Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

02 DECEMBER, 2009

Alphabet Books Rethought


Contortionists, negative space, and what Claymation has to do with the Kama Sutra.

We love books. And we love nontraditional takes on the traditional. Recently, we’ve looked at hypertextual books, ambitious carved-out reproductions of history books and Pictorial Webster’s. Today, we look at three inspired examples of innovation on the most rudimentary gateway to language and literature: The alphabet book.


In 2006, we had the pleasure of meeting the phenomenal Pilobolus dance company, an incredible group of choreographers and dancer-athletes who produce some of the best original work in modern dance today. So imagine our delight when we discovered photographer John Kane‘s The Human Alphabet — an ambitious and striking alphabet book, using the bodies of Pilobolus dancers to construct each of the letters through ingenious grips, bends and twists of the human form.

With its superb photography, vibrant colors and jaw-dropping acrobatic contortionism, The Human Alphabet is bound to astonish. If language had a Kama Sutra, this would be it.


Curiosity is the fundamental fuel of learning. Mix that with children’s boundless imagination, and you’ve got a powerful recipe for inspiration-education. That’s exactly what illustrator Laura Vaccaro Seeger does in The Hidden Alphabet — a visual gem of a book, where a black mat frames an object on each page, then peels away to reveal its starting letter.

Risking to live up to a designer cliche, we do love our negative space. And The Hidden Alphabet plays with it brilliantly — when the black mat is lifted, each object becomes a significant building block of the letter’s negative space, with a clever perspective shift from foreground to background that plays on the popular figure-ground optical illusions.

Besides the innovative visual format reinterpreting the traditional approach of matching each letter with a word, Seeger’s choice of the words themselves — “inkblot,” “partridge,” “quotation mark,” “yolk” — is equally refreshing and adds a whole new layer of sophistication to the artwork.


We’re suckers for a good pop-up book, but Marion Bataille‘s ABC3D takes it to a whole new level.

Slick, stylish and designerly, it’s hard to capture its tactile, interactive magic in static words — you have to have it in your hands to truly appreciate it.

The Washington Post hit the nail on the head:

Does for paper what Claymation did for mud. It’s a three-dimensional, interactive, cinematic treat for the littlest fingers right up to the oldest eye []

A perfectly architectured A sets the pace from the very first page.

A neat pop-up with the i and j sharing the same dot.

As the spread is opened, the two vortices in the S rotate.

And just when you think ABC3D couldn’t possibly delight and surprise more, it does: We’ve seen a trailer for an album, a trailer for a typeface, but a trailer for a book?

Bonus points for the track (which reminds us of Squirrel Nut Zippers, our favorite quirk-swing band) — and even more bonus points for offering it as a free download on the book’s equally well-designed website.

From the lenticular cover, which changes by the angle at which you hold it, to the metamorphic X, which becomes a Y as you flick your hand, ABC3D is an absolute treat for kids, industrial design junkies and the typeface geeks alike.


UPDATE: We’ve just been alerted (Thanks, Coudal!) to an absolute gem we had no choice but to include here.

Remember The Indie Rock Coloring Book? Now, from the wonderful Paste Magazine, comes An Indie Rock Alphabet Book — an equally wonderful delight for hipster parents and their hipster-to-be kids.

From Animal Collective to The Zombies, by way of Joy Division, Tom Waits and ?uestlove, the book is written by Paste editors Kate Kiefer and Rachael Maddux, and brilliantly illustrated by so-indie-he’s-off-the-Google-radar artist owen the owen.

An Indie Rock Alphabet Book is a get-‘em-while-they’re-young necessary tool for engineering tomorrow’s musicologists. After all, the first step to that Rolling Stone internship application is spelling your name correctly. And, really, who wants to learn with “cat” when you can have “Cat Power”?

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26 NOVEMBER, 2009

Interview with Illustrator Christina Tsevis


What Coldplay, Oscar Wilde and Plato have in common and why the commodification of art may be a good thing.

Today, we’re picking the brains of Athens-based visual artist Christina Tsevis, a.k.a. crosti, whose illustartion is among the most whimsical we’ve seen in years, and whose scope of inspiration ranges from German literature to Greek philosophy to The Beatles, embodying the very cross-pollination of ideas and disciplines that we so try to foster here at Brain Pickings.


Hey Christina, good to have you. Tell us a bit about your background and your brand of creative curiosity.

Thanks so much for having me.

I’m a 26-year-old illustrator/visual designer from Athens, Greece, working as a freelancer.

I guess you could say I was the type of kid who sketched on everything. I was lucky because my brother, who had a big influence on me, left Greece to study graphic design in Italy when I was only 8 years old, and I inherited design for life. I never really had to wonder what I was going to do with my life — I always knew it would be something in arts.

What inspires me? People I love. Music. Books. Movies. Daisies. Bugs. The 60’s. Traveling. Memories. Dreams. My family. My dogs. Everything! Anything could trigger my interest and imagination.

oh, take me back to the start

Coldplay - The Scientist

My favorite artists range from William Kentridge to Radiohead, from Woody Allen to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.


Your illustrations embody a curious duality of vibrancy and melancholy, innocence and burden. What inspires this interplay?

Life! It’s never black or white, is it? It has its ups and downs and it’s that perfect balance we look for, to be complete. Our dreams are our guidelines in life, but then again we must always be in touch with reality.

