary and textbook-like; I would picture the ideal audience for this book as young would-be Imagineers in their teens. Despite those disappointments, there are a lot of great anecdotes in here. I was especially fascinated with how Hench and his fellow Imagineers explored color possibilities for a hotel exterior in Disneyland Paris by factoring in the area’s climate and lack of sunlight at various times of the day. Tiny details like that are something that an ordinary theme park guest would never consider, but added together they complete the immersive experience. All in a day’s work for Mr. Hench.

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Related: Justin Jorgensen’s memories of working with Hench.

Book Review: On Tender Hooks

book_samaras1Artist Isabel Samaras is one sick puppy. At least that’s the impression I got while looking through the paintings collected in On Tender Hooks: The Art of Isabel Samaras. Back in the ’90s, Samaras first made a name for herself by adorning cast-off metal trays with provocative images of classic TV characters in the style of old master painters. Picture Mary Ann and Ginger from Gilligan’s Island sharing a tender moment of Sapphic love, the cast of I Dream of Jeannie at Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, or Batman‘s Robin posed like a flirty Caravaggio boy. These pieces would seem silly if they weren’t rendered with such obvious affection for the characters.

Interesting as her earlier stuff is, Samaras’ work has gotten even better in recent years. Her painting technique has improved exponentially, giving the work that much more depth. Although she still handles pop culture subjects (a disturbing Marsha Brady with Maori tattoos, for example), more timeless themes such as fairy tales give the newer works a lot more resonance. They’re lush, dark and unsettling, reminding me a bit of Mark Ryden‘s art. Supplemented with essays and interviews, this book is a beautifully designed showcase for Samaras’ abundant talents. If I could only get that image of Spock’s family jewels out of my head.

On Tender Hooks is published by Chronicle. Buy at Amazon here. Although I have a few spreads pictured below, you really have to visit Samaras’ official site to fully appreciate this stuff (she does a swell weblog, too).

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Book Review: The Handy Book of Artistic Printing

Handy Book Of Artistic PrintingDoug Clouse and Angela Voulangas’ book The Handy Book of Artistic Printing: A Collection of Letterpress Examples with Specimens of Type, Ornament, Corner Fills, Borders, Twisters, Wrinklers, and other Freaks of Fancy is a long-titled exploration of a relatively short-lived trend in graphic design history. This beautifully designed volume covers a roughly two decade-long design fad from the late 19th-century that has previously been given scant attention by historians. With the emergence of letterpress and other new methods in the 1870s and ’80s, printers of the era showed off their wares and attracted clients in the form of promotional specimens. These particular specimens came emblazoned with the typically Victorian visual traits of excess ornamentation, strange color combinations, eclectic typefaces, and randomly jumbled layouts. Artistic Printing delves into every possible aspect of this phenomenon — how it came to be, a representative look at sixty different printers’ samples, and the movement’s ignoble fall in the juggernaut of 20th century modernist dogma.

This was such a cool book to page through, and oddly comforting in a way. Its centerpiece is the sixty printer’s specimens, each generally getting its own page with a nifty paragraph or two of background info on the opposite page. The specimens cover a gamut from the best of their kind to the run-of-the-mill and tacky. Many have a masturbatory “look at what I can do” bravado (in graphic design, some things never change), but the finest examples leave me breathless as to the care and craftsmanship good letter press printing requires. Sure, they may be as subtle as a lady’s hat festooned with a dead bird, but even the worst samples have a giddy exuberance. This book is the kind of effort that has inspiration on every page, right down to the weird and wonderful 1800s fonts reprinted in the back. One small complaint: in contrast to the lively and informative specimen descriptions, the text in the opening and closing chapters is very dryly written and academic (interesting and comprehensive, but still dry).

The odd thing about this particular trend is that it never fully disappeared. Printers’ ornaments of the era fell into the public domain, eventually getting re-published by the likes of Dover for new generations of designers to explore. As noted in Artistic Printing’s concluding chapter, this style is no more immune from other graphic styles for revival, preferably with a postmodern twist. For a good example, check out the cover story layout in the paper edition of the August 2009 Wired magazine — retro ornamentation everywhere!

The Handy Book of Artistic Printing comes from Princeton Architectural Press. Buy at Amazon.com here.

Handy Book Of Artistic Printing

Handy Book Of Artistic Printing

Handy Book Of Artistic Printing

Handy Book Of Artistic Printing

Book Review: Seymour

Seymour Chwast - CoverSurely you must know the name of Seymour Chwast, right? As the co-founder of legendary graphic design studio Push Pin, he was a prime mover in deflating the pomposity of modernism and ushering in the freer, more whimsical visual styles that defined the ’60s and ’70s. On a personal note, he was also one of the first artists whose work I noticed in books such as American Illustration 1982-83. One look at Chwast’s charming yet sophisticated imagery made me say “I want to do that” (side note: I’m still attempting to do that). Several decades of Chwast’s art, both commercial and personal, have been assembled in a handsome new book titled Seymour: The Obsessive Images Of Seymour Chwast.

This is one cool book. Most of its 262 pages are just what the title says: images, one to a page or spread, with annotations confined to the back few pages. Everything is grouped thematically in topics such as war, food, fashion and sex. There’s also the occasional oddball subject, such as a series of Mexican Wrestler pieces Chwast did in 2002. Although the art dates from as early as the 1960s and encompasses a wide variety of media (dig the cut sheet metal plates of food), certain things have remained constant in his work. A sense of whimsy is first and foremost. The re-purposing of various early 20th century design styles is also ever-present. Chwast also seems to have a constant fascination with exploring humankind’s frailties in a lighthearted way. The uselessness of war and the attraction of consumption are themes that come up over and over again in his work. The biggest impression I get here is that the man is a non-stop art machine. The introductory essay by famed Push Pin designer (and Mrs. Chwast) Paula Scher confirms it. I wonder if he ever has times when he turns the creativity switch “off.”

Seymour: The Obsessive Images Of Seymour Chwast is published by Chronicle. Buy at Amazon.com here.

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