Category Archives: design

Raven Steals the Sun

Raven Steals The SunThis is an ancient story told on the Queen Charlotte Islands about how Raven helped to bring the Sun, Moon, Stars, Fresh Water and Fire to the world.

Long ago, near the beginning of the world, Gray Eagle was the
guardian of the Sun, Moon and Stars, of fresh water, and of fire.
Gray Eagle hated people so much that he kept these things hidden.
People lived in darkness, without fire and without fresh water.

Gray Eagle had a beautiful daughter, and Raven fell in love with her.
In the beginning, Raven was a snow-white bird, and as a such, he
pleased Gray Eagle’s daughter. She invited him to her father’s
longhouse.

When Raven saw the Sun, Moon and stars, and fresh water hanging on the sides of Eagle’s lodge, he knew what he should do. He watched for his chance to seize them when no one was looking. He stole all of them, and a brand of fire also, and flew out of the longhouse through the smoke hole. As soon as Raven got outside he hung the Sun up in the sky. It made so much light that he was able to fly far out to an island in the middle of the ocean. When the Sun set, he fastened the Moon up in the sky and hung the stars around in different places. By this new light he kept on flying, carrying with him the fresh water and the brand of fire he had stolen.

He flew back over the land. When he had reached the right place, he
dropped all the water he had stolen. It fell to the ground and there
became the source of all the fresh-water streams and lakes in the
world. Then Raven flew on, holding the brand of fire in his bill. The
smoke from the fire blew back over his white feathers and made them
black. When his bill began to burn, he had to drop the firebrand. It
struck rocks and hid itself within them. That is why, if you strike
two stones together, sparks of fire will drop out.

Raven’s feathers never became white again after they were blackened
by the smoke from the firebrand. That is why Raven is now a black bird.

Ravens symbolize many things in different cultures. Native American tradition honors the raven as a symbol of courage and of magical guidance. The Arab culture calls the raven Abu Zajir which means “Father of Omens.” They are seen as oracular birds, used in divination. They are seen as symbols of death, life, the sun, magic, shapeshifting, and tricksters.

Legend from Ella E. Clark: Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, University of California Press, 1953.

Image: Raven Stealing Sun, by Ken Mowatt.

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The Decline of Book Making

About 1860, it was noted that printing quality was suffering in the throes of the Industrial Revolution.

Pennyroyal Caxton Bible

Henry Stevens, a Vermont-born rare-book seller in London and recognized proponent of fine printing wrote, “The disagreeable fact that our books are deteriorating in quality is assumed for the present and taken for granted. The fault exists and is daily becoming more and more manifest…”

“Our printing presses are teeming and steaming with books of all sorts (with some striking exeptions) not up to the mark of the high calling of book-making. It is no excuse to say that the rapidity of production has been largely increased. That amounts merely to confessing that we are now consuming two bad books in the place of one good one…”

“It is not the amiable public that is so hungry for cheap printing and cheap books, but the greedy provider of cheap and cheaper books with which the public is crammed like Strasburg geese, that are in fault. This downward tendency is not so much the fault of the consumers as the manufacturers. The manufacture of a beautiful and durable book costs little if anything more, it is believed, than it does to manufacture a coumsy and unsightly one.”

“Good taste, skill, and severe training are as requisitie and necessary in the proper production of books as in any other of the fine arts.”

Henry Stevens was engaged by the librarian of the British Museum, to collect historical books, documents and journals concerning North and South America; and he was purchasing agent for the Smithsonian Institution and for the Library of Congress, as well as for James Lenox, of New York, for whom he secured much of the valuable Americana in the Lenox library in that city, and for the John Carter Brown library, at Providence, Rhode Island. He became a member of the Society of Antiquaries in 1852, and in 1877 was a member of the committee which organized the Caxton Exhibition, for which he catalogued the collection of Bibles.

Image: Pennyroyal Caxton Bible

Mirvish Books Leaves the Village

Mirvish Books

David Mirvish Books is closing its doors after more than three decades as one of Toronto’s premier spots for art, design and photography books.

The bookstore has been stitched into the fabric of the Bloor and Markham Sts. area since 1974. David Mirvish opened the store as a part of the Mirvish Gallery, which showcased the work of colour field sculptors, painters and abstract artists.  In the heart of one of Toronto’s Victorian-style neighbourhoods, the establishment became a landmark in the Mirvish Village.

