Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

20 FEBRUARY, 2014

Beloved Children’s Book Author and Illustrator Leo Lionni on Creativity and the Secret of Great Storytelling

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“What we create … we fill in with our own thoughts and feelings.”

In 1959, beloved children’s book author and illustrator Leo Lionni created a lovely little book for his grandkids, Pippo and Annie. Little Blue and Little Yellow, a minimalist and brilliant allegorical primer on color theory and graphic design basics, went on to inspire generations of children, and the process of creating it elated and energized Lionni so much that it catapulted him into a lifelong career of award-winning visual storytelling aimed at children, but bearing timeless and ageless resonance for all.

In Artist to Artist: 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children About Their Art (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave use Eric Carle’s, Maurice Sendak’s, and other icons’ advice to children on being an artistAnnie Lionni recounts her grandfather’s approach to the creative process and his convictions about where ideas come from:

Leo Lionni

The most frequent question that children asked my grandfather Leo was, “How do you get your ideas?” He would usually start with a simple idea. Sometimes the idea would be a beginning to a story, sometimes an ending, other times it might be the main character, or the situation. But however it would start, he would work hard to create a story from that idea. He thought of it as a game of chess, moving the pieces around to create the best story possible. And so, to the question “How do you get your ideas?” he would give a simple answer — “Hard work.”

But why did Leo make books at all? Why draw, or paint, or make sculptures out of wood, glass or metal? He did all of those things and more. He always said that he had “an irresistible urge to make things.” If for some reason he couldn’t make art, he claimed that he’d make bricks or boxes or anything else that he could make with his hands.

From 'Little Blue and Little Yellow'

Above all, however, Lionni’s magic came from his full immersion in the stories, his complete identification with his characters: Annie writes:

Leo would quote a book that he read years ago — “When a painter paints a tree, he becomes a tree.” What we create, he believed, we fill in with our own thoughts and feelings. That’s why even the inanimate things in his books have human qualities — the walls, plants and stones might be humorous or stern or anything else that people can be.

But when Leo said he became a tree, he also thought that the tree became him. “Of course, I am Frederick,” he said, referring to one of my favorite characters, Frederick the Mouse. And he was Swimmy when he became the eye of the giant fish. All of his characters were part of his own self, and he thought that was probably true for every children’s book author.

Artist to Artist is absolutely wonderful from cover to cover, doubly so for the fact that all proceeds from the book benefit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

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18 FEBRUARY, 2014

Gorgeous Vintage Posters from the Golden Age of Skiing

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A rare marriage of sports and fashion through mid-century graphic design.

As a devotee of winter sports, both as a lifelong practitioner and an Olympic spectator, and lover of vintage graphic design, especially mid-century travel posters, I was delighted to chance upon The Art of Skiing: Vintage Posters from the Golden Age of Winter Sport (public library) — a remarkable collection of 800 vintage posters and paintings from the first half of the twentieth century when skiing, a sport that immigrant Scandinavian gold miners had introduced to America during the Gold Rush a century earlier, first took the world by blizzard as a fashionable modern sport. Curated by vintage ephemera enthusiast Jenny de Gex, these gorgeous and graphically striking posters were obsessively and lovingly amassed over a lifetime by Mason Beekley, owner of the world’s largest private collection of ski art. They are currently housed at the Mammoth Ski Museum in — surprisingly — California.

For a wholly different application of a similar vintage aesthetic, pair The Art of Skiing with these lovely vintage posters for libraries and reading.

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17 FEBRUARY, 2014

Legendary Lands: Umberto Eco on the Greatest Maps of Imaginary Places and Why They Appeal to Us

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“Often the object of a desire, when desire is transformed into hope, becomes more real than reality itself.”

