Lifelike, a Walker-organized exhibition curated by Siri Engberg, and now on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art, is documented by its eponymous catalog. I sat down last March with João Doria to talk about the making (and thinking) of the book.
Transcript of João Doria with Andrea Hyde on the Lifelike catalog
J: I have the catalog here. I was wondering if we could start with a little description of the context in which this catalog was made?
A: The context I think you’re referring to is the Lifelike exhibition, now on tour. Siri [Engberg] curated the show as you probably know. She was interested in presenting artists working with realism from the 60s through the present. She touches on various incarnations of realism, from abstraction to installation-based work like Maurizio Cattelan’s sculptures to [Gerhard] Richter’s hyperrealistic paintings. I needed to find a way to reflect these themes in the book.
My initial meeting with [the curators] was very interesting. I presented some pretty radical ideas.
J: Are they worth showing? I mean to me they are but in a blog post?
A: Potentially. I feel protective about them. Perhaps they will be useful in the future [giggles]. You know, as a designer we sometimes recycle our ideas. I’ve found that it sometimes happens, but unexpectedly. Perhaps I will come upon the perfect occasion to use an old idea in the future…
With that said, one of the initial ideas that made it into the book—though a in a subtle way—was the idea of the book being a collection of stolen materials. For example, instead of a half-title page, the very first page of the book is a page from a published Charles Ray book. There’s no explanation as to why it’s there, but for a very small caption on the inside front cover. The gesture is meant to throw the reader and to refer to the art in the show—there is a moment where most aren’t sure whether what they see is real or fake. I’m thinking specifically of the Fischli and Weiss’ installation that looks like building materials and debris. Is it part of the exhibition or the byproducts from the show’s installation? In fact, it is an artwork. Or the Vija Celmins installation—it looks like a mistake, a remnant. That’s what that first page is meant to do: present the reader with something that doesn’t quite fit. I wish there were more instances like that throughout the book, but because the pagination was tight, it became necessary to economize those moments.
J: Before we go too deep into the catalog, what did the curators ask you for? How did it all start?
A: During the first meeting we talked about the ideas behind the exhibition and where it was going. I knew that there would be some reprints and commissioned texts. Siri was going to write [giggles] a really large essay, and I started type layouts based on the reprints. The first reprint I received was a [Josiah] McElheny article that first appeared in Artforum, which was really useful in figuring out some of the themes of the show: Duchampian readymades and work that followed in the same vein.
J: You did other catalogs since you started at the Walker and I wonder if you have an opinion about a curators’ general expectation when it comes to catalogs. Moreover, what’s the role of the catalog here at the Walker in relation to exhibitions. Why do they usually want to do a catalog?
A: Everyone wants a catalog. Sometimes they are more wanted than needed, but for this show a book made perfect sense: it’s a substantial exhibition, it’s touring, and the show’s grouping is unique.
Each curator has different goals for their catalogs. Eiko & Koma, which was the book I designed right before this one, is a good example. The curators, editor, and former publications director [Lisa Middag] wanted that book to stake out a position for performance art within the scholarly realm of art criticism usually associated with visual arts. It hadn’t been done often in the past. So that was the goal then.
But Lifelike is really true to its exhibition. It presents the ideas behind the show in chronological order. It’s similar to the way a curator would organize the exhibition’s physical space. Its a good accompaniment.
J: Now we can get more to the object. We talked about it before and also with Andrew [Blauvelt] and Emmet [Byrne]. I noticed that recent Walker catalogs have been more lightweight. They look (but in fact they’re not) less luxurious objects and this involves many questions I think.
I remember, for instance, the Frida Kahlo book or the books in that era of the Walker design department. They had hardcovers, cloth, etc., and it’s more apparent that they were meant to document the exhibition/made to last (which doesn’t mean they will) and that makes me think about the public. I would say that in a regular situation, in a context away from the collector or a designer interested in books, the Lifelike catalog would feel more appealing. To me, I would fear it less.
A: It’s less intimidating, I agree. I see the trend but I don’t know if this is intentional. I see it more as a byproduct of trying to pare down the cost of our publication program, at least temporarily. In the future there will be bigger moments. We will have more [Yves] Kleins, more [Frida] Kahlos. I know that will happen [for example, there is a Jim Hodges book on the horizon], but in this case, to a casual reader, this book feels a bit more like a reader because of its humble production. Because it’s less of an artifact, I feel more like reading it. Kahlo and The Quick and The Dead really feel like art books—you put them down on a table and they make a sound [laughs].
Before I came to the Walker I worked on books for Gagosian and the Guggenheim through a studio. Those institutions seemed to prefer expensive, exclusive books, more an artifact than a document. That’s also a challenge. I think both are extremes and challenges for the designer.
J: How do you articulate your own language/interests with the content and budget restrictions and the intellectual decisions taken by the curators with the practical design decisions you need to make?
A: It’s always a case of priorities. In this case, we prioritized a Swiss cover and smyth-sewn binding so even though it’s a softcover it’s actually pretty sturdy.
