Books art not dead!

Books, Exhibition

Death books

This post gives a flavour of the hard work that goes into producing a book like Death: A Picture Album, the publication that accompanies our most recent Wellcome Collection exhibition. Here is a behind-the-scenes view from Commissioning Editor, Kirty Topiwala. To see the making of this book have a look at this video

The brief

Marianne and I first started thinking about the book in the early summer of 2012. Having spoken to the curators, we reviewed the images and information we had about our next exhibition,  Death: A self-portrait. Given the visual impact of the work in the show and the limited time we had to produce something, we agreed that the publication should be simple, beautiful and picture-based. We wanted it to work as a fitting souvenir of the exhibition, but also a book that would stand-alone and have a ‘life’ after the show had ended.

The idea

At first, we considered a postcard book or box. Then, inspired by the black-and-white snapshots and postcards from Richard Harris’s collection, Marianne suggested producing an ornate, old-fashioned photograph album, with images that would look as though they had been collected and stuck in. We consulted our printer, Murray Arbiter at ArbiterDrucken, about what would be possible and what we could afford. It was surprising what cost the most! Boxes and metal clasps were out, but a cloth-bound hardback book was just inside our budget. We explored that idea further and after reworking it several times eventually came up with the final concept: an elegant picture book that felt like an old-fashioned keepsake.

The design

Marianne spent many hours rummaging through old source books for antique patterns and re-drew them by hand to incorporate deathly elements: the bones, clocks, moths, ravens and the skull. Much discussion went into these designs. Marianne tweaked the birds to look more menacing, then less menacing, and finally more menacing again. We tried several different skulls: one looking to the side (too creepy), one that was almost smiling (too cheerful), but finally stuck on the current model. The yellow background was chosen to fit in with the design of the exhibition and the marketing campaign. We hoped there would be a strong visual link between them, and that the colour would make the book stand out on a crowded bookshelf.

The content

We thought it would be easy to select the images we needed, seeing as all the works were from one collection. We were wrong. Most of the items hadn’t been photographed and, to make matters worse, they were sitting packaged up in crates in a dock in Chicago waiting to be shipped to London. We had no choice but to send our photographer, Ben Gilbert, on an emergency transatlantic trip to the Windy City, where he set up a makeshift studio to photograph hundreds of the items both for us and the press team. Ben, we couldn’t have done this without you!

The production

It might look simple, but it took plenty of research, multiple tests and a few migraines to the get the final printed product right. We wanted Marianne’s ornate cover design to be ‘debossed’ into the surface of the cloth cover to make it tactile and feel special. To get this effect we used an old-fashioned technique known as foil stamping, a process where copper plates stamp the design through a very thin sheet of black foil into the cloth. Murray tried several types of foil, some brought in especially from Germany, before we found the right one.

In the midst of this panic and as the opening date of the exhibition loomed, we discovered that the yellow cloth sample we had been carefully matching to the gallery paint and marketing posters was in fact sun-bleached. This meant that the hundreds of metres of cloth we had ordered from a special supplier in Holland was the wrong colour. It was at this point we started to think we weren’t going to make it…

The finished product

I’m pleased to say, however, that we got there in the end. This book did, at times, have us losing the will to live (which was apt for a book about death), but we’re all immensely proud of the result. We like to think that it’s a beautiful object in its own right rather than just a ‘catalogue’ and it’s wonderful to see that the buyers in our shop seem to feel the same way.

Thank you to Kirty Topiwala for writing this post and David Sayer for taking the photographs.

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