Antiquarian book catalogues is not an area we often associate with gorgeous graphic design but Purpose saw an opportunity to shake up this stuffy industry when dealer Simon Beattie approached them in 2010.
“In the antiquarian book dealing world all the dealers pretty much without exception present their catalogues in the same manner,” creative director Rob Howsam said. “A5, invariably black and white and densely packed with words – all the mathematics of books like specs, sizes and dates. They’re really boring, really academic, really uninspiring and so a really great opportunity for us.
“What was missing was the passion of the artifacts, the smell, the feel. A book is a tactile experience and that was not coming across at all.”
Of course having the idea was one thing, persuading the client to take the leap of faith another. Rob and his team presented two routes – a clean, white, sophisticated approach, “‘smart but not exciting” – and this more creative solution. To Rob’s delight, Simon chose the latter.
Rob says the starting point was his client, who he describes as “an absolute culture magpie, a private investigator sniffing out quirky, interesting and unusual books” and the incredible tomes they found in his collection. “There were some wonderful books like a camouflage book given to French workers during the Resistance which looks like a dictionary but actually taught them how to put a spanner in the works of the Third Reich.”
The design team established a set of constants, A3 size, the big number on the front and the use of bright block colour there, the introduction layout and they moved all the specs to the back, but there were several flexibles too. They played around with contents pages – one approach was a timeline another saw the books displayed “as if laid out on the floor by a pathological book stalker.”
After that they were guided by the books they were featuring. “We let scale and drama in so it felt like you were really rummaging around and we used all this typography that was like a wardrobe we could plunder and draw on.”
This visual language was extended to Simon’s stationary and website and the way he exhibited his wares and Rob says this was no mere cosmetic change. “They were massively effective, the first one sold out completely and we have lots of data about the effectiveness of the catalogues.”
When trying to shake up a traditional industry like antiquarian book dealing the tendency could be to go too far the other way and create something gratingly loud and attention-seeking, but these are things of real beauty, quality and character – worthy tributes to true bibliophilia.