Store manager Eleanor Johnston said the doors will close Feb. 28.

“We are moving all of the inventory online. We’re not going to be like Amazon, that just lists everything. We will only list things that we have. It’s just another part of the world of selling retail. This is the transition that we’re taking. We’re not doing it with an aim of saying this is a better business concept.”

Frances Wood, the co-owner of Southern Accent, a restaurant across from the bookstore, said losing the 34-year-old establishment will change the face of the Village forever.

Mirvish Books is not the first independent bookstore to close in the area recently. Ballenford Books, specializing in books on architecture, on Markham St. just two doors away from Mirvish, closed last year after 29 years.

Mirvish’s closing has left some customers asking what will happen to the 50-foot-long painting by Frank Stella that dominates the store’s interior. “We don’t have any plans to do anything with it,” said Johnston.

For customers like Tracy Dalglish, who has been coming to the store since it opened, losing the building will end the romantic experience of visiting the store.  Dalglish remembers visiting with her father as a 13-year-old in the late ’70s.

“I would come down with my dad for the Boxing Day sales,” she said about her trips from Rosedale to the store. “I found my love of books in this store with my dad. It’s sad when you see places you love disappear.”

Susan Warner Keene was a curious student in her mid 20s at the Ontario College of Art when she discovered the store in 1974. She has been coming ever since. She said it was the most beautiful physical space any bookstore in Toronto had to offer back then. She finds inspiration for her work with hand papermaking from reading a variety of books the store offers.

“I’ve found books here that have been tremendously helpful in my own work,” she said at the store yesterday. 

“It’s probably my favourite bookstore, so it will be very sad to lose it.”

Revolutionary Type: Ecofont

ecofont

In the midst of all the printing companies offering recycled paper, vegetable-based inks and e-waste management, one firm in the Netherlands is backing up for a second and asking consumers to consider switching to a greener font.

Yes, we’re talking about the carbon footprint of Times New Roman, Helvetica and Gil Sans. But don’t roll your eyes just yet. Although it may seem silly, the new Ecofont, created by SPRANQ, could have major sustainable ripple effects and potentially kick-start a different approach to how we design typefaces, and why.

For instance, rather than ask a questions such as, “What makes a font look good?” this Dutch design team asked, “How much of a letter can be removed while maintaining readability?”

The answer, deduced after many trial runs and much coffee: 20%.

“We started off looking at Verdana, the most-used font in Holland,” says SPRANQ co-founder Gerjon Zomer of the creative process behind Ecofont. The Ecofont is based on the Vera Sans, an Open Source letter, and is available for Windows, Mac OSX and Linux.

The team then deleted thin vertical strips within each letter to produce as much negative space as possible – doing this saved about 50% of the ink but also left them with a font that was unreadable on most computer screens. They tried cutting out a series of square shapes and even stars, but in the end, circles proved most effective.

Finally, the designers switched from Verdana to Vera, and declared they had a winner. It’s now available for free downloading at Ecofont.eu.

“I think the power of Ecofont is its simplicity,” says Zomer. “There are a lot of complicated technical solutions out there to save ink, but they don’t usually appeal to people. We decided it was important to see the effect, right there in front of you.”

Some environmentalists argue that if renewable vegetable- or soy-based inks are used, it hardly matters how much is printed.

“But those still require cartridges,” Zomer says, “which need replacing, and each cartridge can require up to three and a half litres of oil to ­manufacture.”

Another advantage to the Ecofont is that it’s free.

“We found that most things to do with the environment right now are still very money-related,” Zomer says. “If a business is going green, it’s usually just for publicity’s sake and for customer reassurance. If the cost is too high, it won’t be successful.”

Reaction to the Ecofont, which unfortunately isn’t refined enough yet for book publishing or other high-end printing projects, has been mixed.

For whatever reason, North Americans tend to embrace it, but the European community has been more cynical, claiming it’s nothing but a cheeky marketing ploy.

Writers at Treehugger.com, for example, gave it a test-run and had mostly positive results, but they also point out that one could simply adjust the printer settings – think options such as low-resolution, fast draft mode or grey-scale.