Originally the idea was to use the second spine—as I’m calling the interior spine—and to stamp it with the same foil I used on the cover. We evolved away from this when we decided that to begin with the Charles Ray page. Initially, I was thinking of the whole book as a copy of something. I even sketched the title in the Life cereal logotype but in different crazy colors. It would have been a fun cover, less reverential to the artwork featured inside the book. Instead, we decided to put an artwork on the cover that corresponded to the Charles Ray page half-title and to add some materiality by using cast-coated paper, so that there is a textural difference between outer and inner covers.
And when I talk to the artist/curator/whoever I’m dealing with when making a book, I generally talk about those different options all out and say ‘well, I think we should try to focus on those three things’ and then maybe the other nice things need to fall out as a consequence. It’s always a balance and even when you have a big budget you’re working to fit as much into the book as possible. It’s a balance between the production aspects, the physical aspects of the book and the idea behind the book and how it’s structured.
J: I remember talking to Emmet and he told me as well that one real interesting thing about the fake half-title page is that the artist himself he had lost the notion as it is said here on… wait a minute, is your book different?
A: Oh I forgot to say! [The book tape fabrics] are different. There are three different types. We went to the bindery and they had it on salvage, so we used their extras.
J: The name of the exhibition, how did you approached it through typography? As a foreigner, I would say Lifelike has a good sound, a sort of wordplay. When you separate the letters people tend to say ‘aw, this is going to get difficult to read!’ making, naturally making the designer a little furious because we tend to believe people are more intelligent than they think.
A: Lifelike is really nice as a title because first, there is no subtitle [giggles]. Second, it’s clear and represents the show perfectly, and third, typographically, it’s nice that the words ‘Life’ and ‘Like’ share every letter but one, which gave me the perfect excuse to play around with shapes. I’ve always liked the tree and flower of life symbols. Starting from there, I created circular, triangular, and diagonal divider spreads and headers to play with the title and refer to the symbol.
Above: The flower of life, an inspiration for the divider spreads and headers (located near the gutters of each spread).
J: Now for nerdy stuff. This format is a little bigger than Eiko & Koma, so why did you pick that particular format? It’s a stupid question but…
A: …no no, not at all. I think Eiko & Koma needed to be more intimate, more like something you could read in your bedroom—there are so many details about their life and work. I feel like [Lifelike] is more like a manual in the sense that it’s main goal is to be informational, and the proportions are a little awkward, too big for intimacy but too small to be “coffee table.” An in-between format, awkward. In fact, many of my decisions were made in order to make the book feel more awkward, in part because that’s the feeling the exhibition inspires. It’s a bit wide, too. I knew that the softcover would help the book to really open and I wanted to have some good text-spreads. I also knew that I wanted to use the gutters for the page numbers and running headers so I felt like it would be nice to have a almost-square proportion, which we extended to the exhibition didactics.
…Something you said before was interesting, something about the reprints being re-purposed copy, the Charles Ray page reproduced. This duplication is also evident in the contents page. I simply took the layout from select pages and placed it there, another reference to the work in this exhibition, in that divider spreads, made smaller become literal representations of those sections of the book.
J: The grotesque typeface, is it F Grotesk from Radim Peško? The typewriter monospaced typeface, which one is it?
A: It’s called Prestige Elite.
J: When I look at the surface of your pages in this publication, I see two planes, and I feel like you use thick lines to relate to the density of F Grotesk and to everything which is heavier and thin lines to relate to Prestige Elite and to what’s lighter.
I wonder, then, when we get to the book I look for how you organized the book’s different moments and how what we said before is expressed in that.
In the contents page, the letters circling around the page makes me thing you’re trying to place some hidden message, a continuity in each divider page. In the foreword the text is set in the grotesque typeface so it feels like the more institutional texts are set this way whereas the content that relates exclusively to the work is set in the monospaced type. So this is something that may be nice to talk about—can you explain more about the structure of the text?
A: Siri’s essay is first and is divided by themes. In many catalogs, there are distinct and uninterrupted essay sections. In this case, the plates and divider pages serve as bookends to the essays. Plates correspond to sections like ‘Previous Lives’ or ‘Common Objects,’ and directly correspond with the exhibition—as I said before, the book is a perfect reflection of the exhibition space because, in a sense, its layout is the same. Entering the exhibition, you first encounter works that illustrate the ‘Common Objects’ theme, and then ‘Uncanny’ follows, etc.
Sprinkled throughout are ‘Object Lessons,’ case studies of specific works. I wanted these to be distinct, rendered in an institutional voice and differentiated from Siri’s essay.
J: The text set with Prestige seems more for reading, and what’s set in the other voice seems more like extended captions.
A: That’s exactly what they are. It’s interesting because I was thinking of the Object Lessons as extended captions. Normally, I wouldn’t choose to use a typewriter face as the body text for an entire book, but in this case it made perfect sense. Prestige in its digital form is a copy of its original typewriter-produced self. I mean, typewriter faces are anachronistic, we don’t use typewriters anymore, we’re mimicking it.
