Books Do Furnish a Room was the title of a novel by Anthony Powell in 1971 – and art books are particularly precious items of interior decoration. If having books on the shelf is commonly seen as a sign of intelligence and being ‘well read’, to have art books shows something more/ that you are a connoisseur, a collector.
The art book has its own tradition, picked up by a new exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum called Blood on Paper. It features books from the canon of 20th and 21st century artists, from Henri Matisse to Anish Kapoor, via Anselm Keifer, Isamu Noguchi, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Some are hot-metal printed, others one-offs, yet more use commercially produced books. There are books as installations, books as sculpture – all going to show, as the curators Rowan Watson of the V&A and Elena Foster of Ivory Press say in the catalogue, ‘just how many of the greatest artists of today and the recent past have engaged with books’.
But the question remains: why do artists make books? As a book designer whose work comprises collaborations with artists, it is an everyday matter. One is that books are themselves symbolic. As the catalogue says, some of the artists in Blood on Paper ‘take as their starting point the figurative or allegorical idea of the book – the book as container, as order, as a sign and prompt for memories’.
Art books are also, you could argue, ways of adding value to an artist’s work, another expression of their canon in a different medium. Another exhibition, Covered: Beauty and Art in Contemporary Bookbinding at Flow Gallery, London, shows the small-run book from a different perspective, but, towards the same end: the book as limited-edition or one-off art object in its own right.
A common factor is that artists’ books tend to be complex, which also goes towards their preciousness. For example, Blood on Paper’s exhibition catalogue lists all the publishers, designers, printers, paper makers, binders and box-makers that have been involved in the production of every book on display. The book medium is different from that of any other art form, with constraints and technical limitations that must be accommodated or overcome in production.
I see my role as an art book designer as very different to those in other types of graphic design. I don’t usually come up with a concept or idea, but aim to design in a way that supports the ideas and vision of the artist’s practice. I strive for the design to be ‘invisible’, primarily concentrating on physical specifications such as format, binding and paper engineering, cover-board thickness, paper type and weight and any specialised printing techniques, then looking at the graphic elements: typefaces, layout and the ordering of the work.
All these decisions are taken either in response to the artist’s work or by working very closely with the artist. I personally encourage artists to make sketches and produce visuals: an approach to which some graphic designers take offence. Also, I see my role as knowing when not to do something. One of my ambitions is to design a book that can be eaten, printed in vegetable ink on onion paper, but it would be wrong to impose this on any old project. It’s at the back of my mind, but it has to wait for the right artist to take it up.
There’s a category issue about art books, too. Are they ‘art books’ or ‘artist’s books’, an art book being a book about an artist or type of art, or a product in which the art is an integral part of the book? The works in Blood on Paper are the latter, and the art book designer aspires to this approach. For a book about artist Richard Woods, my studio came up with limited editions that used book boards, and together with a binder, solved the problem of how to fix the wood to the book-block, and then bound the book with unique front and back artworks. A book designed with artist Goshka Macuga, Sleep of Ulro, consisted of commissioned texts, images of a huge art installation, research images, and found poetry and texts, using historic printing techniques to hint at the look and feel of a period publication. The use of tip-ins (when an image, usually in colour, is printed on a separate sheet then glued on to the page) is a historic printing technique once widely used to combine text and image plates when it was hugely expensive to print throughout in full colour. Today, the opposite is true, and it is more expensive to glue images into books, which involves manual work, but they create a subtle historic visual atmosphere. Here, the process itself becomes the graphic design.
The publication by Carter Wong Design which accompanies Blood on Paper seems to aspire to the same characteristics as the books that will be displayed, with a lavish cloth box and muslin cotton, and a separate loose leaf for each artist. It indicates preciousness and value, as do many art books. But you might argue that while this could never be a true artist’s book, as it is essentially a catalogue of an exhibition, albeit one that uses an artist’s book style.
There are plenty of fascinating books in Blood on Paper, but one I particularly admire is by French artist Daniel Buren, Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal. To me, this is a perfect marriage of art and book, with cuts made in the pages playing out the same visual games as Buren’s artistic practice. It’s not trying to be anything other than a book, yet it is also an art object. It seems appropriate that the designer of this book is not mentioned by name. Perhaps, like so many other designers of art books, he/she wanted to remain invisible.
Blood on Paper, Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW3, from 15 April to 29 June. Covered: Beauty and Art in Contemporary Bookbinding is at Flow Gallery, 1-5 Needham Road, London W11, 15-24 May
London Book Fair is at Earls Court, London SW5, 14-16 April
Fraser Muggeridge is the director of Fraser Muggeridge Studio