Design Casebook: Lumiere Press

by Michael Torosian

Parenthesis, The Journal of the Fine Press Book Association, Autumn 2009

I think it is fair to say that fine press books, like a great many other things that are a convergence of the cerebral and the concrete, follow a definable trajectory of creation; that is, conception, formulation, and execution.

In the case of books this means first coming up with a literary and illustrative idea, finding a design statement that gives form to the sensibility of the content, and finally plunging into the craft and labour of setting the type, printing the sheets, and binding it all together.

I'm of the school of thought that believes the hardest part of the project is whatever I'm working on at the moment. Having said that, designing poses particular challenges. Design is the book's very presence, its bookmanship syntax, and if my experience is any proof, the journey from A to Z can be a dizzying ellipse with intersections at inspiration and incapacitation.

The project that took me on that tour most recently is Paul Caponigro: On Prior Lane: A Firefly's Light, a book devoted to the work of the American photographer Paul Caponigro. As I look back, I'm amazed to discover how the design resolved itself - a circuitous route in search of the inevitable.

In the summer of 2006 I visited Caponigro at his home in Maine where I spent a couple of days interviewing him and studying his work. Even at such an early stage in a project, I can't help but start thinking about the design. Ideas will pop into my head, and although I respect those initial flashes of inspiration, I always remind myself to complete the manuscript, study the pictures, and let the material dictate what the book needs. Nevertheless, looking at his mounted and signed prints, I became fixated on Caponigro's signature and its striking “drawn” quality. Later, I grabbed a pencil and the closest thing at hand - a press sheet from a previous book - and scribbled out a sketch of a title page employing the signature.

After months of transcribing and editing I'd shaped a narrative propelling Caponigro from childhood to artistic maturity, and now it was time to begin the design. Like E.M. Forster, who said about writing, “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” I design to find out what the book is going to look like. Though I had some sketches and a sense of direction, I couldn't possibly have described the book to anyone.

In my shop, design is a hands-on process with numerous trial pages and prototype bindings. The dimensions of one of the dummies I fabricated harmonized with the proportions of the vertical images - plus I liked its feel in my hands - so I was set with that. I wanted the typographic treatment to animate the question-and-answer format of the text so I tried out a rag-right, asymmetrical design with a calligraphic face. I knew from experience that the slight fracturing of the text block by the blank lines between the questions and responses could be ameliorated by anchoring the page between the running heads and folios. What followed were weeks of casting type and pulling proofs, generating an unconscionable number of variations, and ultimately opting for full justification to get the density I wanted. The small cap running heads and old style figures were bracketed with hyphens and indented from the text block by one “thin” space to add syncopation.

As far as I'm concerned, the DNA of a book is the typeface, and its selection is so critical it can't be left to analysis - it requires a deeply intuitive sense of “rightness.” I had recently purchased a set of Linotype mats for W.A. Dwiggins' Eldorado, and their acquisition seemed serendipitous. Caponigro's work is all landscapes and still life studies, and the shape of the Eldorado letterforms had the right flow and organic touch. Eldorado proved problematic, however. The italic was cut large and because the questions were set in italic they dominated the pages. I also felt that the set width was too tight and fought with the measure of the lines.

Fortunately, I had the matrices for Dwiggins' Falcon. Falcon possesses Eldorado's nucleic components (to preserve the DNA analogy) but the italic was beautifully proportioned and the set width perfect.

As I pounded out the type on my 1959 C4 Intertype, I thought about the materials, cover, and title page. I was leaning towards a binding allied to the natural world and to that end I procured some reedy, fibrous Japanese papers and made prototypes. Some of it looked nice; all of it looked generic.

By this time I had become wedded to the use of Caponigro's signature, which I had scanned. In its enlarged, vector-rendered state, it took on a new sculptural quality, an attribute I liked but didn't fully appreciate at that moment. I placed it in the title page as the cornice of the structure, buttressing it with lines of small caps - but something was missing.