Meanwhile, in a Jan. 2 National Public Radio broadcast in the United States, the host quipped, “We’re doing something similar here in our offices – our printers no longer use vowels.”

Still, despite all the criticism, there’s something to be said for green initiatives taking hold in unexpected places. The Ecofont proves that a seemingly inconsequential, small white dot on the stem of a 6-pt letter F can have a positive effect on the earth, one that’s hard to measure in quantitative terms but that perhaps signifies something greater.

And a small leap forward is always better than standing around doing nothing, so at the very least, the Dutch deserve a pat on the back for tackling the green movement in a unique way, choosing to think small in a world of big problems.

Source: National Post, January 15, 2009.

Graphic Novels: Comix or Lit?

Its fans number in the millions, and both the publishing industry and Hollywood have fallen in love with it. Despite seeming to be on the forefront of popular culture, however, there are grounds to dispute its very existence–or, if it does exist, exactly when it was born. This omnipresent but elusive creature is the graphic novel, and some people think it is 30 years old this month.

The puzzle ostensibly began in October, 1978, when Baronet, a small publishing house in New York, brought out a book entitled A Contract with God. Although the volume had the general feel of a comic book, it featured no superheroes or monsters. Instead, there were four fictional accounts of ordinary people coping with the burdens of life. More interesting yet was the cover of the book, which proclaimed it to be “a graphic novel by Will Eisner.”

Although Eisner had been more or less out of the comics business for years as of 1978, he still would have been revered had he never returned. His finest achievement had been the 1940-52 run of The Spirit. That series, depicting the adventures of a non-super-powered crimefighter, was famous for its superb composition. Bizarre angles, heavy use of shadows and a playful way with the opening titles were its hallmarks.

Despite the great success of The Spirit, Eisner drifted into other areas of commercial art during the 1950s and 1960s. When he returned to comics in the 1970s, he was no longer interested in straightforward tales of heroes and villains — he wasn’t even comfortable with the term “comic book.”

While searching for a publisher willing to accept A Contract With God, he portrayed the project as a “graphic novel.” (He later joked, “It didn’t work. I sent it to them, and they said, ‘It’s a comic book.'”) Eventually, he found Baronet, and history was made.

Or not.

Today, the concept that Eisner reputedly invented back in 1978 seems to be a resounding success. Often packaged as trade paperbacks featuring contents that integrate words and pictures for an audience not necessarily interested in Batman or Superman, graphic novels have won considerable recognition. Art Spiegelman, the elder statesman of the field since Eisner’s death in 2005, won a Pulitzer prize in 1992 for his Maus books, which dealt with the Holocaust. Serialized during the first half of the 1980s, and printed as an initial volume in 1986, the various editions of Maus had sold 1.8 million copies by mid-2004. Movie studios have been receptive to the graphic-novel phenomenon, and recent acclaimed films based on graphic novels include Road to Perdition, American Splendor, Ghost World and Sin City.

Yet there is a worm in this apple — if there is even any apple at all. Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian-born, French-based creator of the widely praised Persepolis books, snootily (and inaccurately) told The Wall Street Journal last year, “I don’t like ‘graphic novel.’ It’s a word that publishers created for the bourgeois to read comics.”

More surprising, Art Spiegelman has discounted Eisner’s impact on his own books. In a Nov. 14, 2003, column, Andrew D. Arnold of Time.com quoted Spiegelman saying the following about A Contract With God: “I liked one of the stories very much, but it didn’t register with me as having anything to do with what I had climbed on my isolated tower to try to make, which was a long comic book that would need a bookmark.” Eisner himself had doubts about terminology in his last years and was advocating several alternatives to “graphic novel,” including “graphic literature,” “graphic narrative” and the clunky “sequential art.” The British comics writer Alan Moore has offered a scornful suggestion: “big, expensive comic books.”

Even if one discounts all of the above and insists that the graphic novel emerged immaculately in the 1970s, alternate versions of its birth still abound. In 1971,Gil Kane brought out Blackmark, a 130-page fantasy tale in pocketbook form that billed itself as “the next step forward in pictorial fiction.” In 1975, a group of French writers and artists founded Metal Hurlant, which soon spawned a U. S. version, Heavy Metal. These two magazines highlighted numerous creators, including Guido Crepax.

