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Designing Lichtenstein

As far as I'm concerned, the next best thing to actually visiting the Lichtenstein exhibition is checking out the 350+ page catalogue that comes complete with nine essays, 172 plates, and details down to a description of what classes he was taking in 1946 (p. 342). I recently corresponded with the catalogue designer about how Lichtenstein's art influenced the design of this impressive publication...

Name and occupation, please.

My name is Roy Brooks and I operate the graphic design studio Fold Four.

How long have you been a designer? How did you end up in the field?

I've been working as a designer for about fourteen years. I grew up wanting to be an architect and went to North Carolina State University to pursue it. Once I got there and saw all of the other directions that design could take, I realized I was most excited by what was happening in the graphic design department. I eventually changed majors and now, here I am.

This is your third catalogue you’ve designed for the Art Institute, after Jasper Johns: Gray in 2007 and Cy Twombly: The Natural World in 2009. What can we see in this design that you would consider a Roy Brooks signature?

I would say a focus on typography, as well as materiality. These are two areas that interest me personally and I've realized over time that exhibition catalogues can be the perfect avenue for exploring them.

In art catalogues, the images obviously can't be manipulated beyond their scale and placement on the page. Given these constraints, the text layout is where the design really takes root. This runs the gamut from the expressive scale and arrangement of the title page, for instance, to the more invisible details like letter-spacing or rag of the text.

The other factor is how the materials chosen, be it the paper, binding, or special treatments like foil stamping, can affect the feel of the book. This tactility is what draws people to books and is obviously lost when viewing a screen. I'm certainly interested in the book as an object.

I'm glad you brought up the idea of materiality, since it's used to such great effect in the Lichtenstein catalogue. Would you mind describing what you did?

For starters, the cover is a three-piece binding. The spine is cloth with foil-stamped type and the book boards are wrapped in laminated paper. So there's an effective contrast between the slick plastic coating of the cover and the warmth and texture of the spine. I also wanted a clear physical break between the painting on the front cover and the portrait on the back, which the red cloth spine provides. Inside, the plate section is printed on a coated paper, while the sections of the book before and after are printed on uncoated stock. The sections of the book not only look distinct, but also feel noticeably different.

Tell us about what you hoped to achieve with the design for the Lichtenstein catalogue.

In general, I strive to create books that feel contemporary but also have a timeless quality to them. It's a hard thing to define but I know it when I see it. And while there are surely recurring tendencies and preferences in my work, I do not subscribe to a house style. All of my design decisions have to be rationalized within the context of the specific book I'm working on. I want people to pick up each book and think that it looks and feels entirely appropriate for whatever artist it represents.

Which aspects of Lichtenstein's techniques and style informed the design?

The dots were certainly hard to avoid, and the back cover is the most overt reference to them. By applying an exaggerated halftone screen to the portrait an obvious connection was made to the painting on the cover, and thus between the artist and his art. I was really drawn to the landscape paintings and the fact they're not the works that most people, myself included, would immediately associate with Lichtenstein.

The fact that Lichtenstein's dots originated in reference to the halftone screens used in the printing process interested me as well, since the book would obviously be reproduced using these techniques. So the book breaks down into three main sections that utilize background tints made up of tiny dots of cyan, magenta, and yellow, respectively. These color fields also address the flatness of color in the paintings, while the title treatment was derived from the boldness of the imagery and large scale of the work.

If you could design a catalogue for any artist, who would it be?

Hmmm… that's a tough question. One thing I enjoy about the work I do is that I'm often introduced to artists that I might otherwise ignore or skim over. Or, in the case of Lichtenstein, I was familiar with his iconic works, but unaware of his conceptual approach to painting and the many other themes he explored. The design process can be a learning experience, and I invariably end up gaining new appreciation for the subject. For this reason I'm happy to take on any new project!

Thanks Roy!