When I started working at book design, almost thirty years ago, I found the task of laying out the title page imponderable - the sheer number of variables immobilized me.

One day, while studying a blank sheet of paper, trying to will a title page into being, I suddenly realized that I had the tools to make it all comprehensible. I'd established myself as an art photographer and I realized that assembling elements in the rectangular space of the page was essentially no different than arranging elements on the rectangular space of the ground glass of the camera. Everything I'd learned about balance, counterpoint, negative space, asymmetry, interval, juxtaposition, and so on, was applicable. It was an important lesson on the inescapable interconnectedness of everything.

One of the things that had initially comforted me about book design was the vast number of precedents. Since books have been around for so long, I surmised, every design problem had been solved. Therefore, if backed into a corner, I had only to look at enough books to find a solution. The truth is, such archival studies will lead only to structural remedies; they will not help in finding the “voice” of the book.

This revelation occurred one day when I wandered into a bookstore looking for something on typography in the hope of inspiration and guidance. I left with a book on the work of the artist Alexander Calder, which was exactly what I needed. It was a signal moment. I saw beyond the logic of interconnectedness to the fertility of cross-pollination. To read about W.A. Dwiggins, Jan Tschichold, and Bruce Rogers is an education. To add a knowledge of Gioachino Rossini, Adolph Loos, John Ford, Mark Twain, August Bartholdi, and Man Ray is to embrace the colours and sounds of a vital world and an aesthetic heritage that you can invest back into your work.

I found myself listening to Django Reinhardt over and over. I was fascinated with the way he introduced a motif, worked it over and then got out before he'd exhausted the possibilities. His music was the embodiment of Balanchine's exhortation to choreographers, “Don't invent too much.” That is what I aspired to - creative resourcefulness and panache without excess or affectation.

With all this in mind, I delved into the visual substance of the book and sought to extract something defining from one of Caponigro's photographs that I could use for the title page and cover. One of his most famous images depicts an apple that looks like the cosmos. I brought up a scan on the computer screen and everywhere there was a star-like highlight I keyed in an asterisk. When I was finished I dropped out the photograph and was left with a cluster of stars that I cloned into a vast pattern. From there I generated film and made an enormous photopolymer plate which I printed letterpress in a series of colours on an array of papers. I dummied up star endpapers, star title pages, and star covers. I clad the book in enough stars to give an astronomer vertigo. At 11:00 p.m., at the end of five very long days, I looked down at my workbench convinced I'd tried every possibility and had found the secret of the book. At that very moment I can remember saying out loud, “I can't live with this.”

One other picture from the book, a building facade decorated in an idiosyncratic, primitivist manner, had been working on my mind. I picked up a sheet of paper and with a pair of scissors cut out some shapes based on the elements in the photograph. I didn't make any preliminary sketches. I didn't make revisions. I cut out five shapes and placed them on a dummy binding and put pieces of type on each to keep them in place. After a week of intense labour, in the space of sixty seconds I'd redesigned the cover. And then I went to bed. The next day I cut out another picture-derived amorphous blob for the inchoate title page in the same spontaneous, unpremeditated spirit and stuck it down on the sheet. I went on press without altering anything on the cover or title page by so much as a thousandth of an inch. The final version was a gratifying validation of my recombinant philosophy: a cover drawn from Caponigro with allusions to Isamu Noguchi and Henri Matisse.

William Styron famously said that writing a novel “was like walking from Memphis to New York ... on your knees.” Every time I finish a book I feel I know what he meant. As I look at the object on the bench in front of me it seems as hand-forged as anything that ever came out of an iron foundry.

I look carefully at the dot over the “i” in Caponigro's signature and marvel at the beauty of this seemingly insignificant glob and realize that this was the key to the book. His signature was the first thing that caught my attention, and despite the detours, dead-ends, and swithbacks in the process, I found my way back to it, and to a typeface, a cover, and a title page all umbillically linked to the artist’s handwriting and photographic vision.


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