Wolff Olins creative director Cynthia Pratomo talks about her favourite books

16 August 2017
Reading Time
5 minute read

Cynthia Pratomo is a creative director at creative consultancy Wolff Olins in New York. She was previously head of design at Anomaly, and is also a professor of design at the Pratt Institute where she helps students understand and combine their disciplinary powers across illustration, advertising and graphic design. “I always encourage my students to get off the internet and start their book collection early. At Pratt, when my seniors present similar references and influences for a project, they quickly discover the cycle of repetition in the design community,” says Cynthia.

“To create original work and ideas also means developing our own peculiar taste in things, and going beyond our discipline. My personal relationship with books has changed over the past seven years since I picked up a Kindle for novels and stripped back my library, down to books that had a specific meaning. Sitting down with a physical book is always a special occasion and I enjoyed poking through my bookshelf to figure out what I saw of myself in my own collection! Apparently, I’m a sentimental francophile and art history nerd who enjoys cookbooks more than cooking.”

Sophie Calle: Double Game

This is the ultimate and complete Calle. Double Game spans projects from the early 80s through to 2001, and it’s fun to imagine her obsessive detours and provocative meddling across Europe and New York. Calle also feels contemporary and relatable as she vulnerably puts herself as the subject of her work; at turns, funny, pathetic, deadpan then manipulative. I also love the role of the book itself in her projects. Whether she’s inspiring a character for a novel, or going through people’s suitcases, the role of documentation and the resulting book as a product is ultimately the most satisfying and complete version of her work.

Panned by The New York Times for her bad photography (which I believe misses the point) the book itself is precious and intimate; like a diary complete with a red ribbon, soft paper and maroon book cloth. Her projects are a performance that exists in three spaces simultaneously: the original moment, the exhibition, and the book. The craft of the document is intentionally functional and journalistic before it is committed to book form, and then it is intentionally rendered into a beautiful object to complete the creative circle.

Eduardo Del Fraile: Wine Labels

In the first decade of my career, I worked on dozens of booze brands: gin, champagne, vodka, rum, cognac and inspiration often came from the object itself, especially the bottle and label. Eventually and probably inevitably that led to a period designing bottles and packaging, during which I acquired Wine Labels from the Spanish publisher Index Book. This amazing collection of labels from the 19th Century to today is dreamy, like getting lost in a dusty wine cellar.

I even love the corny cork cover and wine bottle proportions because the overkill feels just right to me; harmoniously representing the specialness of the real object in a delightful two-dimensional way, better than any other label or packaging book I own. It’s a book that transports the reader in this way, it feels modern yet historical, effortlessly yet educational. I just wish it was ten-times longer.

Julia Child: Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Cookbooks are a particular pleasure of mine, and I had a hard time choosing a favourite among the Grant Achatz food porn and Nigel Slater’s seasonal bliss. But in the end, simplicity prevails. The classic standby, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was a high school Christmas gift from my older brother who had spent a year abroad in Paris.

I love it, not because it is beautiful (though the red fleur de lys pattern and all-Granjon layout is elegant and immaculately organised: perfection in bold italics with charming illustrations throughout), but because it is how I actually learned to cook. In pre-internet days, exhausted but too anxious to go to bed, I’d fall asleep reading about how to perfectly prepare eggs, brown onions or the art of a cold buffet. Though I have never actually attempted to make a soufflé, I’ve retained Child’s mushroom-cutting technique, can usually remember the difference between a squab and a capon, and have a long-standing appreciation for what can be done with a single typeface.

Hans H Hofstatter: Art Nouveau

I’ve had this book of Art Nouveau posters since I was a kid. It was the first time I realised that poster-making was a “thing” and that decisions were based on theories of line, colour, dependent on trends and printing techniques. Every time I open this book it reminds me to see things differently. I long ago tossed the dust cover because I loved the white on white book cloth as a surprise contrast to the storm of colour inside, full of texture on thick creamy cotton paper, enhancing the lustrous colours.

I love the black and white woodcuts, the sexy, dreamy poster girls, the sweeping bold lines, the deep colours and dramatic decorative compositions. Looking at this today, I revel at how different it feels from Adobe-produced techniques and RGB palettes, yet remains clearly connected to contemporary flat design.

Luigi Ghirri: It’s Beautiful Here, Isn’t It

Luigi Ghirri’s view of 1970 and 80s Italy is far from the touristic idyll or art historical impression of Italy. His photography has an ironic twist and sophistication, which sets him apart from his Italian contemporaries. His subject matter riffs on reproduction, context, cropped landscapes and designed compositions. Some of the best images in the book are just textures of walls, floors, postcards and books. Others, like the banal ashtray shots are reminiscent of Irving Penn.

The book itself is simple, matte and a pleasant horizontal scale, both modest and appropriate to the small size of his original format. The images are organised to highlight Ghirri’s love of the absurd and sense of humour, a reminder to never take anything too seriously, even in the home of civilisation and the cradle of art. His sardonic take on “the beautiful life” was hugely influential, and a powerful reminder of other ways of seeing Italy beyond the Grand Tour.

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About the Author

Rebecca Fulleylove

Rebecca became staff writer at It’s Nice That in March 2016 before leaving the company at the end of 2017. Before joining the company full time she worked with us on a freelance basis many times, as well as stints at Macmillan Publishers, D&AD, Dazed and frieze.

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