Laura Lindgren specializes in the design of complex illustrated books for art book publishers, museums, galleries, artists, and trade publishers. Her book designs have received awards from the College Art Association, American Association of Museums Design Competition, Association of Art Museum Curators, AIGA DC, and the New York Book Show, among others. In the twenty-some years since opening her independent design studio in Manhattan, she’s designed scores of books, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s powerhouse exhibition “Photography and the American Civil War,” to the collected works of Samuel Beckett, to the photography of Sally Mann. (Check out her website.)
We started our interview with her by asking why she pursued design rather than, say, painting or architecture or sculpture…
Sitting here at a desk scattered with pencils, papers, binding cloth samples, a Schaedler rule, and, for this morning’s work, color laserprints of photographs by William Wegman to choose from for his 2016 calendar, I think the reason I pursued design is pure and simple: I love it. It’s among the most quietly thrilling work I can think of. I also think I probably would have just made a mess of painting, architecture, or sculpture.
Book publishing is often thought of as an “accidental profession,” and book design too usually proceeds from an oblique trajectory. There are few, if any, who purposely set out to become a book designer. For me, it’s something that comes naturally and yet is a skill honed through unflagging work for more than twenty years as an independent designer. It’s both getting the big picture, and it’s all in the details: ideas, images, expression; typography, space, color.
In a graphic design course I attended many years ago, an instructor theorized that people wanted to be graphic designers because it looks like you get to play with toys all day. T-squares, fluorescent translucent pink plastic triangles, colored pencils and pens, and in those days, big mechanical paste-up boards, rubber cement, wax, and cut-out pictures and galleys of type. Maybe that’s one explanation for an attraction to design work.
But book design is much more than just a visual art — as Jan Tschichold put it plainly in The Form of the Book, “Those who think in purely visual terms are useless as book designers. They routinely fail to see that their artful creations are signs of disrespect for the very literature they ought to serve.” And he summed it up that “true book design, therefore, is a matter of tact (temper, rhythm, touch) alone” and flows from good taste.
And more than just designing books, for twenty-five years I’ve also published books under the imprint Blast Books (distributed by Perseus/PGW). I edit, design, and production manage the titles that I publish. Extraordinary cultural subjects are the focus, and these have ranged from my deep interest in medical historical subjects, including two landmark books on the Mütter Museum, to The Center for Land Use Interpretation’s regional landscape series, to the cultural phenomenon of American social guidance films, to the astonishing world of industrial musicals in the 1950s–70s (soon to be the subject of a documentary film), to name a few.
One of the pleasures that book design—and publishing in general—offers is the entry into widespread realms of imagination, worlds that may be worlds apart. Along with hundreds of art books and exhibition catalogues, in 2005 I was engaged to design, typeset, illustrate the covers, and editorially manage the 2,136-page boxed set centenary edition of the collected works of Samuel Beckett, one of my all-time favorite writers (whose books led me to work in the mid-80s at Grove Press).
Museum exhibition catalogues are a primary focus of my design work, and Jeff Rosenheim’s Photography and the American Civil War for The Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of my latest favorites. The College Art Association honored the book with its 2014 Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award and noted that it “matches the breadth and quality of the magisterial exhibition for which it was produced. It will remain a permanent record of that event as well as a vital contribution to its field.” The award is a reflection of the perfect collaboration that went into producing a superb book.
So: Samuel Beckett; American Civil War photography; the microscript writing of Swiss writer Robert Walser; the art of DeKooning and his circle at the vanguard of American modern art; album cover art by the great Jim Flora; photography by Sally Mann and George Tice; Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems; the Whitney’s exhibition of New York performance art; the wonderful world of William Wegman; fascinating books by the inimitable Michael Lesy; artists experimenting with Polaroid; the breathtaking art collection of The Phillips—all these and many more are books I’ve been privileged to design.
Or, to quote Noël Coward, “Work is much more fun than fun.”