Vonnegut-Chermayeff – Anna Castagnoli Giorgio Camuffo
Graphic design and illustration: two remarkable points of view on picture books
A. I just came back from Switzerland.
I discovered the book Sun, moon, star written by Kurt Vonnegut and illustrated by Ivan Chermayeff. It’s been republished by Topipittori with the Italian title Sole, luna, stella. Have you heard about it? It was love at first sight for me. Shall we start from here?
G. Chermayeff is one of the most important designers of the 20th century. It is indeed a good idea to start from his book, and I actually have the original version. Let’s do this. I’m curious.
A. Well, I envy your first 1980 edition.
On the original cover, under the jacket, sun, moon and star are silver and gold, aren’t they? The nativity of Jesus is probably the most famous story ever. Vonnegut recounts it with his disillusioned and sometimes ironic voice. We’re used to seeing the small scene from above – barn, star, shepherd – while Vonnegut’s story is narrated from the point of view of Infant Jesus who still can’t see clearly. I think that the whole book is a reflection on sight. As a matter of fact, before Chermayeff’s abstract images, there is a 17th-century illustration of a big dissected eye. How does it feel to see with human eyes? That’s what the book wants us to think about. We are very familiar with the images of the nativity of Jesus (Westerners can easily recall the crèche: Mary, Joseph, a donkey and an ox) but when we focus on the illustrations and try to link them with our memories, Chermayeff’s abstract collages confuse us. We are disoriented. As the infant, we can’t see clearly. However, while I was reading, I felt like I was going back to an early, purer way of seeing, free from figurative art. Did Malevich, in 1915 (when Abstract Art began to spread), dream the same dream when he hung a black square in a sacred place instead of the icon? What do you think of the book?
G. Before answering your question, I believe I have to clarify for our readers that I’m a graphic designer; therefore, the first thing I do when I take a book in hand – no matter if illustrated or not– is not read the story but observe, with curiosity and sometimes a bit of envy, the layout, typography, paper and binding. I try to understand how the book works, the idea or perhaps the graphic invention that surrounds the story or supports the experience of reading and watching a book. It was this curiosity of mine that gradually made me observe with particular interest the books and picture books for children created by graphic designers; I then started to collect them. When I was a young designer I also went on pilgrimage to the studio of Ivan Chermayeff in New York, and I received a poster with some illustrations, that looked like the ones in Sun, Moon, Star, as a gift.
I don’t have the new Italian edition – but, judging from the images I saw on Topipittori website, it seems very much different from the original one that I’m holding right now.
At least, the cover does.
I have to say – you’ll probably be disappointed – that I didn’t like the original that much.
Don’t get me wrong: the book is amazing.
How could I not admire Vonnegut’s intelligence and irony and the beauty of the drawings? Yet, there’s still something that doesn’t win me over and stops the fascination. I’m not convinced by the print on super glossy and shiny black paper, on which the readers’ imprints are inevitably visible and makes the text impossible to read because of the reflection. I’m not mad about it because it’s too perfect and luxurious, with a very rich bonding that is more suitable for a corporate monograph or a tourist and photographic reportage book than for a book which tells the story of a poor family.
Talking of the Italian edition Sole, Luna, Stella, I’d say that the idea of changing the cover and making a new one, confuses me and makes me think. I wonder why Topipittori and Riccardo Falcinelli – respectively, a publishing house and editorial designer that I think highly of – decided to change the cover. I wonder whether the reason was the inclination to consider a cover as an independent advertising tool, separate from the work itself. On the contrary, I think that, especially for illustrated books, and especially for the ones planned by graphic designers, it is misleading and wrong to design a distinction between the content and the cover… it would have been better to keep the text but redesign the book completely; that would have been a good challenge.
What’s your opinion? Do you think it is a good idea to modify an illustrated artist’s book like Sun, Moon, Star in such a way?
The dialogue continue on the fourth issue of illustratore italiano magazine.