Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

04 APRIL, 2012

Edward Gorey’s Donald Illustrations

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A boy, a monster, and a loving mid-century collaboration.

In September of 1968, author and editor Peter F. Neumeyer embarked upon a thirteen-month collaboration with the inimitable Edward Gorey — mid-century illustrator extraordinaire, grim alphabetician, irony connoisseur, tongue-in-cheek pornographer. Their remarkable illustrated correspondence tackled topics as diverse ad metaphysics and pancake recipes, but focused primarily on the three books at the heart of their collaboration. The third book, Why We Have Day and Night, was released last year and was among the year’s best children’s books. The first two are now out as a boxed set for the first time in The Donald Boxed Set: Donald and the . . . & Donald Has a Difficulty — a lovely duo of smyth-sewn casebound books in a beautiful slip-case, brimming with Gorey’s signature black-and-white illustrations of eccentric characters and strange creatures.

The Donald series was supposed to go on forever. Neumeyer reminisces:

Gorey writing me at one point, ‘I have just purchased lots of pristine new file folders. They await such things as… revised Donalds, new Donalds, new Lionels [another series], what else?’ Another time, he wrote that ‘[M]y mind’s eye sees a shelf of Neumeyer/Gorey works. Will Harvard have a room devoted to our memorabilia? It had better.’

But the perpetual Donald never quite manifested. Neumeyer writes wistfully:

The unending series never came to be, though shortly before his death, Ted once again returned to Donald. How far he got, only perusal of his vast legacy of papers would show.

Ted slipped away, a good, kind man of very specific genius. As I roam my bookshelves today, I can reconstruct some of the enthusiasms of that most generous of friends — a few of the many books he insisted on sending me so we could talk about them: Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave and The Rock Pool; four volumes of Haiku, translated b R. H. Blyth; L. H. Myers’s The Near and the Far; Raymond Queneau’s The Blue Flowers and Exercises in Style; Flann O’Brien’s The Best of Myles; Rayner Heppenstall’s The Greater Infortune; The Journal of Jules Renard (edited and translated by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget); and a beautiful giant Abrams book on Pisanello — and many, many more.

Heaven would be to resume those conversations.

More than a treat for young readers, The Donald Boxed Set is an exquisite piece of Gorey memorabilia and a delightful embodiment a warm, inspired collaboration, the whimsical layers of which unfold in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer — one of the 11 best art and design books of 2011.

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved.

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03 APRIL, 2012

Abstract City: Christoph Niemann’s Visual Essays

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What a transatlantic red eye flight has to do with biodiversity and charting the love of coffee.

Since 2008, Christoph NiemannLEGO-lover, imagination instigator, metaphorical chicken-chaser — has been delighting us with his visual blog for The New York Times, in which he has explored everything from his love-hate relationship with coffee to the fall of the Berlin Wall to his obsession with maps to the familiar drudgery of red-eye flights. Abstract City gathers sixteen of his visual essays, infused with his signature blend of humor, thoughtfulness, and exquisite conceptual freshness. An additional chapter on his creative process, echoing his excellent Creative Mornings talk on the same subject, presents the ultimate cherry on top.

'Our building in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn had no buzzer, and I would have to run downstairs to let friends in, accept deliveries, etc. After some training — and thanks to my six four height — I perfected a maneuver I like to refer to as 'the Northside Eagle': Place your left foot in the middle of the vestibule, lower your upper body to precisely 90 degrees until you reach the front door, while sticking out your right foot to keep the vestibule door from closing shut.'

'One of the most frustrating things in New York is that everything is always much more expensive than (a) you think and (b) what the price tag says. One way to come up with a reliable budget is to use the following Price-vs.-What-You-Actually-End-Up-Paying-Ratios.

Digital camera: Add 30 percent. (Because the particular model you picked is out of stock, and the one that’s left is more expensive. Plus sales tax.)

Burger and beer: Add 60 percent. (Tax and tip for you and for that friend from Europe who left early and 'didn’t know' that you have to pay tax and tip.)

