Archive for the ‘design’ Category
Exhibit A: The prologue of Railsea by China Miéville.
This is the story of a bloodstained boy.
There he stands, swaying utterly as any wind-blown sapling. He is quite, quite red. If only that were paint! Around each of his feet the red puddles; his clothes, whatever colour they were once, are now a thickening scarlet; his hair is stiff & drenched.
Only his eyes stand out. The white of each almost glows against the gore, lightbulbs in a dark room. He stares with great fervour.
The situation is not as macabre as it sounds. the boy isn’t the only bloody person there: he’s surrounded by others as red & sodden as he & they are cheerfully singing.
The boy is lost. Nothing has been solved. He thought it might be. He had hoped that this moment might bring clarity. Yet his head is still full of nothing, or he know not what.
Exhibit B: The new cover for Railsea by China Miéville.
Talk about tonal dissonance and false expectations!
Alain de Botton has a new book to plug which means he has been trolling the newspapers with eye-catchingly stupid ideas. This time round it is an atheist temple, a concept so stupid it is painful to even type. Before taking the piss out of de Botton and talking a bit about atheism though, I’d like to address the practicalities of the proposal.
The idea is to build a 46 metre tower for £1m in the City of London. Currently de Botton has raised less than £500,000 from a group of property developers and hopes to raise the rest from public donations. Even if he reaches his target, that seems a pretty low figure. If we think about another ludicrous folly that’s just been erected in London, the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the construction costs were £19m and the land was thrown in for free. Admittedly that was a bigger and more complicated (and uglier) project but still.
The nice computer generated image on de Botton’s website shows the tower plonked down right next to the Bank of England. I think we can safely say it won’t be located there since there is no space for it and, if there was, no one would give the land to him for free. Press reports suggest instead that it is “likely to be located” in the Barbican. Again, I’d like to know where this land is. Such a location would also rather undercut the majestic soaring tower shown in the illustrations since it would be surrounded by the UK’s three largest residential buildings which at 123 metres would be two and a half times as tall.
Then there is the fact that whilst much is made of the buildings height, nothing is mentioned of its width. The illustration suggests this is about four metres, making this awe-inspiring temple about the same size as my front room. If you are going to build a tiny tourist attraction for reflection, why not build unlimited urban wood for a fraction of the cost and inconvenience? If you want a practical space for the discussion of humanist ideas then build something less ostentatious and more useful like Conway Hall?
So that’s why I don’t think this tower will ever get built and why if it did, it wouldn’t actually fulfill its intended purpose. Now onto the snark. Here is the project’s statement of intent:
As religions have always known, a beautiful building is an indispensable part of getting your message across. Books alone won’t do it.
This is a pretty unorthodox historical analysis. Consider Fountains Abbey, one of the UK’s greatest religious buildings. Back in 1132, were medieval peasants sitting around their hovels, flipping through their bibles and going “hmm, this narrative isn’t very compelling, if only there was some impressive architecture to swing it for me”? No, they weren’t since, for all intents and purposes, books didn’t bloody exist. Even after the invention of moveable type three hundred years later, your average serf on the street wasn’t likely to have a nice little library of Penguin Classic. Or even be able to read. The idea that churches and cathedrals existed to supplement books is ridiculous, they existed to glorify god and spread the good word because congregating physically was the only way of doing so. This is no longer the case. In fact, the decline in church attendance has mirrored both the rise in other forms of communications and the increased education and leisure time to access them. de Botton simply ignores this, looking backwards to a time when everyone was illiterate as his solution to a perceived 21st Century problem.
But does this problem actually exist? Putting aside the nonsense about buildings being an “indispensable part of getting your message across”, why do atheists need to get the message across at all? I am an atheist. This is for the simple reason that I don’t believe in god. As long as I am not discriminated against, however, I don’t care what anyone else believes. Despite positioning himself as the cuddly alternative to Richard Dawkins, he is guilty of exactly the same crime: proselytising. I’m sure I speak for a lot of atheists when I say I wish they would both just fuck off. I’ll give the final word to Chris Bertram though:
Any spat between Alain de Botton and Richard Dawkins is one where I’m kind of rooting for both of them to lose. On the other hand, Dawkins has some genuine achievements to his name and has written some pretty decent books, so there’s some compensation when he acts like an arse, whereas in de Botton’s case…
Today I received two books from Orbit and, whilst I am looking forward to reading both, it was their covers that particularly struck me. Here is Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan:
And here is Version 43 by Philip Palmer:
The cover for Lightborn was designed by Nathan Burton and art directed by Duncan Spilling (more here, including larger image). The cover for Version 43 was photographed by Eric Westpheling and art directed by Lauren Panepinto (more here, including larger image). Both covers take radical yet radically different approaches to complimenting the work behind them
Lightborn has a stark, monochrome cover depicting light being split by a prism where, instead of producing a rainbow, it simply fans out in a grey wave. As well as harmonising with the title, it signals a novel with serious intent and presumably a dark future. It reminds me a bit of Gollancz’s paper space opera series but I’m worried it is too non-descript (the typeface is also very small for a novel). However, when I mentioned this cover on Twitter several people said that they thought it would stand out by virtue of the fact it is so different to other SF covers.
