From the Designer’s Desk: Susan Marsh on Designing Art Books

The second installment in our From the Designer’s Desk series brings you some delightful remembrances from the immensely talented Susan Marsh, a designer specializing in scholarly art books and exhibition catalogues.


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

I think I was born to be a book designer, but I was led along this path by three amazing role models.

When I was quite young, I had a friend whose mother, Dagmar Wilson, was a children’s book illustrator. I used to watch her, mesmerized, as she worked at her large drafting table, surrounded by jars of colored pencils and trays of gouache. Sometimes she would paint us into her illustrations, or include our favorite dresses or our new shoes. This seemed to me like an ideal life, so I decided that I would illustrate children’s books too.

Soon after that, Dagmar’s friend Hubert Leckie, an illustrator, designer, and teacher, started an art class for his own daughters, Dagmar’s daughters, and me. Every Saturday morning for eight years he took us on adventures — drawing animals at the Washington Zoo, drawing government buildings in perspective along Constitution Avenue, practicing calligraphy in his studio, learning mechanical drawing. By the time I was seventeen, I was well on my way to becoming an illustrator.

That was when I spent the summer working for Betty Binns, my book-designer cousin in New York, and I fell in love with type. In those pre-computer days, we prepared jacket comps by tracing type from specimen books, and then painting it onto acetate overlays. There is no better way to learn how letters are formed, and I was entranced with how beautiful the alphabet was when looked at closely. Not to mention the numbers! I spent hours learning, by drawing them, how letter shapes differed between fonts.

Of course, we did not spend every day tracing type. We also visited printers and typesetters, met with authors and photographers, and had business lunches with editors and production managers. People in publishing all seemed to be enthusiasts who loved what they did, loved books, and loved talking about books. I was impressed with the way each person had his or her own skills and responsibilities, but all would combine as a team for each project. And at the end you had a book, full of ideas or stories or recipes or gorgeous art. What could be better? So I became a book designer.

 

Do you design in other genres? Is the process different from designing art books?

Yes, one of my first clients was Rounder Records, an independent folk music label. I designed about 400 record jackets, cassettes, and CDs for Rounder over the course of thirty years, as well as logos and catalogues. We had extremely low budgets, which encouraged a lot of experimenting with torn paper collage, hand-tinting of old photos, and magic-marker air-brushing. For the first few years we economized by not getting proofs from the printer, so seeing the printed jackets was truly thrilling and sometimes devastating.

In some ways the record jacket process was quite different from the art book process. The time frame was much, much shorter, the type was much smaller, and the format was always square. But intellectually the design process is the same. For both record jackets and book jackets, the designer uses type and images to evoke an author’s or a musician’s ideas and mood.

I’ve also been lucky enough to have designed seven music books for Peter Guralnick, the foremost chronicler of blues, soul, and early rock ‘n’ roll, and we are working on an eighth book now. Peter’s books are long, intense, and mostly text, although they have quite a few black and white photographs. When designing them, it helps to be passionate about the subject matter. I first met Peter when I sat in front of him at a Waylon Jennings concert in 1978. When he discovered that I was almost as obsessed as he was, he said I should design Lost Highway, his then-forthcoming book with David Godine. As fate would have it, I had just shown my portfolio to Godine (his advice: “Small caps, ampersands, and old-style figures. You’ll be fine.”) so the deal was struck. The type was set by the self-styled “Singing Typesetter,” who had a large Linotron 202 in his small apartment, and habitually queried the author’s opinions on the galleys. He finally demanded an opinion showdown with Peter in my studio, and Peter actually agreed to it. It is hard to imagine a similar scenario with a Yale art book!

The most exciting project I worked on was in 2000, when I designed a book of Paul McCartney’s paintings and went to England twice to meet with him. When we were reviewing the sample pages, I mentioned that the typeface (Scala Sans, which I thought he would never have heard of) was somewhat similar to Gill Sans (which I assumed any Englishmen would know). To my astonishment he became very animated and said that in school he had learned to draft the letters of the London Underground typeface, which was designed by Edward Johnston and later became the basis for Gill Sans. I never imagined that Paul McCartney and I would bond over a typeface, but we did. It was the perfect melding of type, art, music, and books.


Here is a slideshow of just some of the recent, gorgeous books that Susan Marsh has designed for Yale University Press and our museum partners like The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Bard Graduate Center, and the Clark Art Institute:

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0 Discussions on
“From the Designer’s Desk: Susan Marsh on Designing Art Books”
  • This is fascinating, Susan, and inspiring. You have a rare and articulate way to explain the professional development process as well as the fascination offered by learning typefaces, designing covers & page layouts, and visually conveying an author’s intent. I will bookmark your writing to share with my students in technical theater design, since all who work in design are working in areas that can seem invisible. Your words here make visible the elusive process of becoming a designer, just as your designing makes visible the elusive link between words and images in each book you produce. Please continue writing!

  • Thanks for the memories and may graphic design always be respected as an art of its own, not simply as a computer program. Digital applications are terrific tools but, like the microwave oven, it’s the combined ingredients and subtle seasoning that go into it that results in a tasteful product.

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