Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

29 OCTOBER, 2012

Stunning Black & White Engravings by Ian Hugo from Anaïs Nin’s Hand-Printed Under a Glass Bell, 1944

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Stunning artwork from a hand-made book that presages modern self-publishing entrepreneurship.

Anaïs Nin may have become best-known and celebrated for her remarkable diaries and letters spanning more than six decades, but she also published a number of short stories and novels. It wasn’t until the publication of the short-story collection Under a Glass Bell (public library) in 1944 that Nin’s work began to garner attention from the literary pantheon, propelled by a favorable review in The New Yorker by Edmund Wilson, whom Nin qualified in her diary as “the highest authority among the critics.”

But the book’s story itself is a fascinating piece of cultural history and a heartening, timely exemplar of everything from self-publishing to woman-led entrepreneurship to the maker movement.

In 1942, when Nin couldn’t find a publisher for the book in an industry bent under the weight of wartime financial pressures, she started her own publishing house, Gremor Press, in a small loft on Macdougal Street in New York. She taught herself typesetting and fell in love with the letterpress. Her husband, banker-turned-artist Hugh Parker Gulier, who went by the artistic pseudonym Ian Hugo, created all the line-on-copper engravings for the book, and Nin herself set the type by hand. She eventually printed 300 copies in the first edition, sold via an innovative subscription model, which sold out in three weeks, and another 100 a second edition.

I was recently fortunate enough to hunt down one of the few surviving original hand-printed copies and have scanned Hugo’s stunning engravings for your viewing pleasure:

The book comes complete with an endearing typo in the endnote, a souvenir of the humanness that brought this handmade book to life:

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19 OCTOBER, 2012

Vintage Indian Matchbook Labels

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A vibrant tale of cultural history and brand power.

Matchbook (public library), from the wonderful Tara Books, collects more than 500 striking Indian matchbox labels gathered by Shahid Datawala over the course of several decades, at once reminiscent of vintage Soviet propaganda in their visual language and of mid-century American travel posters in their vibrant colors, and yet entirely singular and culturally distinctive in overall sensibility. The designs, which advertise everything from guns to violins and inhabit the curious space between culture and commerce, do more than brand the product — with their animated, loud identity, they demand attention as standalone objects of fixation, almost fetishistic in their seductive boldness. At the same time, the avalanche of imitation that the most popular designs sparked — often comic in its complete disregard for and oblivion to modern intellectual property norms — bespeaks a key characteristic of any powerful brand: the hunger for imitation.

The history of the Indian match industry has a fascinating history itself — from its roots in Swedish capital, to the boom of local production in the 1920s that propelled self-made Indian entrepreneurs from the lower castes into newfound independence, to its Golden Age following the Indian liberation from British rule. At once a tool of state economic planning, actively incentivizing local jobs, and a mecca of child labor employing kids as young as six, the story of the matchbox industry parallels the evolution of Indian society in the twentieth century. V. Geetha writes in a short essay contextualizing the images:

More generally, in the Indian context, labels came to circulate as tokens of shared culture and connoted commercial goodwill. … Ultimately, the charm of match labels, even for those that commission them, must be linked to visual pleasure, renewed on an everyday basis. And through these images, the humble matchstick resonates — in a convoluted, barely recognized fashion — with mythic and historical memory, valorized icons and images, an fantasies of consumption.

Matchbook is itself shaped like a matchbox and comes in a beautiful matt-laminated slipcase.

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18 OCTOBER, 2012

Displays of Affection: Iconic French Cartoonist Sempé Explores Relationship Clichés

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Charming illustrated voyeurism into the lives of people falling in and out of love.

“I prefer drawing to talking,” Le Corbusier famously proclaimed. “Drawing is faster and leaves less room for lies.” The best of drawing can reveal deep and tender truths with just a few simple, expressive lines. That’s what Jean-Jacques Sempé, France’s most celebrated cartoonist, does in Displays of Affection (public library) — a wonderful “book of people falling in (and out) of love,” originally published in 1981. Among other delights of the heart, the charming narrative explores two of my favorite things: bikes and love.

