Laura Coombs presents her Bookshelf, and it’s all about attention to materiality

18 September 2019

For graphic designer Laura Coombs, books are spaces of escape. They expand her understanding of the world, providing beauty in both their content and through materiality. Currently a senior designer at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, not to mention a teacher on Princeton’s graphic design course and a freelance designer for Columbia Books, Laura’s Bookshelf is just a small insight into an ever-present fascination with print and her collection which spans her office, home, and even her parents’ house.

As an architecture graduate who recently earned a master’s degree from Yale’s prestigious graphic design course, Laura’s multi-disciplinary education has afforded her to think about books in a different way. “I tend to think of them as sequenced, conceptual idea-objects, paying particular attention to materiality.” And so, the books she presents to us today, all have some “special material aspect to them” but were all intended to be fairly utilitarian during the time of their publishing. Designed to be accessible to a broad audience on their first print run, here are five influential titles from Laura’s Bookshelf, from mass-market paperbacks, to freebies and other educational tools.

Carl Sagan: The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (1977)

I picked up this mass-market paperback, published in 1977, at a store called Books by the Falls in Derby, Connecticut, during my studies at Yale. I savour mass-market paperbacks, and this one in particular. I love the gold foil on the front, paired with a blurb on the interior where Isaac Asimov describes the author Carl Sagan as having “a Midas touch.” I love the misaligned craftsmanship, and how the running heads are cut off in places throughout the book. The chapters are introduced with stacked 3D primitive shapes and lines fading into the abyss of the newsprint page. The glossy front cover is constructed with a single folded flap whose width is shorter than the book itself, revealing a glimpse of the illustration beneath. And the illustration is a bizarre but lush scene of jungle, dinosaurs, primitive homo sapiens, and a couple of normative-looking deer. All around charming, it is bewildering and beautiful.

Tadnori Yokoo and Tadashi Kurahashi: Shoot Diary (1981)

One day I wandered into Dashwood Books in New York, and struck up a conversation with the amazing Miwa Susuda. I was asking her about a particular book when she told me to wait a moment while she brought something special up from the store’s basement. She handed me Shoot Diary, published in 1981, which documents a ten year period of Tadnori Yokoo’s life through casual photographs, made in collaboration with photographer Tadashi Kurahashi.

What’s special about this book, first of all, is how the casual intimacy of the snapshot determines the format and size of the book. Secondly, the number of photographs taken during the ten year period determines the length. The utilitarian binding with gauze tape on the spine has been extended to cover the front and back covers as well. Materially, then, the book is nothing but snapshots and binding, and the subtlety of that is beautiful, literally “gauzy” and elegant. (I believe that in later editions, they added a pink obi band for the extended commercial print run.)

David Pelham: The Facts of Life (1984)

I rediscovered this book while an architecture student and relocated it nostalgically from my parents’ house to my own apartment several years ago. It’s an educational pop-up book, designed by David Pelham in 1984, while he was a partner at Pentagram. It tells the story of human procreation through five spreads of vibrant pink and purple-hued illustrations and intricate three-dimensional paper engineering.

The functional humour of this book allows us to understand a fundamental mystery of the universe by opening pages and pulling tabs – “pull a tab to unravel the mystery of chromosomes,” the back cover reads. This sincerity is paired with the intensity of the subject matter at hand – the opening statement reads: “The only way in which human beings achieve biological immortality is by reproducing themselves in the form of children.”

It’s occurred to me that this book is in the right format for its subject, with symmetrical pages – recto and verso – opening to reveal right and left sides of the body. The scale is peculiarly uncanny too, at 9×12 inches, as a few of the dimensional biologic scenes appear almost real human scale.

Comic for Men (partially censored, 1994)

In college, my boyfriend moved to Japan to study architecture at the University of Tokyo. I visited him for a few weeks in the summer of 2005 and collected everyday, economically printed books and comics. This is a “comic for men,” a pornographic illustrated comic. The graphic design renders sounds and emotions with frantically collaged, exploding flurries of exclamation points and bits of Japanese understood, myself, only contextually. At the time I acquired this book, I was interested in depictions of women in all cultures, and depictions of women that appealed to men.

Beyond considering the political and social implications of the stories contained within, I come back to this book repeatedly to admire its materiality. The comic is printed in one colour, black ink throughout, and bound as a single signature. So many pages make the signature rather thick, but because the newsprint is so soft and fluffy, flipping through it is effortless. The cover is printed in colour with additional neon inks. This addition of fluorescent inks is perhaps why I picked it up in the first place, but the straightforwardness of its printing and construction overall is a reminder to not overthink any given project I’m working on.

Maximage: Edition Patrick Frey Catalog (2015)

A friend of mine picked this up for me at the New York Art Book Fair in 2015 at the Edition Patrick Frey table. This is the only specimen that I’ve included that was designed quite recently, but I love this book and use it as a resource all the time. And, it was free!

Designed by Maximage, the book is a set of folded newsprint press sheets, with perforations at the top to tear away and separate the pages. It’s an amazing resource – each press sheet is printed with a different set of inks in atypical 4-colour builds. It’s useful to see a catalogue of ink builds and their resulting effects, especially on uncoated paper. I’m always interested in using inks beyond CMYK, especially neons and metallics because they are more like real materials, each with its own stand-alone integrity. Neon inks have pigments that absorb UV energy and re-emit it, and many metallic inks have actual metal or aluminium in them. I also appreciate the generosity of Maximage, Color Library, and EPF for creating a useful set of tests and providing it as a free resource.

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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