As designer clothing differs from off-the-rack clothing, so designer books differ from off-the-rack books. I take as occasion to discuss this difference the granting of the coveted MacArthur Prize to San Bernardino woodworker Sam Maloof. I do so because a 1983 book entitled "Sam Maloof, Woodworker"--written by Maloof but designed by Dana Levy--is, if any book ever was, a designer book.
The MacArthur Prize is given each year to a number of talented Americans. You cannot apply for it. You must simply wait for the MacArthur people to notice you. Maloof may not have been waiting for them to notice him, for until now, they have given most of their prizes to scholars and scientists rather than to woodworkers or designers. But if Maloof was surprised, others were not: His work has been widely and justly celebrated.
The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has 12 Maloof chairs as a part of its permanent collection. The museum acquired them for their beauty, of course; they were its first acquisition by a living American craftsman. However, it does not display them behind velvet cordons. They are in use. They are what the tired visitor to the Boston gets to sit on, and by now more than 200,000 visitors have done just that. That the chairs show few signs of wear is half of the proof that Maloof is good at what he does.
A man-made object can only be said to be designed if it is related, in some way, to a function. There are artworks from which the last residual element of function, even that of ornament, has been eliminated. Of them, it is difficult to use the phrases well-designed or badly designed . They serve no measurable function, and indeed--properly understood--they require none. Whatever their greatness, it is not the greatness of design.
A chair, by contrast, has an obvious function, and the design of a chair can be better or worse. Some comfortable chairs are ugly. Some beautiful chairs are uncomfortable. A chair that is both comfortable and beautiful--and is so not by chance but by intelligence applied to the distinct needs of the body and the eye--is well-designed. Sam Maloof has won the MacArthur Prize for a lifetime of work building that kind of chair.
A few years ago, when Maloof decided to write a book about his work, he wanted the book to be to the average book what one of his chairs is to the average chair. There are those who think that, as to its appearance, a book is a book, and no nonsense about it, just as there are those who think that a chair is a chair. Maloof is not among them, and he knew the book designer he wanted.
The book, of all those Maloof had seen, that best corresponded to his own design vision was "Bamboo," on the uses of that miraculous plant in Japan. "Bamboo" had been designed by Dana Levy, an American with 10 years of experience in Japan designing English-language art books there for distribution around the world. Maloof proposed a book on his furniture to Kodansha, publisher of "Bamboo"; Kodansha accepted the proposal, and Levy was given the job of designing the book.
As with chairs, so with books. There are those that are easy to read but ugly to look at. There are those that are beautiful to look at but hard to read or ill-suited for their purpose. A book designer begins with material almost as raw as wood: a pile of typescript on the one hand, a pile of photographs and drawings on the other. The rest is up to him.
How large will the book be? 7 x 10 inches? 9 x 12? 10 x 14? If he settles on 9 x 12, will it be bound on the short side, like an album, or on the long? What style of type will be used? There are hundreds. What size of type? Invariably, there will be several: chapter titles, subtitles, text, notes, index all may be in different sizes. How wide will the margins be? How deep will be the "sinkage" to the first line of text after a chapter opening? Will illustrations run in color or in black-and-white? If in both, then when will each form be used, and why? If captions are necessary, will they run at the bottom of the page, in the margin, or in some other place? May these decisions be made once for the entire book, or must they be made on a page-by-page basis?
A book designer begins his work with none of these questions (and there are dozens more) answered for him. Instructions from a book designer to a typesetter may run to several dense typewritten pages for the handling of the text alone. There remain instructions on the materials to be used. "Sam Maloof, Woodworker" uses three kinds of paper: a rough-textured, "woody" stock for the "endpapers," the pair of two-page spreads at the very front and back of a book, one page of each being glued to the cloth cover; a second stock coated (to guarantee sharp photographic reproduction) with a microscopic layer of white clay for the text and illustration pages, and a single page of tissue overlay superimposing the rough sketch of a chair arm upon a photograph of the sinuous finished product.
To list the decisions that a book designer must make is not yet to say what makes for outstanding book design. Decisions like those mentioned are decisions that, badly or well, every book designer must make. A fine designer simply makes them, page by page, with a care for the eye and hand of the reader that is like Sam Maloof's care for the thorax and pelvis of the sitter. And as one has to sit in the chair to appreciate it, so, finally, one has to read the book.
Dana Levy no longer lives in Japan. He lives in North Hollywood, where, with Letitia O'Connor, he is co-proprietor of a design-and-composition agency called Perpetua Press. Levy's most widely seen book design is that for "A Day in the Country," the book that accompanied the County Museum's Olympic exhibit of Impressionist art. But not to disparage that extraordinarily successful book, "Sam Maloof, Woodworker" is by any measure a bolder and more satisfying effort. Find a copy, the next time you are in a bookstore, set it alongside a paperback off the spin-'em-around wire rack, sit down in the best chair you can find, and think about the differences in two kinds of design.