Autumn 2007

Designed to be read

Curating Subjects

Edited by Paul O’Neill
Designed by Jonathan Hares
Open Editions, £15

Every so often you come across a book that is intelligently designed, written, edited and also curated. Curating Subjects is a collection of twenty essays written by curators including Julie Ault, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Jens Hoffmann. Editor O’Neill is a curator, artist and writer and it is published – or perhaps in this case curated – by David Blamey, artist and director of the Critical Forum programme at the Royal College of Art.

The essays look at the past, present and potential future role of the curator. According to the majority of opinions here, the art of curating has only been recognised as playing a significant role in the art world in the past ten years. Essays that touch on the rise of the independent curator and the increasing popularity of international group exhibitions remind me of discussions relating to the future role of the graphic designer and discourses suggesting non-Western-centric approaches to design.

David Blamey, who founded Open Editions (the name is a rebuff to the notion of limited editions), refers to his books (Curating Subjects is Open Editions’ third) as ‘workshops’. Thinking of a book, or the process of making a book in this way situates it as a collaborative group activity, the fruits of various equally creative contributors.

In keeping with this, Blamey refers to the designer as being a contributor to the book. Jonathan Hares’ design is understated, quiet, poetic and most of all: it works. The book is purely typographic, though Hares shows us how the use of large blocks of text (with a newly designed typeface Unica Neue, a combination of Helvetica and Univers), narrow margins and carefully chosen change of typeface weights, succeeds in making the text work, look and feel like objects on a page.

For such a purely typographic book, Curating Subjects is a pleasingly tactile (the contributors’ section is on a different, slightly glossy stock) and visual book. As should always be the case (but disappointedly often is not), it seems as if each of the book’s elements plays an equal role, ensuring that each voice and contributor assumes a comfortable position in the book.

This is down to the writing and editing itself, but it is also to a large extent down to the book’s design. I don’t remember the last time I was drawn into reading a book in this way, drawn into wanting to read and engage with all of the elements on the page. And while this is no easy read, and to all intents and purposes an academic collection of writings, I found myself reading, ever so studiously, each essay as I believe it was intended to be read. In this outcome, Curating Subjects is testimony to book design that succeeds in making you want to read. Now why does that seem like such a novelty?

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