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Analog Books to Die For: Five Fantastic Die-Cut Books

What cutting-edge digital culture has to do with an unmakeable book, lasers, and Sherlock Holmes.

For all their wonder and promise, one crucial component of the joy of reading still eludes the publishing platforms of the future: holding a beautifully bound, meticulously designed, thoughtfully crafted tome in your two hands. Hardly does that tactile delight get more intense than with a magnificent die-cut book. (Die-cutting is a process using a steel die to cut away sections of a page.) Here are five old-timey treasures that will make you swoon in rediscovered awe of the analog.

THINGS I HAVE LEARNED IN MY LIFE SO FAR

Every seven years, Stefan Sagmeister takes a year-long sabbatical, during which he does absolutely no commercial work. Instead, he retreats to Bali or another off-the-grid corner of the world, where he immerses himself in creative exploration and self-improvement. Things I have learned in my life so far, sitting atop our selection of beautifully designed books by prominent graphic designers, grew from a list in his diary compiled during his first such sabbatical. The book, which consists of 15 unbound signatures in a gorgeous die-cut slipcase producing 15 different covers, is a reflection on life, being human, and the meaning of happiness, relayed through the language Sagmeister is so masterfully fluent in — elegant, eloquent graphic design. Each spread presents a beautifully and thoughtfully designed typographic sentiment, or fragment of a sentiment continued on the following spread, about one of life’s simple truths — part Live Now, part Everythign Is Going To Be OK, part The 3D Type Book, yet it both predates and outshines all three.

TREE OF CODES

Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Tree of Codes topped our list of the best art, design and photography books of 2010 — and for good reason. So ambitious was Foer’s project that nearly all bookbinders he approached deemed it unmakeable. When Belgian publishing house Die Keure finally figured out a way to make it work, what came out was a brilliant piece of “analog interactive storytelling” — a book created by cutting out chunks of text from Foer’s favorite novel, The Street of Crocodiles by Polish author Bruno Schulz, rearranging the text to form an entirely different story. The die-cut narrative hangs in an aura of negative space for a beautiful blend of sculpture and storytelling, adding a layer of physicality to the reading experience in a way that completely reshapes your relationship with text and the printed page.

I thought: What if you pushed it to the extreme, and created something not old-fashioned or nostalgic but just beautiful? It helps you remember that life can surprise you.” ~ Jonathan Safran Foer

Our full review here, including remarkable making-of footage.

HOLY CLUES

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is one of the most beloved and enduring literary characters of all time, to this day culturally relevant and alluring. In the 1999 unlikely gem Holy Clues : The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes, author Stephen Kendrick explores how Holmes’ legendary methods of Zen-like awareness, observation and deduction can be employed in our relationship with spirituality. (Cue in our omnibus of 7 essential meditations on the science of spirituality.) The book’s dust jacket features a single die-cut hole, through which peeks Sherlock’s iconic silhouette on a patterned pictorial cover.

OFFF, YEAR ZERO

For the past decade, the OFFF festival of post-digital culture has been a beacon of contemporary art, design and media innovation, offering a provocative lens for understanding modern culture. Every year, OFFF releases a lavish book that’s both a catalog of work from the festival and a scrumptious keepsake tome of visual culture. This year, as the festival celebrates its roots and its return to Barcelona, it produced what’s easily the most ambitious book yet: OFFF, Year Zero: Artwork and Designs from the OFFF Festival, published by our friends at Mark Batty and featuring astounding, visually gripping work around the “Year Zero” theme.

Each of the tome’s 300 pages is die-cut, so the stunning artworks can be hung on the walls of homes, studios, classrooms and creativity hubs alike.

CURIOUS BOYM

Since 1986, designer Constantin Boym and his partner Laurene Leon Boym, working as Boym Partners, have been finding humor in the humdrum and magic in the mundane to churn out relentlessly whimsical work across product design, furniture, installations and more. Curious Boym from Princeton Architectural Press and design duo Hjalti Karlsson + Jan Wilker is an appropriately playful volume covering the many mediums of Boym’s creative curiosity. The tactile, interactive book features a die-cut cover, pop-ups, pull-outs, and other analog surprises that play into Boym’s irreverent, exuberant and fun approach to design.

The lovely Abe Books has even more die-cut gems for your gushing pleasure.

BP

Bibliographic: The 100 Best Design Books of the Past 100 Years

What James Bond title sequences have to do with the secret of happiness and the evolution of public signage.

