From the Designer’s Desk: Cheryl Towler Weese

The May 2015 edition of From the Designer’s Desk is a missive from Chicago – from the incomparable Cheryl Towler Weese of Studio Blue.

  1. Why did you pursue design, rather than, say, painting or architecture or sculpture?

Like some of the other designers who have contributed to this blog series, I didn’t choose design – rather, it chose me. I started out as an art and art history major, with an interest in architecture, at Wesleyan. A professor steered me to the college’s sole typography class. And, perhaps embarrassingly, I was motivated to apply to graduate school at Yale because my boyfriend (now husband) did, where I truly fell in love with the field. I think this sometimes happens – that a practice finds you, rather than the other way around.

What I did choose was to focus on serving museums, universities, and other non-profits. Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, who began her tenure while I was a graduate student, helped instill this civic-mindedness; she embodies the idea of the citizen-designer, who acts as a public servant through her work. And Sheila’s advocacy of inclusivity and user participation – her belief in design’s ability to promote dialogue and engagement – has helped shape my work ever since.

 

  1. Is your work on a book project usually more of a slow, progressive effort, or is it moved forward by unpredictable moments of inspiration?

I think a publication’s strength comes from coalescing ideas into a distinct, holistic vision. A successful book is that which develops an independent perspective on a subject – intentionally and aesthetically.

We try to work collaboratively both with clients and within our studio. A curator may initiate an idea, or an artist, or a member of a museum’s publications team; and within the studio, we layer multiple designers’ investigations to make a publication richer. This inclusive approach usually means that a project moves forward gradually, but in fits and starts.

  1. Do you feel that a book’s design can, or even should, play an assertive role in how a reader experiences the book, or do you feel the best book design is a kind of behind-the-scenes art – where the reader isn’t even always aware of the influence of the design?

The book is under siege these days, and I often think about where publishing is heading, and what relevance publications have now and will have in the near future. What physical books can do – that’s different from the digital space – is translate the experience of a body of work into physical form. Design can help evoke ideas and form a bridge to readers. The way a book sits in the hand, the sense of adventure and delight sparked by unexpected formats, materials, and printing processes – these form an emotional connection with readers. These qualities are best when they’re noticeable, but that doesn’t mean design has to dominate.

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  1. What is your favorite font?

Oh, all of them! Mostly, I try not to use a typeface twice – unless it’s part of an institution’s identity. In that case, I try to use the font to frame the organization’s ethos, and help move its vision forward.

  1. Do you design books in other genres and categories than art and architecture? If so, what are some primary differences between designing, say, a novel versus a large, glossy book on architecture?

Our studio really does focus on art and architecture. But at UIC, where I teach a graduate book design studio, students explore a range of subjects. I encourage students to investigate broadly, and consider the formal and conceptual role design can play. This year, a book on the relationship between design and nature incorporated a continuous thread, whose voice ranged from a single skein to tangled loops. Another student’s book on the relationship between the auditory and the visual broke apart the elements of sound over the course of the book, from the paragraph, to the sentence, to the word, to the syllable.

I value these explorations outside the discipline, which can introduce new ways of seeing and making. That’s sometimes more difficult when working with art and architecture, which are closer to home.

  1. How can an author make a book designer’s job easier?

I love authors with a rich vision and the ability to describe it. The better we understand a subject, the better we’ll be able to translate it. But often this understanding is conveyed non-verbally. We might try to capture the way a photographer lifts his images from a box; or the qualities of an artist’s studio; or the way a curator moves elements around in an exhibition model. Spending time together helps.

  1. Who are your favorite book designers?

My favorite designers are those whose work evokes our time, or who resurrect the past and make it relevant to the present. The (perhaps) Eurocentric environment at Yale and at UIC continue to influence me, particularly the long-lived love affair between the Dutch and publishing. Some of my favorite books are those by Irma Boom and Joost Grootens – both investigate the relationship between the printed word, image, and the bound artifact tirelessly in an effort to translate the geist of a body of works or set of information.

I’m also a fan of designer/author/publishers Sara De Bondt, Ellen Lupton, Lars Müller, Andrew Blauvelt, and Robin Kinross, who help me understand the designed book’s past, present, and potential future.

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