Grand Budapest Hotel graphic designer Annie Atkins on her favourite books

9 March 2016

Graphic designer Annie Atkins describes her work in film and television as creating “all the things that everybody sees and nobody cares about.” However it’s the signage, packaging, paper work and other props she designs that catapult us into the filmic worlds we’re presented with – even if they do only appear in fleeting shots on screen. The designer’s scrupulous attention to detail and passion for accuracy has seen Annie work on films by Wes Anderson, Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee, as well as a whole host of TV shows. At last year’s Here, Annie took us on a whistle-stop tour of all of the things she was tasked with designing on Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, from patisserie packaging to Nazi-inspired business cards.

Her work is in-depth and fascinating, and each project starts with a mammoth amount of research. So to give us a glimpse into her process, references and inspirations, here Annie is to tell us about five books that have helped her along the way. From a collection of printed ephemera to Victorian ad illustrations this is one bookshelf not to miss out on.

Philip Davies: Panoramas of Lost London: Work, Wealth, Poverty & Change 1870-1945

Any art department that’s ever recreated a fake London street for a costume drama owns this book – it’s a wealth of information, especially for shopfront signage and background graphics. I use it to imitate authentic sign-painting styles from the time, but it’s also a huge resource for the language that was used. Funerals to suit all classes, genuine artificial teeth… and who wouldn’t want to buy a product called Ovum? When you do some research into the antiquated language of advertising you can really have some fun with set design. I love hearing back from actors and shooting crew who’ve walked on to a Victorian set and really felt like they’re in another time. This book was referenced over and over again when we made Penny Dreadful – you can still see all the Post-Its marking interesting pages. 

Thomas E. Rinaldi: New York Neon

I worked on Spielberg’s Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies last year, which was a shock to my system at first because it was set in the most contemporary period I’d worked to in film at that point. That meant a lot of neon signage, which I had to get my head around quite quickly. When you design this kind of signage for film you really have to understand how the neon was constructed and how it worked – that makes your visuals work in practise. The shapes of the letters are really dependent on how glass tubes can fit together, so you need to figure that out before you start drawing anything in Illustrator. 

Author unknown: Poesie

This is an old notebook that belonged to a German girl in 1924. She was dying from tuberculosis, and wanted to collect pieces of writing from her friends and family. They each wrote their favourite poem in the book for her, which means it’s an invaluable collection of varied Germanic handwriting styles. I know, I’m so callous! But handwriting has changed so much over the years – and changes drastically from country to country – so if I need to recreate something that feels right to a certain period in Europe then I have to make sure I have a good reference. We used this book as a resource for different characters’ handwriting styles in the Grand Budapest Hotel. I found it in a flea market in Berlin for a couple of euros.

John Lewis: Printed Ephemera

According to the inscription, this book was given to a man called John from a woman called “Hot Lips” – good to see that passion is alive and well in the field of collecting printed ephemera. I’ve come to understand that “ephemera” is just another word for all the junk that people usually throw away, which is exactly the junk that I have to recreate for period filmmaking. This book is a great resource – it even has a page full of public lavatory tickets from 1905. I once worked on a TV show about life during the building of the Titanic and this book was a godsend. I especially love all the letterpress handbills – I’m sure they looked cheap and awful at the time, but they’re so beautiful to us now. 

Carol Belanger Grafton: Victorian Goods and Merchandise

I have no shame – I’m going to include a book of clip-art in my favourites. This is a Dover collection of Victorian advertising illustration. They’re copperplate engravings, so they’re beautifully drawn, but they also give a real insight into the kind of products that were pedalled to people around the end of the 19th Century. I especially like the cure-all medicines – a nerve-builder and brain tonic that seems to be made entirely out of celery, and female pills for “weak women.” The animated feature The Boxtrolls was set loosely in an invented Victorian London, so we looked at some of these pieces as reference for our early sketches of the Boxtroll characters’ box designs.  

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About the Author

Rebecca Fulleylove

Rebecca Fulleylove is a freelance writer and editor specialising in art, design and culture. She is also senior writer at Creative Review, having previously worked at Elephant, Google Arts & Culture, and It’s Nice That.

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