In 1976, Jim Steranko and Byron Preiss collaborated on Chandler, a private-eye story printed as a trade paperback and touted as a “visual novel.” In the same year, writer Harvey Pekar started his autobiographical American Splendor series. In 1977, Canada’s Dave Sim started what would turn out to be an eccentric, 300-issue epic about a talking aardvark named Cerebus. In October, 1978 — the same month as A Contract with God was released — Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy brought out the adventure book Sabre, which the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide has called “the first direct-sale graphic novel.”

According to comics historian Denis Gifford, the San Francisco comix scene of the 1960s and ’70s was heavily indebted — through inspiration or outright mentorship — to none other than Harvey Kurtzman, who founded Mad magazine in 1952. Spiegelman has confirmed that he was one of the many kids avidly devouring pocketbook reprints of Mad in the 1950s. In addition to the curious involvement of Mad, there is an argument that graphic novels already existed in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1941, U. S. publisher Albert L. Kanter defied the trend of superhero comics and created a line of graphic adaptations of famous novels aimed at young readers. This line soon became known as “Classics Illustrated,” and it ran new material right up to 1969, just nine years before the release of A Contract With God. European contributions to the children’s market are just as extensive. Belgium’s Georges Remi (alias “Herge”) brought out the first of his celebrated Tintin books in 1930, and these visual escapades — about 60 pages each, some of the narratives continued from volume to volume — appeared until 1976.

Let’s get over it, and just accept that there are a multitude of genres and approaches within the comic literary form.

Full story at National Post

A 21st Century Gutenberg

When photography dealer Howard Greenberg celebrated his 25th anniversary in the business last year, he mounted an exhibition at his midtown Manhattan gallery. Amid 25 seductive highlights from his collection – including an abstract pear by Steichen, a pointillist streetscape by Karl Struss, two pieces of Americana by Walker Evans, and a print of Ruth Orkin’s An American Girl in Italy – he’d constructed a shrine to a book.

American Gallery

The installation made a strong case for the book’s place of honour among the dealer’s rare and expensive artifacts, with a video showing its creation, from typesetting to printing to binding, in an old-fashioned process that even Gutenberg might recognize.

The star of the 10-minute video was Michael Torosian, a Canadian little-known outside the small world of rare-book collectors. Since founding Lumiere Press in a garage at the foot of his yard in the west end of Toronto in 1986, Torosian has published 18 handmade books on photography. Printed on his vintage letter press, they are themselves works of art, limited editions in which the editorial content, design and printing is executed with an aesthete’s eye, an artisan’s hand and a perfectionist’s oversight.

Michael TorosianTorosian’s 19th book, An American Gallery, was produced by special order for the Greenberg anniversary and includes stunning high-tech reproductions of the 25 photographs from the exhibit accompanied by the dealer’s commentaries. The book took almost 12 months to produce, slowed down only slightly by the fact that the photos had to be printed separately and then placed by hand into each copy.

Lumiere editions include three volumes on Dave Heath and one each on Lewis Hine, Edward Burtynsky, Paul Strand, Gordon Parks and others. Torosian also has published three books of his own photography work.

The title page of An American Gallery went through 53 different designs before Torosian was satisfied. The typesetting ate up half a year. He took months to figure out how to insert the photographs, which are a different thickness than a normal paper page, to ensure they didn’t cause the book to spring open awkwardly.

“You have to be focused: every day, every week, every month. You can’t just sort of go through the motions, because it’s very unforgiving,” he explains. “I guess it’s like someone who makes violins or something: There might be monetary incentive to turn out 100 violins a year, but if you can only really do 18 credibly, then you’d better stick to the 18.”

“No matter how well a conventional mass-market trade book is produced, in their nature as a physical object, they all look the same: this sort of blockish object. They’re interchangeable. But when someone picks up one of my books, it has the same pedigree as other books, and yet it’s a different species. And that’s what they’re responding to. It’s familiar but it’s outside the ordinary.” A number of Lumiere Press books are in the collections of rare-book libraries.

The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at the State University of New York currently has a remount of the Greenberg anniversary exhibition, including the Lumiere video installation, which will stay up until June 22.

Excerpted from Simon Houpt, Globe and Mail, May 17, 2008

Lumiere Press