Ben Branagan’s name came up recently in conversation in the studio as we were talking about admirable bookshelves. “Do you know who has an incredible book collection?” art director Ali Hanson piped up, “my old tutor at Chelsea,” and we quickly realised that not only did Ben incite a love of print in a young Ali Hanson, but also in a whole generation of graphic designers who happened to a pass through that institution’s hallowed doors.
A few emails later, and it transpires that Ben’s influence resonates far beyond being an associate lecturer in the Interactive and Visual Communication programme at the University of the Arts London; he also runs an eponymous design and art direction studio, BB Studio, and has exhibited work both in the UK and internationally. That said, his practice is founded in a love of editorial design – one that has led to his having collected publications including The Last Whole Earth Catalogue, Wolfgang Tillmans’ Neue Welt and Broomberg and Chanarin’s Fig., among others. Here’s Ben on the books that have most inspired him, rifling through junk shops in northern California, and striving for a sense of improvisation in his own work.
Illustrations by Giovanni Caselli, text by Michael Gibson: Gods, Men & Monsters from the Greek Universe
As a kid I loved drawing and this book was where it was at. Packed with rich, meticulously crafted imagery, I would spend hours poring over the illustrations and labouring over my own versions. There is a particular spread that depicts Poseidon, covered in star fish and emerging from his sea kingdom, that is burnt deep in the recesses of my brain. If I look at it now it instantly transports me back to my childhood bedroom. I wasn’t much of a reader when I was young and I’m not sure if I ever spent much time with the text. The images though, combined with re-runs of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts, which seemed to be on TV permanently in the 80s, created a world as tangible and real as any I was learning about at school. My dream job at that point in my life would have been illustrating a book like this and it was instrumental in me pursuing a life as an artist and designer.
Vladimir Arkhipov: Home Made: Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts
This book, designed and published by Fuel, is an overview of objects and tools born out of a scarcity of materials and a desire for objects that perform specific functions. The peculiar artefacts it documents have a playfulness and ramshackle quality to them that I love. There is a touch of the post-apocalyptic about them and they describe a spirit of resourcefulness and invention that, for me, is at the heart of the design process and creativity in general. In his introduction to the follow up book, which compiles similar objects from Europe, Jeremy Deller describes the thrill of “this alchemy where two plus two equals five.” It’s this sense of collage and improvisation contained in the objects that really excites me and is something I strive for in my own work.
Wolfgang Tillmans: Neue Welt
A lot of the books I end up buying are collections of one sort or another. The majority are second hand photographic guides to nature or human culture presented in a fairly straightforward academic style; an attempt at an objective overview of a particular subject. This book is a kind of refracted or broken reflection of that ambition. A highly personal view of the world, for me it’s like a geologist’s core sample, extracted from the silt of contemporary experience, which manages to channel that individual perspective into something more universal. The design and layout (which Tillmans did himself) has a casualness and freedom to it which feels like you’ve accidentally opened hundreds of preview windows on your desktop – images of landfills collide with waterfalls and shiny metallic surfaces butt up against Tucans and plants. It feels fast, which is an odd thing to say about a book but the way it’s been put together promotes quick reading. Contrary to most books and novels, which I might spend longer periods of time with, this book is always quick – I pick it up and flick hastily through its pages, letting the images spin past my eyes and maybe pausing on something I haven’t noticed before. It’s always exciting.
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin: Fig.
My friend, the writer Jonathan Griffin, introduced me to this book when we where planning our project Itinera Alpina. It’s a really wonderful book, both in the subjects it describes but also the way it’s been put together. It’s got a brilliant sense of rhythm and I love the way it exploits the different ways you can read a book. Initially, you scan backwards and forwards through its pages, stopping now and then at one of the strange curios it contains. However, before long you are being pulled into a more complex narrative that is woven across the captions that appear on the right hand pages. The initial dark humour of the subjects; academically indexed collections of soft porn, fake wounds and empty offices, slowly give way to a much more sinister meditation on the nature of possession, power and collecting. Designed by SMITH, the book’s construction is simple, restrained and elegant, creating the perfect platform for the images and ideas to unfold.
The Last Whole Earth Catalog
Whilst driving through northern California, my wife and I stopped off at a huge roadside junkshop housed in an old warehouse. Rummaging through the many shelves packed with the detritus of other peoples lives, I spotted a crumpled piece of paper wedged under the base of a box. I immediately recognised the gloopy serifed typography on it as that of The Whole Earth Catalogue. I was familiar with this much-written about and iconic publication, often referencing it when teaching, but I had never seen a copy in the flesh. Convinced that this small fragment might mean the rest of the book was nearby, I spent the next hour digging through boxes before its tatty remaining sections were found. Often cited as a precursor to the internet, its role as a catalyst for the environmental movement and the counter-cultural idealism that influenced many of the early tech pioneers is summed up in its mantra like byline “access to tools”. The oversized format with densely packed pages and typography that is utilitarian in the extreme suggest an urgency to the information it contains. It’s perhaps a long time since print publications like this represented the vanguard of radical ideas, but you can still sense this fervent spirit in its pages, not quite extinguished despite its yellowing paper and taped on cover.
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