12 BIGGER MONSTERS
In July 2009 I stumbled on the deluxe re-issue of the 1974 book “Charles Harper’s Birds & Words” at the Paul Smith store on Melrose. It came in a beautiful linen-covered clamshell case that was blind-debossed with the title set in “Kismet,” an undulating decorative typeface. The book’s gorgeous production values filled me with deep jealousy and longing. I wanted to make something that pretty, too.
- Buy one
- from me
- See more
- 344 Design
- Character Design
- Fancy Production Techniques
The reality of the Monster Book and the Medals was such that they needed to find their market. To me that meant aiming for the lowest possible sticker price, so people could check it out without having to plunk down a lot of cash. I designed both with love, and both How Books and Knock Knock invested in great printing and pretty bindings, but the sumptuous treatment of “Birds & Words” is not for the mass market. I’d have to do it myself.
Even before designing the book for Tarsem’s movie The Fall I’d wanted to make a large format book of drawings. The oversize editions of Horst Jansen’s Tosca and H.G. Rauch’s 1601 had been fetish objects in my parents’ library for as long as I can remember. I had spent almost three years making letter-sized Monsters. They were ready to go big!
With my own projects, I like to work out the production specs before I work on the content. It gives me some restrictions to inspire me, and having some dollar figures and deadlines sharpens the mind. I called up my friend Marcia Mosko at Tobu, who had printed the Tarsem book, and asked her to show me some tricked out fabrics. Specifically, I asked her if there was silk the color of an Arnold Palmer—tea bleeding into lemonade. As it urns out, there isn’t, and for good reason. Non-repeating patterns lead to too much waste during production. Marcia did, however, bring me a gorgeous sample of irridescent Dupioni silk that changed color from bright pink to bright orange as you moved it in the light. Perfect!
The idea was to make a 14 x 17 in. (30.5 x 43.2 cm) hardcover book of about 20 Monsters on thick, beautiful paper—just like the books I’d loved growing up. I ran the idea by my friend Lisa Jann at L.A. Louver, and she wisely suggested that oversized books see little use over time. What if I’d make it into a portfolio of drawings, so people could frame the prints. Not only was this an excellent idea in and of itself, I had also grown up admiring Jules Stauber’s Delicatessen portfolio, so the hero worship angle was still covered. The change from book to portfolio also led to a change in specifications. The prints would measure 12 x 16, so they’d fit into a standard frame size. And there would be a dozen instead of 20 in homage to Jules Stauber and in recognition of financial realities.
With all this settled, I started drawing on great, heavy Canson paper. Working at about four times my usual size allowed me to add all kinds of nice little details—fabric twill, nails in the soles of shoes, that sort of thing. The trick was not to go too far into this direction. I wanted the characters to stay as loose as their regular size brothers and sisters.
Due to my regular client work, the process was a bit more stop and start than I’d anticipated. In the end it took me 16 months until I had drawn twelve Monsters that struck me as worthy of the portfolio. Along the way, I tried getting the piece ready in time for my AIGA Make/Think talk, for the 2009 holiday season, and for a few arbitrary deadlines. I usually like to barrel through a project, only to feel guilty later about rushing things. I would do this project right, and work on it until it felt absolutely right.
While I was drawing away, I designed the portfolio case on a separate track. Everything would be case bound—hardcover—including the flaps holding the drawings inside. This caused a bit of trouble, because there was no great place to insert a ribbon to tie the thing closed. Marcia had prototypes made that sunk the ribbon into the cover and back boards, but it looked twee to my eye. The almost electric fabric looked futuristic, and the ribbon was of the past. Could we close the portfolio with hidden magnets? Yes, we could? Brilliant!
I knew I wanted to use my patented 344 rays for the lining, but thought that I should hide surprises beneath each flap. I began a pointilist death march that looked great, but was so utterly tedious that I had to cry uncle after filling one of the two short flaps. That little piece later found new life as the 344 Lamp. In the end I just ran the rays all the way to the edges of each flap. I have a tendency to get overwrought anyway. This was a good choice.