Edward Koren writes in the introduction:

The success of a social satirist can be measured by how much enthusiasm for his work the subjects (and objects) of his satire are willing to show. The great popularity in France enjoyed by Sempé attests to the fond way the French have come to view themselves through his eyes and ears, and to rely on his extraordinary sensibility to get a view of themselves. … The people in Sempé’s world are more the denizens of a global petite bourgeoisie, equally identifiable on both hemispheres and on all the inhabited continents. They live in the humdrum shadow of greatness that for them is chronically out of reach. Inspiration, passion, joy, immortality are some of the ideals never achieved by Sempé’s people, who must content themselves with mundane issues of sustenance, security, uncertainty, anxiety, anger, timidity, and self-importance, to name but a few. All this (and many more subtle and sensitive ingredients) is made laughable and sad by Sempé, who mixes his people into situations that are clichés of modern life.

The enchantment of it, of course, is that even in the most centered and confident of us lives a Sempé character who, if let loose, can steer the wheel — or pedal the bicycle, as it were — in disheartening directions. Koren continues:

Displays of Affection has Sempé fixing his voyeuristic eye and eavesdropping ear on that most clichéd of all subjects — relationships. The great ideal of the grand and lasting passion smiles down on the bumbling solitude of his lovers and mates, who fight, scold, daydream, protect themselves with envelopes of self-importance, always ending up in the same routinized lives they started with. And what is amazing to those of us enmeshed in the deadly seriousness of these matters is how Sempé, with Olympian dispassion, makes it all familiar, personal, real, and truly funny.

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16 OCTOBER, 2012

Drawing from the City: Exquisite Indian Folk Art Meets Women’s Empowerment

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One self-taught artist’s journey from poverty to imaginative reinvention.

By now, you know my soft spot for visionary Indian indie publisher Tara Books, who for nearly two decades have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautifully crafted books celebrating Indian folk art traditions. Their latest gem, Drawing from the City (public library) by artist Tejubehan, is both more exquisite and born out of a more moving personal story than just about any book I’ve come across. Its gorgeous black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings, brimming with expressive lines and dots somewhere between Yayoi Kusama and Edward Gorey, tell the partly autobiographical, partly escapist tale of this self-taught artist who came of age as a woman trapped between unimaginable poverty and a wildly imaginative inner world in a patriarchal society.

Tejubehan takes us on a journey from her small village into the big city, where her poor parents move to find work. Three years pass. Teju is now a young woman and she marries a man who sings for a living. With his encouragement, she becomes an artist.

It is like magic. I sit in one place with paper and pen, and it is my hand that starts to move. Lines, dots, more lines, and more dots, and you have a picture. I can bring to life things that I have seen and know, but also things that I imagine. I can even bring the two together.

I have been moving all my life, looking for ways to survive, but this is a new direction. My heart is full.

I see a girl going somewhere on a bicycle, and I draw a whole group of girls, all of them on the way somewhere.

We reach the city! Everything is on the move here, not just the train. People rush past, pushing their way through the streets. Only the tall buildings seem rooted to the spot, along with a few trees that stand guard on the other side.

I don’t mind the rush though. The sun is setting, and I marvel at the lampposts that can turn night into day. Nights in our village are really dark.

Tejubehan at work

At its heart, however, the story is really a feminist story — a vision for women’s liberation in a culture with oppressive gender norms and limiting social expectations. In envisioning the woman of the city — biking, driving, flying — Tejubehan is really envisioning what it might be like to live in a world where to be female means to be free to move and free to just be.

I like cars. I wonder what it’s like to move at such a high speed and to be in control of where you’re going. There are always two women in my cars. One drives and the other looks out of the window.

I want to be both of those women.

But even in the plane, my women are not content to sit still. So I float them down, wondering where they should go next. Should they fly forever like birds? Or should I draw some lines taking them down to the sea?

I rest my pen here for a moment. I have time to decide.

Like many of Tara’s other books, Drawing from the City has been silkscreen-printed and bound by hand on handmade paper. The cover is colored with traditional Indian dyes, emanating an enchanting earthy smell that reminds you what it’s like to hold an analog labor of love in your analog human hands.

Page images courtesy of Tara Books

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