Profile: Judith Schalansky

Designing her own books has allowed Judith Schalansky to explore theories about matching form and content, and build on a childhood fascination with atlases. The German-born author and graphics specialist talks to Anna Richardson

When Judith Schalansky writes a novel, now and again she has to take a break to make an essential decision – namely, what font should the text be set in. For the German graphic designer and author, form and content are so inextricably linked that working in any other way is inconceivable. ’I’m an author who comes up with ideas for books and designs them herself,’ says Schalansky. ’Even when I’m writing, I design – drawing diagrams or thinking about the right font and format for the book.’

She combines this approach with a propensity for research and a certain playful fascination with the fetishistic. Her first book was the beautiful tome Fraktur Mon Amour, a love letter to the Blackletter font family. She was intrigued by the history of the typeface and the enduring emotional responses to it. Blackletter is still often associated with Nazism or a more general German-ness. At the same time it has been appropriated by contemporary youth and pop culture, and is also linked to a heavy-metal aesthetic as well as various traditional newspaper mastheads.

This ambivalence was particularly alluring, says Schalansky. To reflect it in the book’s design, she chose a combination of classical, middle-centred layout with a shocking pink. ’I wanted the book to be physically huge and look like a prayer book,’ she adds. ’I wanted it to be dark and heavy, but showing its dubious, provocative associations. When it was finished I was a bit taken aback – it looks like an S&M bible, but that’s quite fitting.’

Another labour of love was her Atlas of Remote Islands. Already a bestseller in Germany, it is published in the UK this October. The book grew out of Schalansky’s childhood fascination with atlases, and combines intricately designed and beautifully drawn maps of the world’s most remote islands with stories from each island’s history and legends. ’Maps are not just visualisations of reality but interpretations,’ she says. ’They are ideological and very poetic. Mankind has written itself into nature, with names that tell of hope – one island in the book is called Einsamkeit (loneliness).’

Born in 1980 on the East German side of the Berlin Wall, Schalansky fell in love with atlases, their lines, colours and names, which offered a means of escaping East Germany’s geographical restrictions.

’It’s a book I always hoped for,’ she says. ’A book that combines fact and fiction, design and literature. A book beyond illustration and genres – it’s impossible to classify; is it literature, an illustrated book or non-fiction?’

She knew immediately that she would use the Sirenne typeface – ’a perfect font for this theme’. She also did a lot of research perusing old maps and experimenting with colours, and believes cartography is a distinctly undervalued art form. ’Today’s cartography is not very beautiful. These 3D effects have something pornographic about them. After all, it’s about the body Earth,’ says Schalansky. ’I’m more into the atlases of the 19th century, or the Swiss atlas of the 1980s.’

Schalansky didn’t set out to study graphic design after school. But after a series of rejected applications from documentary film and liberal arts courses, she studied art history followed by communications design in Potsdam – a move that she is very grateful for. ’My degree has given me an invaluable tool, namely a practical knowledge of how to make books. It’s a craft that makes me very happy and also helps me to write,’ says Schalansky.

The soft-spoken Schalansky gets quite animated when she talks about what she sees as the essential relationship between function and form. She laments the fact that design is so often an afterthought – the slave to content’s master. ’Graphic design at its best is applied art – functional and beautiful. Design is about finding a language or a system that combines form and content, and indeed abolishes the ridiculous separation between the two,’ she says. ’Sorry, this sounds a bit like a manifesto, but it’s important. Design as beautification doesn’t interest me. I find form that has to paper over inferior content abhorrent.’

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