The rays made another appearance on the cover sheet, along with some custom lettering for the title. I had decided on “12 Bigger Monsters,” because it’s true, and as a tip of the hat to David Hockney’s then brand new “A Bigger Picture.” For the title I simply lettered a big number 12 to keep the case sleek and mysterious. It also left me some wiggle room had I changed my mind about the title later.
Once I had decided on my 12 top Monsters I started running tests with my friends at Typecraft who’d make the prints on their Indigo press. The idea was to scan or photograph each piece, and print the whole thing as a facsimile on a great textured paper. This would be the simplest part of the process, I thought, and as always I was wrong. It was almost impossible to print an even paper color, and to keep it consistent from drawing to drawing. To top it off, printing on textured stock looked hoaky. This meant that I’d have to color correct each image to remove the creamy tone of the original paper without destroying the subtle pencil lines I’d used throughout. What’s a few more months of late nights?
In the meantime, the finished portfolios arrived from China. I had ordered 175 for an edition of 150 portfolios and 25 artist’s proofs. Well… as it turned out, more than half the cases had weaving errors in the fabric, or were scuffed during shipping. Back they went, to be replaced with a second run. Every single case is built by hand, and I’m told the bindery had to expend major effort to find enough pristine fabric to fulfill my order. There are parts of China where I won’t be welcome for a few more years yet.
When I was finally finished preparing the drawings for print, Typecraft worked their usual magic, making the prints look amazing. The uncut sheets then went across town to be embossed with 0.344 in. (0.87 cm) diameter 344 seal in the bottom left corner.
By now the second round of portfolios had arrived, and once again my cruel eye found faults. But just over 100 cases pleased me, so I adjusted the edition size to match. This turned out to be a stroke of good fortune. At the urging of my friend David Mayes I’d used Mohawk Options Smooth Digital 80 lb. Cover stock. It’s a gorgeous sheet. A gorgeous recycled sheet, with a bit of speckling. Tiny inclusions. Little dark specks. Not all of which I approved of. This is where I finally descended into madness.
As I was assembling the 100 sets on my living room floor, I was distracted by those minuscule inclusions more and more. I would charge people $344 for each portfolio. I couldn’t let it go out with sheets that had unsightly specs. So I selected the 1,200 sheets I liked the best, got out my Xacto knife and started carefully scratching out any offending bits of paper. I can see now that I was not well.
Next I made a cardboard jig that allowed me to sign and number each sheet in exactly the same place. This, too, takes a shockingly long time, and each screwed up signature brought me closer to running out of clean prints. But my luck held. Barely.
As a final step, I placed each portfolio in an oversized clear Mylar pouch, which I then sealed inside a numbered bubble-lined polybag envelope, so I couldn’t pick a particular portfolio for any particular person. Picking favorites is something I would do when I was still coloring a hundred holiday cards by hand back in the Old Country. The cleanest colors went to the people I wanted to impress the most. They usually didn’t notice. It tended to be the people who got cards from the C stack—the “Oh, I should probably send one to them, too!” stack—that thanked me profusely. Which always made me flush with shame. Because of this I wanted to make myself blind to these portfolios once they were done. They’re all beautiful, and I’d make my picks on a whim anyway. Why expose myself to more needless guilt?
As a final touch I still ship every portfolio with a pair of white cotton or Rayon gloves, so you can handle the prints with the proper reverence. It’s what Taschen did for that overblown Helmut Newton book—SUMO—and my work deserves no less, dammit.
Did I measure up to Charlie Harper’s Birds & Words in the end? I don’t know. whenever I try to emulate something, it always ends up turning into another one of my pieces. Which is good, of course, but also leaves me a little bit dissatisfied each time. Just writing this I know I’ll have to try again.
The big lesson I learned with this project is that I need a firm deadline that’s externally enforced. And I need someone to blame. As much as I’ve sometimes groused about some of my publishers, they let me go nuts for a fairly long time, but then they make me close the files and send them off to print. I’m not sure that they always do it at the optimal moment, but once they do I know that I’ve done the best I could in the available time. Any imperfections I notice beyond that? Of course they’re still my fault, but they’re not my fault alone. And that gets me halfway to forgiveness.