In contrast, I really do think Version 43 stands out. The cover is split between text and image and both are highly distinctive. The top half is a blue bold background with a really strong and unusual typeface (as well as a small element of graphic design). The bottom half is a photo an Action Man figure with several more in silhouette. Again, this harmonises with the title, a disposable figure in a conformist society. The protagonist of the novel is a cyborg cop, “more programme than man”, and the harsh light, stern expression and menacing shadows set a hard-boiled tone. It isn’t quite as instantly brilliant as the similar cover for his previous novel but it is pretty damn good. From comments elsewhere, it is also seems to be divisive though.
There is an interesting post by Amy McCulloch over at the Voyager blog about the shift from illustrative to abstract art on genre covers. It is a welcome trend, the move from this to this (to pick two random examples). However, at the end of the piece McCulloch gives an example of Voyager moving in the opposite direction with Stephen Hunt. Here is the old cover of Secrets Of The Fire and the new one:
I can understand why they’ve done it; it is well known that the blander and more generic a cover, the more successful it is with the target audience. At the same time, it is still a shame. I’ve certainly always admired Hunt’s old covers. (Who is responsible? Artists and designers get a bit of a raw deal, these things are often hard to find out.) It is also slightly ironic given the fact McCulloch starts her post by saying:
We also have to be extra careful not to alienate any potential readers as external market research has shown us that sometimes more traditional-looking, illustrative fantasy covers are off-putting for newcomers to the genre… Basically, more graphic, elegant covers are hopefully appealling to our extremely loyal genre fanbase as well as to new readers who perhaps wouldn’t expect to enjoy a ‘fantasy’ novel — and changing the perception of the genre as a whole.
Unrelatedly but speaking of stylised covers, here is the nicest Bible ever (via Caustic Cover Critic):
On Sunday, I went down to the Southbank to see The Edges Of The World, the Ernesto Neto exhibition at the Hayward. It is a really fun experience, the whole think is imbued with a child-like sense of joy about the world, from the sculpture like a giant geometric toy to the colourful womb-like space the The fact you have to take your shoes off further breaks down your sense of adulthood and the actual kids were loving it.
Downstairs it was a bit more serious (but not much) at the New Decor exhibition which was essentially artists versus interiors. My favourite piece was actually the most serious: Jin Shi’s 1/2 Life which takes its inspiration from the explotation of migrant labour. In contrast, the rest of it was all rather playful (with mixed results – a lot of the Gelitin pieces looked like modern art cliches). Even the toilets got in on the act:
Is this part of the exhibit or is it always like this? Anyway, we wondered out into the sun to be confronted by a model favela outside. This was an installation artists Haas & Hahn, a sort of slum version of Home Sweet Home*:
Their social project ‘Project Morrinho’ is one that takes the form of a miniature city built by young people in Rio de Janeiro from brick, paint and other found materials inspired by the landscape, architecture and everyday life of the favelas that span the city.
In unwitting homage to the name of the project, some nob had extensively tagged it with Chelsea graffiti. This didn’t look particularly out of place though, the London kids invovled in making it obviously weren’t overly blessed with imagination.
Then it was across town to the V&A for 1:1 Architects In Small Spaces (hence the trip to Thai Square). Okay, I’ll be honest I was going there for one main reason: The Ark. It was every bit as awesome as I’d hoped but unfortunately none of my photos came out. So instead here is a picture of the equally awesome Ratatoskr (named after Drill Tooth, the Norse messenger squirrel). It was made by scanning twelve birch trees, digitally knitting them together and then cutting them out and combining for real. The result is incredibly impressive.
The Beetle House was another favourite and has given me an overpowering urge to buy a shed and take a blowtorch to it. The exhibition is free and I would highly recommend getting down (the rest of the V&A is pretty amazing too). If you can’t, I’ve got a few more photos and you should check out the concept submissions online.
* My house is the red one with flowers coming out of it at the top left of that photo.
A Single Man may be an “indulgent exercise in 1960s period style, glazed with 21st-century good taste, a 100-minute commercial for men’s cologne” but it has one of the best put together trailers I’ve ever seen:
Fantasy readers tend to complain if their novels don’t come complete with a pretty map at the front. Non-fantasy readers tend to take the piss out of them for this. Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie laughs in the face of all this:
Having only seen it online, I had just thought it was a continuation of the imitation parchment covers for the First Law Trilogy. It was only when I had the thing in my hands I realised they had (brilliantly) put the map on the outside. It gets even cleverer. As the novel ranges across the continent of Styria, the page bearing the geographical title of each section is printed on a greyscale close up of the relevant area of the map. The jacket only credits the two illustrators but it appears to have been a real team effort:
Original concept from Simon Spanton (I believe), expanded upon by my editor Gillian Redfearn, who then put the brief together and assembled the team to carry it out (kind of like the A-Team, but with more artistic accumen and less mercy), and co-ordinated the project. The sword was painted by weapons expert Didier Graffet, the map was drawn by map-master Dave Senior, adapting my own scrawl, then the whole was combined and made to live by designer Laura Brett (also responsible for the First Law covers), who added the spatter, coins, parchmenty effects, and lettering.
The less said about the American version the better but at least the paperback edition had character. Anyway, I know I’m very late to the party but this is still worth saying. The book itself is bloody good too.
One final point: the Penguin sf covers presented here are neither exhaustive nor intended to be. Aesthetics are every- thing for a website called The Art of Penguin Science Fiction, and in this regard many of the later covers have little to offer. Thus they are excluded, and from 1977 to 2009 all coverage (no pun intended) ceases. For as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote for very different reasons, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”.