Celebrated Italian novelist, philosopher, essayist, literary critic, and list-lover Umberto Eco has had a long fascination with the symbolic and the metaphorical, extending all the way back to his vintage semiotic children’s books. Half a century later, he revisits the mesmerism of the metaphorical and the symbolic in The Book of Legendary Lands (public library) — an illustrated voyage into history’s greatest imaginary places, with all their fanciful inhabitants and odd customs, on scales as large as the mythic continent Atlantis and as small as the fictional location of Sherlock Holmes’s apartment. A dynamic tour guide for the human imagination, Eco sets out to illuminate the central mystery of why such utopias and dystopias appeal to us so powerfully and enduringly, what they reveal about our relationship with reality, and how they bespeak the quintessential human yearning to make sense of the world and find our place in it — after all, maps have always been one of our greatest sensemaking mechanisms for life, which we’ve applied to everything from the cosmos to time to emotional memory.

Eco writes in the introduction:

Legendary lands and places are of various kinds and have only one characteristic in common: whether they depend on ancient legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time or whether they are an effect of a modern invention, they have created flows of belief.

The reality of these illusions is the subject of this book.

Saint-Sever World Map, from the 'Saint-Sever Beatus' (1086), Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France

T and O map, Bartholomaeus Angelicus, 'Le livre des propriétés des choses' (1392)

Tobias Swinden, 'En Enquiry into the Nature and Place of Hell' (1714), London, Taylor

Section of the 'Tabula Peutingeriana' (12th-century copy)

Map of Palmanova, from Franz Hogenberg and Georg Braun, 'Civitates orbis terrarum' (1572–1616), Nuremberg

Eco considers the allure of utopias as a tangible manifesto for the possible:

Often the object of a desire, when desire is transformed into hope, becomes more real than reality itself. Out of a hope in a possible future, many people are prepared to make enormous sacrifices, and maybe even die, led on by prophets, visionaries, charismatic preachers, and spellbinders who fire the minds of their followers with the vision of a future heaven on Earth (or elsewhere).

Anonymous, 'Jain Cosmological Map' (c. 1890), gouache on canvas, Library of Congress

'Ulysses' Journey Was Far from Home' | M.O. MacCarthy, 'Carte du monde d'Homère' (1849), New York Public Library

Map of the world according to Hartmann Schedel, in 'Liber chronicarum' (Nuremberg Chronicle), Nuremberg (1493)

Woodcut map of the island of Utopia on frontispiece of the 1st edition of Thomas More's 'Utopia' (1516), British Library

There is, however, an inevitable dark side to utopias, whose very presupposition of perfect happiness can itself become a burdensome form of oppression. Eco writes:

We would not always want to live in those societies recommended to us by utopias, because they often resemble dictatorships that impose happiness on their citizens at the cost of their freedom. For example, [Thomas] More’s Utopia preaches freedom of speech and thought as well as religious tolerance, but limits them to believers and excludes atheists, who are barred from public office, while it warns that “if someone takes the license to wander far from his own district and is caught without the pass issued by the supreme magistrate … he is severely punished; if he dares to do so a second time, he is condemned to slavery.” Moreover, utopias have the quality, as literary works, of being somewhat repetitive, because in wishing for a perfect society, we always end up by making a copy of the same model.

Illustration for Jules Verne's 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869-1870)

Abraham Ortelius, 'Map of Iceland' (16th century)

Above all, however, Eco sees in the imaginary a counterintuitive assurance of reality — fictional narratives, in a strange way, is the only place where we can become unmoored from our existential discomfort with uncertainty, for in fiction everything is precisely and unambiguously as it was intended:

The possible world of narrative is the only universe in which we can be absolutely certain about something, and it gives us a very strong sense of truth. The credulous believe that El Dorado and Lemuria exist or existed somewhere or other, and skeptics are convinced that they never existed, but we all know that it is undeniably certain that Superman is Clark Kent and that Dr. Watson was never Nero Wolfe’s right-hand man, while it is equally certain that Anna Karenina died under a train and that she never married Prince Charming.

The Book of Legendary Lands is magnificent in its entirety. Complement it with Codex Seraphinianus, history’s most beautiful encyclopedia of imaginary things, and Where You Are, a wonderful case study in cartography as wayfinding for the soul.

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