There’s no way to prevent bad things from happening to you, no way not to get your heart broken. There is a way to make sure it’s worth it though. It’s so much better to live life to the fullest, than to be cautious all the time.

To rephrase Oscar Wilde, “you might fall down in the gutter, but when you rise, you’ll be floating among the stars.”


We’re particularly taken with your series based on Kafka’s 1915 novella, “The Metamorphosis.” It’s a story that dabbles in the darkness of death, but is really about fantasy and light and the whimsy of life – a relationship that seems to define much of your work as well. Tell us about the inspiration for the series and what you hoped to capture in the illustrations.

This series was made in 2006 as part of my thesis.

To me, Kafka is a genius. His work can always be elucidated on several different levels and its philosophy can apply to many aspects of life.

pages 03-04

His writing reminds me of Plato’s — the moment you think you completely understand, you realize you have much more to explore.

Everyone who has heard of The Metamorphosis knows that it describes a man (Gregor Samsa) who woke up to find he was transformed into a bug-but I quickly gave up the idea of trying to depict that.

pages 13-14

Having read the book in its written language — German — I began to concern myself with how much of the book is lost in translation.

In reality, Kafka uses a more vague word to describe what the main character was turned into and I hated the idea of contributing to that “misunderstanding” by drawing weird bugs.

pages 19-20

So I decided to try to portray this metamorphosis in a semi-scenographic way, defining the character through his absence and setting forth the distortion of Gregor’s personal space — his room, which was as much a shelter as it ended up to be a prison.


Most of your characters are kids, your color choices are bold and vibrant, and your graphic style has a certain lightness reminiscent of children’s books. Why this fascination with childhood?

I guess it’s because I haven’t come to terms with the fact that I’m a grown-up (ha-ha!)

Jokes aside, I envy children and their emotional immediacy. The tiniest of things can provoke a massive explosion of sensitivity that we learn to give up very early on in life.

That is such a shame and I often find myself wishing I could experience happiness and sadness to that extend. Other than that, some creators might at first seem to be addressing children, but in reality their target audience is a lot wider than that.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is one of those examples, or even Hans Christian Andersen’s books. Sometimes it seems this is the easiest gateway to pass on some thoughts and ideas that are easily mistaken as naive or childish. This is another reason why my work seems to be about children.


The red-haired girl character in your more recent work has her eyes closed in almost all of the illustrations. Is there a symbolism behind this?

That’s Chloe. She made her first “appearance” in June 2009.

This entire series of illustrations isn’t commissioned and was created out of my need to express things that I couldn’t or didn’t want to put in words.

John Lennon wrote, “Living is easy with eyes closed” for Strawberry Fields Forever and I guess that’s a big part of why Chloe always has her eyes closed — she doesn’t want to face reality and prefers to live in her own dream world where things are still the way she remembers them to be.

Waiting for Spring to Arrive

In some of my work we see this “dream-world” of hers depicted all around her; but sometimes, as much as she wishes it all away, she can’t escape reality.

mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix

I have had people ask me if Chloe is ever going to open her eyes and I really have no idea what to tell them. They’re going to have to ask her themselves!


Digital platforms are making it increasingly easy for artists to get their work out there. And we’re beginning to see massive amounts of talent, often from “amateurs.” But this golden age for creativity is also making art a bit of a commodity, making it harder to craft a distinct, memorable creative voice as an artist. How do you feel about the future of art in this era of creative commodification?

I think only good things can come out of this. Art should be a commodity! Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in an even more artistic world, full of new talents?

reach out...i wonder where you are now

Personally, I find education extremely important in any field. However, even though imagination and feeling can be generated when studying, they can in no way be taught. And this is why, in my opinion, some amateurs can aim towards what some professionals can’t.

I’ve always felt the only thing that can make your work stand out is how successful you are in the art of communicating your feelings through what you do. Regardless if it’s illustration, theatre or music, people will only relate to what you do if you’re honest, consistent and responsible.

Are there any exceptions? Of course. But I don’t believe they stand a chance in time.

Explore more of Christina’s work and find yourself swept up in a wonderful world of whimsy and visual philosophy.

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20 NOVEMBER, 2009

Tim Burton’s MoMA Retrospective


What rotten eyeballs have to do with creative storytelling and the visual heritage of our era.

Tim Burton is one of the great creative storytellers of our day, purveying delightful darkness since the 80’s. This Sunday, the Museum of Modern Art open a major retrospective of his work, from Beetlejuice to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by way of the fascinating photos, props, puppets and hand-drawings Burton has done over the course of the past two decades.

And it comes as no surprise that Burton himself would direct this brilliant spot promoting the exhibition — including a beautiful animated reconstruction of the MoMA logo.

Part of what makes Burton so extraordinary is that he is a true contemporary Renaissance man — director, producer, fiction writer, illustrator, photographer and concept artist. In an era of micro-niche specialization and outsourcing of everything, it’s refreshing to see that the singularity of artistic vision and creative control is still alive.

Taking inspiration from sources in pop culture, Burton has reinvented Hollywood genre filmmaking as a spiritual experience, influencing a generation of young artists working in film, video, and graphics.

The exhibition spans an enormous breadth of Burton’s work, from his earliest non-professional films to his big blockbusters to never-before-seen pieces and unrealized projects.

If you’re in the NYC area, this exhibition is a must-see. And, if not, you can still experience it vicariously through this excellent sneak-peek slideshow.

via New York Magazine

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