J: How did they react when you presented those ideas/justifications? To my experience, the good thing about working with curators and artists is that usually the talk gets to a level where everyday life decisions for you as a designer are understood on a conceptual level.
A: They got it right away. When I presented initial ideas—I called one of the ideas ‘The Impostor’—I mentioned using typefaces that mimic others: Arial for example, which mimics Helvetica. With Prestige I am mimicking an outmoded mode of production. It also refers to scripts, like you were saying—”this is something to be read.”
J: What about grids and stuff. What’s underlying what we see?
A: I’ve always been a fan of how the Talmud is laid out. I like the big blocks of text brutally interrupted by notes, references, asides and diagrams. These interruptions don’t break the rectangular shape. It’s the inversion of what most designers consider “good design,” with white space, unforced kerning, etc. To me, the Talmud’s modular denseness is attractive.
One of my original ideas was to make a book that looks like a different book, an iconic text that most people would recognize. It would copy the look and structure but use our content. Does that make sense to you?
A: Then it evolved. But to answer your question, I changed the grid depending on the type of content. The essay has a different grid type than the plates, which was a very different grid from the object lessons.
J: I was also wondering whether it was modular or not.
A: I would say there’s a master grid and variations on that, but the variations are so big it makes for very different layouts. Before we decided to intersperse the essay throughout the book I thought that sections of the book could look extremely different from one another, almost like different books stitched together. That idea evolved into type and grid variations.
J: About the images. In the show their scales vary a lot—how did you deal with it on this book? The chairs outside, the leaves in the corner, what goes through your mind when putting it together, giving it new relationships? It’s typical book design problem.
A: It was very interesting. Initially, we had all the dimensions right underneath the plates, but we moved them to the checklist. There are other moments we try to be true to proportion, usually when I’m pairing different works on the same spread.
J: Is it more a form problem? To put things with different sizes together and to see whether they fit or not, their shapes and colors?
A: Oh yes, we have lots of problems (giggles).
A: And remember, I couldn’t reorder the plates because they all had to exist within their themed sections. That was also challenging as well. It wasn’t strictly chronological
J: One last thing… the book has an insert!
Let’s talk about this insert.
A: It’s another obstruction, another confusing element, an intentionally awkward moment. The reader flips through the book and suddenly this thing is just there. It has a caption but it’s not bound or glued. It’s not tipped-on. It’s not something you would normally frame. It’s not a complete composition. It’s just a thing, a texture.
J: And what did the artist say?
A: That’s exactly what we wanted. [Keith Edmier] didn’t really mind whether we bound it in, tipped it in, or how big it was. I think he just thought, ‘It would be interesting to give you some wallpaper’ [from Kitchen, an excerpt from Bremen Towne, 1971]. We could have done what we wanted with it. It could have been a lot of things: endpapers, a dust jacket… Instead we chose to do this awkward thing.
J: Another stupid question—being an object, something actual, did it ever come to the talks that this could be then an original?
A: No that’s a very good question. I intend to address this in my blog post about the catalog, that the insert is actually an artwork. There’s no material difference between the insert in the printed book and the wallpaper in the physical exhibition space. It was done at the same time, the same process and the same paper. It is something meant to exist in a specific space, but we took part of it and gave it to the printer to cut and insert into our book. It’s another Charles Ray page moment.
J: It wasn’t problematic then.
A: No. I think going forward though, when the show starts to tour and go other places it will be useful to talk about it…
A: Let’s conclude with the backcover. Originally, I wanted to do something like this on the back [pointing to contents page], put thumbnails from the interior on the back. Another contents-like page where I copy and resize pages of the book. But then I received an interesting email from Siri, detailing her visit with Paul Sietsema. The painting he had in his studio perfectly illustrated the idea of the exhibition.
The layout reminds me of a paperback with a blurb that screams: ‘Look what’s inside this book’—something a publisher’s marketing department would dream up—but the text below the photo is actually a really profound statement about the contents of the book, a summary of the exhibition.
J: In what way?
A: You have this trompe-l’œil effect of a nail seemingly sticking out from a still-life painting. Artists working during the time this painting was made would usually leave something like a nail out of their composition, because it was not considered art. It’s a mundane thing you don’t really paint, but here it’s rendered in such a realistic way that it looks like the painting could actually be punctured with a nail. The painting is similar to so many of the works featured in the book.
J: Now something not exactly related to this particular book but in Eiko & Koma you use the vertical text on the spine and here too, it’s so nice! Are you into that lately?
A: I actually wanted to do something strange on the spine, use the text in diagonal [sings, spelling L-i-f-e-l-i-k-e], is that what you mean?
J: Oh no, I just found a coincidence that both use vertical text—a good quirk of yours?
A: Oh yes I did do that in my last two books! I tried it the other way, but it didn’t feel right.
J: It is how it is!
A: Yes, I never turned the type elsewhere inside the book so… it’s always upright.[Looks at phone]
J: Oh are we late?
A: Yes… We should go…