Alphabet Books Rethought
Contortionists, negative space, and what Claymation has to do with the Kama Sutra.
By Maria Popova
I love books. And I love nontraditional takes on the traditional. Recently, I’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.
1. THE HUMAN ALPHABET
In 2006, I 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 my delight when I 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.
2. THE HIDDEN ALPHABET
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 design cliche, I do love 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.
I have a soft spot 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 […]
Bonus points for the track (which reminds us of Squirrel Nut Zippers, my 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: I’ve just been alerted (thanks, Coudal) to an absolute gem I had no choice but to include here.
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”?
Published December 2, 2009