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.

A charming exhibition project

Advertising, Branding, Exhibition, Marketing, Photography, Print, Typography

Miracles and Charms poster on London Underground









Wellcome Collection’s autumn 2011 exhibition programme explores the extraordinary in the everyday with two shows: Infinitas Gracias: Mexican miracle paintings, the first major display of Mexican votive paintings outside Mexico; and Felicity Powell: Charmed Life, an exhibition of unseen London amulets from Henry Wellcome’s collection, selected and arranged by the artist Felicity Powell. Exhibited under the banner ‘Miracles and Charms’, it draw lines between faith, mortality and healing, and offers a poignant insight into the tribulations of daily life and human responses to chance and suffering.

It was a real pleasure to work from start to finish on the graphic design of a major exhibition by Wellcome Collection. Collaborating with Luis Olmos and Malcolm Chivers at conceptual stage, we explored many ideas in several brainstorming sessions. We found the biggest challenge was representing both exhibitions equally and without visually leaving one at the mercy of the other.

Two pages of my sketchbook showing symbols and typography

Starting off with a blank white page, slowly ideas good and bad hit the sketchbook.












The typography came first. Taking inspiration from the decorative handwriting of the Mexican paintings and from The Lord’s Prayer, a hand written verse on a circle of paper. How could we bring the diverse visual nature of these exhibitions together though? Concentrating on the artworks from both shows we wondered if the artist’s materials could be the linking concept; paint and the physical object.

I worked to push this concept further with Bret Syfert. Bret’s skills in handwritten typography are inspired by King Kadism and his perfected handstyles in Philadelphia’s subway tunnels. Bret really brought this idea to life first with fresh, painted brushstrokes and then with beautiful pencil drawn letter forms and finally clean vector artwork in Adobe Illustrator. There was a lot of to-and-fro between us at this stage. The letters had to have character but they had to work as a title treatment in many sizes and orientations, it took us a while to get the perfect marriage between flourish and legibility.

Pencil drawing of Miracles & Charms lettering
Pencil drawing of Charmed LIfe lettering

















It was now time to turn our attention to the other visual element, the light-filled cloud that would form the background to the design. Bret painted a small test cloud with acrylics on wood and photographed it, while I added our typography and branding to provide our curators and marketing team enough of an idea to proceed with. It was a real leap of faith for our marketing team who really had to trust our idea and the process we had envisioned for the design.

Our InDesign layout was approved as the concept began to turn into reality. Bret’s vector files were sent to a water jet cutting company in Yorkshire to create our copper letter forms and I repainted our cloud at a larger size to get the scale and detail that we needed for all our large format advertising later on.

Bret's original small acrylic paintingTracing the painting for enlargementPainting the large board outside in the sun

The final enlarged painting of the cloud


When the copper letter forms arrived we were so excited. Malcolm and I set up a photo shoot with Dave Sayer and Ben Gilbert, our in-house photographers, to bring all the elements together.

the photographic studio

setting up the lighting

the copper letter forms on a piece of glass

the photos shown on the monitor to check the exposure

Malcolm and Marianne adjusting the copper letters





















































The final two images needed a lot of post-production to get the effect we desired. A lot of time was spent isolating the elements, creating layers, adjustment layers and effects to get the ‘miraculous’ feeling we were trying to achieve.

the final photo landscape version




























The final marketing image was really just the beginning of this project but what a fun journey. It was a great example of collaborative working. Putting our heads together and capitalising on the skills of four very different designers made for a wonderful experience.