Design is an incredibly self-referential for of expression, and that’s quite alright, as I deeply believe creativity is combinatorial — everything borrows from what came before, everything is a remix, all creative work is essentially derivative work. So knowledge of what came before greatly enriches and empowers our creativity. And, over the past century alone, countless books have been published to make sense of the landscape, language and legacy of graphic design, each exploring a specific facet of this complex ecosystem of visual communication. But how does it all fit together? That’s exactly what Jason Godfrey set out to investigate in 2009 in Bibliographic: 100 Classic Graphic Design Books — yes, it’s a graphic design book about graphic design books, and it doesn’t get any more meta than this, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Godfrey culls the 100 most influential design books of the past 100 years, contextualizing each with succinct background text on what makes it exceptional and important. The collection spans an incredible range of style, genre, subject matter, geography, and cultural concern, from the stories of the pioneering type foundries to vintage Polish film posters to classic graphic design manuals by László Moholy-Nagy and Josef Müller-Brockmann to contemporary design visionaries like Stefan Sagmeister and Paula Scher.

A foreword by none other than Steven Heller adds an irresistibly delicious cherry on top.

These vintage books are untapped repositories of design knowledge, as relevant today as they were when first published.” ~ Steven Heller

What makes Bibliographic all the more valuable is that the majority of the books featured have entered collector’s-item status and are quite hard — not to mention expensive — to get on their own.

A few of my favorite titles in the anthology:

  • Long before there was The Visual Miscellaneum or Data Flow, there was Graphis diagrams: The graphic visualization of abstract data — a seminal vision for the convergence of aesthetics and information value, originally published in 1974. Features work by icons like Saul Bass, Leo and Diane Dillon, Milton Glaser, Richard Saul Wurman and many more.
  • Paula Scher is one of my big creative heroes and her Make It Bigger, titled after the most resented yet prevalent client frustration of all, looks at design’s role in corporate culture, exploring what it is that makes design a powerful and effective business tool.
  • As a big fan of found typography and architectural lettering, I can’t stress the delightfulness of Words and buildings: The art and practice of public lettering enough — a fascinating convergence of architecture and graphic design that preceded recent treats like Store Front and Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story by four decades, exploring the evolution of public signage and typographic wayfinding.
  • He may be known as the granddaddy of grump, a professional curmudgeon, but iconic designer Paul Rand is one of the most remarkable figures in the history of design both as a creative discipline and a business philosophy — his Thoughts on Design, originally published in 1947, is a philosophical treatise on the role of design and the importance of “function-aesthetic perfection” in modern art.
  • Stefan Sagmeister is easily one of my top three favorite designers alive today, and his Things I have learned in my life so far is quite possibly my favorite design book of all time — a poetic reflection on life, the meaning of happiness, and the human condition by way of Sagmeister’s unique, playful, irreverent visual language.

As much an incredible primer for those just dipping their toes in design as a rich and lavish treasure chest of beloved allusions for the polished design nerd, Bibliographic is an absolute gem from cover to glorious cover.

Thanks, @kirstinbutler

BP

Live Now: In-the-Moment Inspiration

A true exercise in art therapy, or what all motivational posters should aspire to be.

It’s still January, and 2010 has already provided no shortage of loss, tragedy, and challenge. But amidst all of this digital distemper lies a website we love for its seemingly infinite supply of authenticity, hope, and optimism.

Live Now! is an art project whose mission is “powerfully pursuing the notion of ‘living now.’ Engaging participants to live meaningful lives & be happy!”

The homepage greets you with a lovely image reminding you of the importance of living in the moment. With messages like True happiness is giving it away and Practice happiness rendered in winsomely quirky typography, each click-through leads to another picture and message.

The images’ style varies, but they all share the kind of handmade energy in response to which you can’t really help but smile.

What confirms these sentiments as so much more than pablum — besides the artistry of their rendering — is the personal story of Live Now!‘s creator, designer and illustrator Eric Smith, who conceived of the project after being diagnosed with three different types of cancer.

Cancer changed the way I ate, slept, and most importantly the way I live. Before cancer I was like most folks, just cruising along. It was during my treatment, when starting to discover what cancer could give to me — the ability to absorb every moment as if each one were my whole life.

Since Live Now! launched, Davis has opened the experience to a host of other talented artists and designers (David Gibson, CD Ryan, and Kate Miss, among others); he also continues to take submissions. We were even more excited to learn that the project’s various messages are available in print form, allowing you to curate a changing rotation of inspirational messages for yourself.

Live Now! reminds us of another fantastic typographic project around personal growth and happiness, Things I Have Learned In My Life, by Brain Pickings favorite (and three-time TEDster) Stefan Sagmeister. Such collaborative initiatives augur an emerging pattern in graphic design work — call it the aesthetics of authentic life principles.

So put down the newspaper, close that Firefox CNN disaster report tab, let go of the earthquake hashtags, and swap them all for an early-morning shot of motivation and encouragement — because you can rarely have too much of either. To experience beautifully crafted messages of Carpe Diem visit Live Now!, well, now.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

BP

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