Case Study by Vanessa Eckstein RGD, Creative Director and Marta Cutler, Partner, Blok Design
It all began with a series of conversations between contemporary art collector John Wee Tom and the Design Exchange Museum’s Director, Shauna Levy, over several bowls of Thai soup. Musing over the changing culture of contemporary art, John’s enthusiasm and passion for urban toys collided with Shauna’s growing interest in the genre as a legitimate art form. The idea of putting on a major exhibit at the Design Museum was born. Both immediately recognized the timeliness and appeal of the show, and Shauna gave John the green light to move forward, partnering with DX co-curator Sara Nickleson.
This Is Not A Toy was the first major exhibit of designer toys worldwide, a provocative look at the intersection between contemporary art, street culture and urban toys. Challenging, almost defiant, the name alone served as the starting point for people to re-think their understanding of the art form.
Through Shauna, Pharrell Williams was brought on board as guest curator, a first for him. An avid collector and promoter of urban artists, he contributed several important works, adding to the show’s credibility and stature. His involvement opened the door for other well-known artists, such as KAWS, Takashi Murakami and FriendsWithYou. In fact, KAWS and Murakami gave permission for several pieces to be included, a first for a design museum. Blok was brought on board to design the identity and exhibit.
Very early on in the project, the need for a catalogue was identified, a common element of any major exhibit. Because of the significance of the show and the stature of the artists involved, we instinctively felt that something more was needed - a true collector’s item that would have as much importance as the show itself. We came up with the idea of producing a book that would not only serve as a collective memory of the exhibit but that would also add even greater depth and insight.
We pitched the concept to John and Shauna, without a design. It wasn’t a difficult sell; they immediately recognized the book’s potential and embraced the project.
John and Sara immediately begin to identify additional works to be included in the book, with an eye to adding depth to the subject matter. Shauna persuaded Douglas Coupland to contribute a major essay, and other noted critics, curators and collectors were enlisted to contribute pieces. An interview with Pharrell was also arranged, to serve as part of the content.
While we all knew that gathering content was going to be a monumental task, none of us were quite prepared for just how challenging it would be. Not only did John and Sara have to curate the works, they also had to reach out to each individual artist to get permission to have their pieces reproduced in the book. Artists' egos needed to be managed, descriptions needed to be written for each and every piece; it was truly a herculean job.
The process took quite literally months. A work would be identified for inclusion, only to have permission denied afterward. It was a constant juggle. During this time, we began to work on the design and the format, but until we had final content, we could only take it so far. When everything finally fell into place - the selection of works, the final essays and the write-ups - we were able to truly dig into the design process.
One of the greatest challenges we faced was how to organize the wildly divergent themes and characterizations within the collection. Some pieces were dark and almost menacing, such as those by Coarse; others were deeply ironic with a searing wit; others, such as those by FriendsWithYou and Nara, possessed a dreamy innocence. We needed to respect the individual voices of the artists while creating a sequence that would flow intuitively between them. We had to curate the works in 2-D as carefully as John and Sara had done in the physical space.
The other challenge was grappling with the all of the descriptions for the pieces. Providing depth to their representations was essential to achieving a true understanding of the works and the connections that often arose between artists, but we needed to find a format that would organize these beautifully.
Designing the Book
For us, books are like music; they have a pacing and rhythm that flows instinctively from the subject matter itself. Because of this, we decided quite early on not to organize the content by the artists, which would have been the logical approach. Instead, we set out to take the reader on an intuitive, emotional journey. We looked for themes and tropes that would almost invisibly connect one work to another, creating fluid transitions that would ebb and flow; that would have pauses; that would shift from dark to sweet, subtle to in-your-face in the way that a piece of music does.
It was important for us that the sheer weight of the book alone would convey the gravitas that the subject matter so richly deserved. The resulting compact format literally feels heavy to hold in one’s hands.
Gravitas aside, we also needed to express the clever, often ironic wit that is so often found in the artists’ works. We chose KAWS’ iconic COMPANION (PASSING THROUGH) for the cover. The duality of its darker meaning and round shapes made it the perfect representation of the exhibit’s curatorial vision. With its back on the front and its front on the back, it immediately telegraphs a shift in understanding of urban toys as an art form while slyly reflecting the subversive nature of the genre.
The cover’s bold pink forges a link to the exhibit identity and to the pop colours favoured by the artists. The titles of the works were funny in and of themselves; we listed them on the spine, in small type, a subtle play that serves as a delicious discovery.
Unusually for a book of this type, the cover doesn’t have a title. Instead, we had soft, foam sticker versions of the identity logo produced in China and tucked inside the book. Readers are then left to decide where to attach the title, letting them “play” with the content.
To bind the book, we looked for an approach that would mirrored the provocative nature of the subject matter. The binding works as a self-cover, wrapping the book’s contents and creating a sense of architectural structure. As you open it up, the names of the artists appear printed with double hits of copper on pink, an invitation to literally and metaphorically drop into their world.
As with all of our books, we print with Palermo Graficas in Madrid, Spain, a company with whom we have a long-standing relationship because of the beautiful quality of their work and attention to detail. The extreme range of tonalities throughout the works posed some challenges in getting the colours just right, but overall production ran beautifully.
Although it’s been only a week since advanced copies of This Is Not A Toy arrived on North American shores, high design and culture retailers around the world have already picked it up, including Colette in Paris, BAIT in LA, and Medicom in Japan. The book can now be purchased online here.
Designer Takeaways from Vanessa Eckstein RGD:
- Book design is like music; it needs a subtle understanding of rhythm and flow. Listen well, and be open to pushing editorial conventions in order to take the reader on an emotional journey.
- Let the content lead the ideas of how to structurally design the book. For us, the format – size, shape, thickness, even the papers and binding – arises naturally and intuitively from a deep understanding of the story the content is telling.
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