When we get in touch with the people whose work we admire to ask if they’d like to be involved in the Bookshelf feature, we ask them to pick books which have been particularly inspiring or influential to them in their lives, and this brief might never been more closely followed than by Jessica Svendsen. Jessica is a graphic designer at Pentagram and teaches Typography at both Parsons and Pratt in New York, as well as working on a number of freelance projects which are as remarkable for the degree of research which informs them as for their bold, impactful imagery.
She kindly chose five books from her shelves to share with us, explaining that “while my selections may not be remarkable in terms of editions or provenance, I chose the books that have influenced me the most (both early on as a designer and within the past year).” What could be more interesting than that? Read on!
Michael Kaufmann: Textual Bodies: Modernism, Postmodernism, and Print
As an English major in college, I became preoccupied with modernist authors who experimented with textual composition. While I primarily studied twentieth century modernists – authors like Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and Eliot – I also gravitated to novels dating back to the eighteenth century, like Laurence Sterne’s _The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy_ which play with similar interruptions. These modernists used typography, composition, and book design to defamiliarise the reading experience, to express different vernaculars, and according to Michael Kaufmann’s analysis, create new, meta-textual meaning. From the black page in Tristram Shandy to signal death, to the coffin shape and textual gap in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying to the large dot at the end of the Ithaca chapter in Joyce’s Ulysses these authors incorporated disruptive, visual signifiers, as part of the narrative.
James Joyce: Ulysses
With chronic eye problems, Joyce is not a particularly visual author. But he has an unmatched command of language, vernacular, and affect. Joyce structures the novel on the Modernist idea of the moment, with an obligation to document every person, every object, every register of language – even the vulgar. With the multiplicity of styles and the layers of referentiality, Joyce’s epic narrative rejects a monocular vision of the world, where there is no one meaning or interpretation above another.
Robert Adams: Summer Nights, Walking
This volume collects a series of photographs that Robert Adams created in the 1970s near his Colorado home. Captured at night, the photographs reveal a suburban neighbourhood as illuminated by street lamps. For Adams, night became a time of discovery, allowing him to see spaces that he may have previously dismissed or neglected. When I first encountered Summer Nights, Walking it seemed as if light itself was a subject matter. I subsequently became preoccupied with the qualities of light and shadow within the context of design, and how formal framing may defamiliarise ordinary experiences or objects.
Michael Rock: Multiple Signatures
Structured as the textual half of the 2×4 monograph, Multiple Signatures features interviews, essays, and diagrams of Michael Rock’s methodology. Each section is almost written and designed as a formal exploration of language. For Rock, design should both articulate a visual argument or position – the ideas are embedded in the surface – and exploit or convey a specific affect. I periodically revisit two texts: a conversation with Rob Giampietro on metaphor, which by definition is “virtualisation in its most original form,” and a compendium of Rock’s lectures on the history of screens. As screens have become mobile and personal, Rock argues that the screen has become a “prosthetic, not serving vision but extending it…[where] the browser and flaneur are, at last, reconciled.”
Peter Mendelsund: What We See When We Read
Mendelsund examines what we imagine when we read, resulting in a discursive exploration on the relationship between the textual and the visual. Anna Karenina is a notable example – she has few physical descriptors in Tolstoy’s text, and yet her representation in painting and film adhere to specific definitions of beauty. Mendelsund describes how a character’s physical appearance may be an incomplete outline, a fragmented collage, or a projection based on artifice. The image also changes as the character develops or as the narrative progresses. But his concluding citation from Woolf’s To The Lighthouse may be the ultimate summation of the reading experience, that “this is one way of knowing people…to know the outline, not the detail…She looked at her canvas; it was blurred.”