The first-ever Designers and Book Fair was held last weekend at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. The two-day fair featured 35 publishers and around 1,500 books ranging in subjects from architecture to design to urban planning. (Titles were as varied as Why Architects Wear Black to 100 Ideas That Changed Fashion to Design After Modernism.) The fair opened Friday with a panel on the future of book design. The following Saturday and Sunday, publishers from Europe and the United States took up residency at FIT. Each day was interspersed with panels covering book design, fashion, international design, and architecture. The weekend was a successful merger of many fields and professions—a spotlight on images, craft, and the written word.
Lars Muller Publishing traveled from Zurich to attend the book fair. The publisher focuses on the intersection of design and urban planning; managing editor Michael Ammann explained the company is particularly interested in “looking at how temporary homes can become permanent ones.” A few books on display embodied the sentiment: the book From Camp to City serves as a case study on how people live in refugee camps in the Western Sahara; through studies and illustrations, Torre David examines how an abandoned high rise in Caracas became a “vertical slum.”
Laurence King Publishing Company had a lighter, but no less interesting, selection of books about fashion, architecture, and illustration. Other companies, like Vogel Bindery, set up book-binding demonstrations. The Center for Book Arts, who were sought out to show-off book binding at the fair, also had a letterpress on display. The Society of Scribes wrote out names on bookmarks in calligraphy.
The Sunday panel on Book Cover Design featured graphic designer Irma Boom, graphics director Jennifer Daniel, creative director John Gall, and art director Peter Mendelsund. Each panelist presented their top three book cover designs—picks included the cover of Bright Lights, Big City (says John Gall about this pick: “This made people excited about reading”) and a copy of Othello with an illustrated cover by graphic designer Milton Glaser.
Irma Boom talked extensively about her decision to design an all-white cover for a book anthologizing the textile artwork of Sheila Hicks. Inspired by Hicks' rich, textured work, she decided to emboss the artist's name into the book cover, creating a distinct texture but leaving the cover white. The idea was to create a cover that would represent the artist's textile work to a larger audience; she felt a book cover showing a textile piece would primarily appeal to those already interested in textiles. No one thought the all-white cover would sell. Not only did it sell, Boom went on to win the gold medal for “Most Beautiful Book in the World” at the Leipzig Book Fair.
The panelists also spoke of the challenge of representing a book through design. “As a designer, it feels like you're paid to design as much as possible,” Peter Mendelsund says. “This is something you have to resist.” John Gall, who recently designed the covers for Haruki Murakami's entire catalog, says, “There are simple elements—the title, image, and author—that have to translate what a book is. It's still a difficult thing to do.”
The panelist didn't think the shift toward e-readers threatened the future of the book design, but admitted the profession needs to rethink how to market physical books. And none of the designers felt that their work stood alone among the words they were designing for. “We're not trying to create a new work, we're trying to create the same work,” says Mendelsund. “A book is a complete thing,” Boom stresses. “It is never just about the aesthetics.”