Your State poster series has gotten a lot of attention. What inspired that idea and what challenges did you come across putting it together?
I had been talking with PrintCollection (the publisher of the prints) about subject matter for a series, and official state insignia was one of the ideas that came up. I thought the insignia would work as they represent a diverse, and sometimes strange assortment of things. I liked that I had an opportunity to balance familiar state icons with the unexpected and obscure.
The project was challenging in a couple of different ways. The main thing is that there are so many different choices you have to make in doing a series of 50 prints. You have to choose the subjects, figure out how to depict them, choose the colors, and then consider how they relate to one another when they are together as a set. Early on I had adjust to the idea that there was going to be inconsistency in the level of detail and number of colors I used in the different illustrations. The problem was that I couldn’t do a trilobite without showing the segmentation, but if I were to add the same amount of detail to an apple it would lose its graphic impact. I’m still in the process of second-guessing my decisions.
What inspired you to start your book cover blog and how much of an impact has actively maintaining that blog had on your own design work?
In 2009, a friend of mine started a blog project where he went alphabetically through his entire library of books and wrote something about each one. I realized that I could do a similar project with my own books, focusing on the design (and not write anything). Originally I thought I would post more interior illustrations, diagrams, etc. but pretty quickly the covers became the dominant element. I went through my books pretty quickly and then started buying at book sales and thrift stores.
Doing the blog has really refined my eye, and affected my sensibilities. There are books that I wouldn’t have posted in the first year of the blog that I now see as masterpieces. As far as my own work goes, I think doing the blog has intensified the modernist tendencies I already had. However, I don’t think of myself as a "retro" kind of guy, I hope my work doesn’t appear to rely solely on the design of the past.
I also have a career as an artist and doing the blog directly led to a new body of work. One of my ongoing projects is concerned with the intersection of animals and architecture. At the center of the project there is this idea of an unnamed fictional investigator. I started designing a library of faux mid-century books that are meant to be the reading material of this character. I discovered that by slipping new covers into worn plastic library book dust jackets I could make very convincing fakes. I have 33 titles in the series (with more on the way). They are collectively titled Volumes from an Imagined Intellectual History of Animals Architecture and Man.
From the books you find, are there specific eras, designers, or publishing companies that you've grown particularly fond of since you started your blog?
When I started the blog I was more or less open to whatever I found interesting, but over the course of the first year it became clear to me that what I liked was book cover design from between 1950 and 1980 that used (broadly speaking) modernist design strategies. The illustration of complex ideas and concepts with abstract illustration is what I prize most.
I really like discovering the work of obscure designers, but I’ve also come to love the work of two of the heavy hitters of mid-century cover design. One is Rudolph de Harak, who designed covers for McGraw Hill in the 1960s. He is probably the best example of modernist austerity. He is said to have designed 350 covers just for McGraw-Hill, I’ve only seen 50 of them so it’s exciting when I find one. The other is Roy Kuhlman, who designed for Grove Press in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Kuhlman had a really diverse range of styles and techniques. His daughter recently started compiling his covers on Pinterest, there are over 600 at this point! I don’t know that there are any other book designers who have had as impressive a career as Roy Kuhlman.
Your admiration for 20th century print design shines through in a lot of what you create. What aspects of contemporary graphic design do you find most interesting?
It is difficult to narrow it down to specifics. Over the past couple of years the intake of my visual diet has increased dramatically, with blogs, Tumblr, Pinterest, Flickr, etc. I see more graphic design pieces in an afternoon than I would have seen in two weeks in 2003. In general I’m impressed with the sheer volume of good work that I encounter. It can be a bit intimidating if I stop to think about it.
In 2006, you embarked on a very unique and exhaustive project, cataloguing abandoned shopping carts for your own book. Are there any other non-design projects you're hoping to dive into anytime soon?
I don’t have anything quite as exhaustive as the Stray Shopping Cart Project planned, but I am working on a new phase of my animals and architecture project. I’ve been photographing abandoned spider webs with a macro lens. It is a kind of "ruin porn" photography but documenting the wreckage of non-human actors.
You've managed to create a successful niche for yourself in the print world in a time where print is repeatedly seen as a dying medium. Are you surprised at the amount of print projects you've been able to take on? Where do you see the world of print design going in the next decade?
I’ve been happy that I have been able to do so much print work. A lot of it is for local clients, here in Buffalo, where, for the time being, people still need to promote events through posters, cards and other print pieces. I think certain specialized areas of print will survive and maybe thrive, (screen printing, letterpress, etc.). Also, print-on-demand technology makes all sorts of projects possible. My State of America series would have been prohibitively expensive to produce any other way than inkjet. I think books are in a different kind of trouble. I can imagine a future where books are in the same position records are now. You buy the book as a beautiful object and you also get the digital file.
Mark Byrnes is a former fellow at The Atlantic Cities and a graduate student in publications design at the University of Baltimore.