I Wonder is a book that turns heads. As I read it on rail journeys to and from work, I notice many people around me sneaking glances at it, wondering what this sumptuously decorated tome was.
Theirs is an entirely appropriate response to a book of essays by the Canadian artist Marian Bantjes, beginning with one on the sense of wonder, then turning into a journey of contemplation on subjects ranging from honour and remembrance to hideous signage in Saskatoon, a city in central Canada, and Santa Claus.
The tone varies wildly, skittering from the academic in the first chapter, which not only discusses wonder but also offers a history of ornamentation, to the wryly humorous, in a response to the look of the Latin alphabet, to the touching, in a treatise on the tactile experience afforded by the letters she and her mother wrote to each other. Tying all this together is a sense of Marian’s personality, and her personal response to graphics, both ‘important’ and everyday.
Even when she geeks out over heraldry – despite claiming that she doesn’t want to descend into nerdiness – Marian’s funny and thoughtful approach makes the reading always interesting. This individuality seems to apply as much to her personal projects as to her work for high-profile clients, among them Saks Fifth Avenue, Penguin Books, Wallpaper*, The Guardian, Wired and the designer Stefan Sagmeister, who wrote the book’s foreword.
The design and production values put I Wonder some way above the rest of the glut of design books released last year. I’ve not seen gold used so lavishly in a design monograph before. It dominates a great many spreads; the front and back covers and spine contrast an intricate pattern of it highlighted with silver; and it’s even used to edge the pages. Its use brings to mind illuminated manuscripts – though with a style that’s clearly Marian’s own, revelling in ornamentation without tying it to some overarching iconography.
I put a series of questions to Marian as she travelled across the US and Canada giving talks about the book, including a lecture at AIGA in New York.
How would you describe yourself and what you do?
These days I call myself a graphic artist. This is how ‘ye olde graphic designers’ described themselves, and it suits me well. Also ‘commercial artist’, [in that] I create art and design for clients, but I have a personal voice in that work. People come to me for that voice.
What prompted you to create a book about the sense of wonder, as well as the areas that you wonder about?
I was wondering about things, including wonder, and I thought those things might be interesting to other people too.
I also specifically wanted to work with text and image in an interdependent form. I wanted to prove that ornamentation need not be superfluous and that it can add to written narrative.
Why did you decide to include a variety of different tones in your writing, from the almost academic approach of the early sections to a very funny personal response to letterforms in ‘The Alphabet: A Critique’?
Mostly that’s just the way I am. I think and speak in all of those voices myself. Sometimes we’re funny, sometimes we’re serious, sometimes we are personal and revealing, sometimes not. Ultimately, despite the different tones, I think there is a cohesiveness to the book in the themes and threads which run throughout it.
This book seems to be as much about Marian Bantjes the person as Marian the artist and designer.
I don’t differentiate the two. While I sometimes create work that has no client, I still approach it in the same way [as commissioned work]: I have something to figure out, I supply my own hurdles to jump over.
Was it important for the book’s design to create a sense of wonder in the viewer/reader, and how did this influence your choice of materials and finishes?
Absolutely. It would make no sense to me to write a book about wonder that was not in and of itself wonderful.
I’m a graphic communicator, and I have a very strong opinion about the importance of graphics in communication, especially when talking about visual things. It astonishes me how so many visual people produce work with acres of dry words.
As for how it influenced my choice of materials… Well, that is more a matter of whim, but the finishes were important in terms of gold, lots of gold. Gold has been used for ages to embellish important things and to create works of wonder. We still have a strong reaction to it, despite ourselves. So I wanted it to be rich and flashy in a way that enhanced the experience of handling the physical object. I wanted it also to be an experience that only a book could give – analogue, not digital.
I Wonder has been described as ‘unashamedly beautiful’, which got me wondering why anyone would be ashamed of beauty. But it often seems with design (or some designers, at least) that beauty is uncool.
I’m not sure why this is, but I think beauty is too subjective and too emotional/irrational for the current arena of strategic design. I really think it’s more about the ornamentation, and the politics of that are long and complex – see the quotations from the section of the book entitled The Politics of Ornament.
The book also revels in the tactile nature of print. With the growth in ‘electronic print’ on devices such as the iPad, does print have to provide a more tactile experience to distinguish itself?
I think there is an experience you can get from books that is underrated: the ability to feel the body or the weight of the whole; to easily flip around a book while maintaining a sense of where you are in it; the tactile sense of turning pages and the feel and smell of the paper; the binding, etc. To have it physically sitting in a space, reminding you of its presence. And the effects of special inks, and perhaps special papers, holes and other physical/visual experiences that can’t be had digitally.
Of course there are digital experiences that can’t be had in a book, as well.
But while the competition from digital might spur more interesting book design, I’m not sure it’s necessary for the success of books. I have the choice of reading The New Yorker magazine online or on paper. The two versions look exactly the same, but I’ll still choose paper, for many of the reasons above.
Why, in the opening section of your book, did you eschew the use of artwork and large-scale iconography that you find in traditional illuminated manuscripts?
I am not attempting to recreate an illuminated manuscript. The book uses ornamentation and illustration in similar ways, but it’s a contemporary book; it’s my book; it’s not a copy of anything.
In the section on honour, you discuss the way you look back at what you’ve created and collected. How much should we let our past influence what we create?
Our past always influences what we create. The past is our knowledge of the world. People with neurological disorders that disallow them from remembering the past are unable to imagine a future.
Then there’s the ‘1 Sign 4 All’ section, which features all-uppercase typography in fluorescent colours. Was it a deliberate move to break away from the beautiful aesthetic of the preceding sections?
No. It’s an immersive graphic experience, in the same way that all the other chapters are immersive. When I talk about stars, we are immersed in a universe of stars; when I talk about Santa we are immersed in the iconography and feel of Santa/Christmas. ‘1 Sign 4 All’ is about an abundance of signage in black, yellow and neon orange… I wanted people to feel that abundance.
We recently sparked a debate online about the difference between ‘typography’ and ‘type art’ – terms that are often used interchangeably for work such as yours. There seemed to be some consensus that typography was about legibility, or at least clarity of understanding, whereas type art puts no such restrictions on itself. Would you agree? And how much is providing an instantly comprehensible message important to your work?
I would disagree that typography is about legibility, but I would say that typography is about type: about the usage and creation of type. While this technically should include handwriting, calligraphy and lettering, I feel slightly uncomfortable about that. I don’t consider children learning to write as practising typography, no matter how carefully and legibly they write.
So for myself, somewhat vaguely, I consider type to be some mechanised form… letterpress to digital, where the type used is in some form a typeface – that being a complete set of designed letters, numerals, punctuation etc, necessary for setting written language.
I have been called a typographer, which is true when I work with type. I’ve been called a great typographer and other superlatives, which I think is not true. I’m a good typographer, maybe even a very good one, but not great. What I am good at, maybe even great at, is lettering. Lettering is when you create a word or words in a custom style and limited character set – usually only the letters you require for the custom piece. Children do lettering; so do calligraphers; so do I.
You also talk a lot about remembrance. How would you like to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered as someone of influence in the design world, who was always full of surprises and who was continually evolving. I would also like to be remembered as a good person, someone worth knowing.