Phone plans: Add 130 percent. (To cover F.C.C., U.S.F., T.R.S., A.B.C., C.I.A. and LOL.)'

'I must have been 5 when I first discovered the taste of coffee, when I was accidentally given a scoop of coffee ice cream. I was inconsolable: how could grown-ups ruin something as wonderful as ice cream with something as disgusting as coffee?

A few years later I was similarly devastated when my parents announced that for our big summer vacation we would go . . . hiking.'

'Here’s a chart that shows my coffee bias over the years.

For good measure I have added my bagel preferences over the same period. (1) Drip coffee, (2) Starbucks, (3) blueberry bagels, (4) sesame bagels, (5) poppy-seed bagels, (6) everything bagels

Please don’t hold my brief affair with blueberry bagels against me. I cured myself of this aberration.'

'On the evening of November 9, 1989, I was watching TV. The Berlin Wall was coming down, and I was flabbergasted.'

'From my 18-year-old perspective, the wall had always been there, and I had no reason to doubt that it would remain there forever. The news of the wall coming down was like somebody telling me that the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates had reversed course overnight, and that from now on you could stroll from Hamburg to Boston.'

'While I try to get in touch with history through museums, books and TV, 20 years ago history was actually being made, just a few blocks east in the church communities of the Prenzlauer Berg district. People risked losing their jobs, ruining their children’s prospects and even being taken to one of the notorious Stasi prisons, yet they still worked in opposition groups for years. Like similar groups in Leipzig, they began organizing open demonstrations in the fall of 1989. Within weeks, these grew from a few dozen brave men and women to hundreds of thousands across the country, ultimately leading to the collapse of the socialist regime.'

Germany, with a history so full of iron-fisted terror, war and wanton violence, had finally experienced a revolution without a single bullet being fired.

'Getting a good night’s sleep is actually a lot more complicated than one would think.'

'To describe different phenomena, physicists use various units.

PASCALS, for example, measure the pressure applied to a certain area.

COULOMBS measure electric charge (that can occur if said area is a synthetic carpet)

DECIBELS measure the intensity of the trouble the physicist gets into because he didn't take off his shoes first.'

Entertaining and enlightening, Abstract City is an exquisite feat of visual storytelling, at once endlessly refreshing and endlessly familiar in the universality of the human condition at the heart of Niemann’s illustrations.

BONUS: If you’re in New York this month, I’m moderating an AIGA talk with Christoph on April 18, exploring the evolution of illustration in the Information Age — join us!

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27 MARCH, 2012

Little 1: Paul Rand’s Sweet Vintage Children’s Book About Numbers, Soulmates, and Belonging

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A mid-century love story about the loneliest number, its quest for belonging, and its eternal soulmate.

In the late 1950s, legendary graphic designer Paul Rand and his then-wife Ann set out to write and illustrate a series of children’s books, beginning with Sparkle and Spin in 1957. The second book in the series, Little 1, was published in 1961 and enlisted the same playful dance of wordplay and bold, vibrant, minimalist images in introducing the young reader to the numbers from 1 to 10 through a heart-warming story about friendship and belonging.

The deceptively simple illustrations juxtaposed with seemingly basic concepts — like, for instance, the concept of “how many,” the idea of sets that we take for granted but that is, in fact, a triumph of human cognition and a cognitive challenge for the young brain — parallel Umberto Eco’s infatuation with semiotics in serving a bigger mission of exploring the symbolic relationship between text and image.

Some three decades later, in a 1993 interview, Steve Jobs, who worked with Rand on the design of the NeXT logo, captured a defining quality of Rand’s character that seems to permeate his children’s books, one that lived beneath his public persona as a professional curmudgeon:

He’s a very deep, thoughtful person who’s tried to express in every part of his life what his principles are. And you don’t meet so many people like that today.

Little 1 was followed by the third and final book in the series, Listen! Listen!, in 1970. It is long out of print and currently nearly impossible to find. (Do you have a copy? I’d love to hear from you.)

For more seminal vintage children’s book illustration, see the fantastic Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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