Wednesday, 12:00am
23 February 2011

French connections

Slender and serious, Back Cover is emerging as a Gallic platform for a resolutely non-American view of design

By Rick Poynor

Written exclusively for and

Decades from now, when the dust has settled on the graphic design of our era, and assuming that graphic design history is of the slightest interest in that future world, might it then emerge that the key graphic design influences of our time were located somewhere other than where we perhaps expected to find them?

Those future historians might well ponder the evidence provided by the French graphic design and typography magazine Back Cover. They would no doubt perceive it as a different sort of publication from titles that appear monthly or even quarterly. Since its debut in summer 2008, Back Cover has published only four issues; the latest, winter/spring 2011, has just appeared. This averages out as an issue roughly every ten months, an even more leisurely schedule than the publishing programmes of earlier magazines that Back Cover in some ways resembles, such as Typographica new series (1960-67), Icographic (1971-79) and Octavo (1986-92) – all of which aimed to put out two issues a year.

This doesn’t mean that Back Cover, edited by Alexandre Dimos and Gaël Etienne, compensates for its scarcity by being book-like. The magazine’s appeal lies in its slender proportions – 56 pages, just under A4 in size, saddle-stitched rather than perfect-bound – and in a highly tactile textured cover, which makes it instantly distinctive and sets it apart from other design magazines. I bought the first issue in France and missed the second, but the other two seem to have been distributed more widely. The editors clearly intend to engage with the widest possible international audience: the French articles receive full and capable translations into English in a central section.

It was intriguing to find in the first issue an essay by Peter Bil’ak about John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which was designed by Richard Hollis, who also contributes an article about Karl Gerstner. Hollis returned in issue 3 where he is interviewed at length by Åbäke in a highly illustrated 11-page article. That issue also includes a meticulous reading by Robin Kinross – Hollis’s earliest critical champion – of Anthony Froshaug’s Typographic Norms. By issue 4, the sense that Back Cover is emerging as a Gallic platform for a Kinrossian view of design is confirmed by the presence of a conversation between Kinross and Karel Martens, another designer he has long extolled (first in Eye). Meanwhile, Roland Früh, who worked as Kinross’s assistant for two years, supplies a not entirely detached assessment of Kinross’s Modern Typography: An Essay in Critical History, and there is a long article about book design by Jost Hochuli, an author published by Kinross’s Hyphen Press.

Any graphic design magazine with an international outlook confronts a huge array of possible subjects. In the seven or eight features per issue published so far, Back Cover has signalled a firm allegiance to rigorous European typography and to visual communication as an essentially serious social and cultural endeavour. Its design by the editors’ studio, deValence – modernist with a few whimsical touches – embodies these apparently resurgent values. The latest issue also includes a short appreciation by Wim Crouwel of Schiff nach Europa (1957) by Markus Kutter; Gerstner’s use of typography as a structural element in this now highly sought-after book helped to open Crouwel’s eyes as a young designer and indicate the way forward.

Back Cover’s editorial focus on Kinross and his circle confirms the wide influence he has achieved, despite a reticent and uncompromising persona, through his activities as writer and (self) publisher. Hyphen Press is firmly established now as one of the intellectual beacons of international design publishing. In the books it has published to date, Back Cover’s publisher, Editions B42, shows every sign of aspiring to inhabit a similar space within Europe’s independent design discourse.

The editors’ interests so far are resolutely non-American, though one or two examples from the US sneak into an essay by design historian Catherine de Smet about the design of architecture books (the only article not translated, for some reason). Given its infrequency, it may be that Back Cover doesn’t need to broaden its Euro-typo horizons much. But for me, it would be tastier with a few more non-typographic ingredients, such as the article by John O’Reilly about Kim Hiorthøy in issue 1, and Metahaven’s ‘White Night Before a Manifesto’ in issues 3 and 4. While it’s gratifying to discover that notable British designer-writers have made such a strong impression across the channel, in future issues it would be good to learn a lot more about the current conditions of French graphic design.

Rick Poynor, writer, Eye founder, Professor of Design and Visual Culture, University of Reading

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues. You can see what Eye 97 looks like at Eye Before You Buy on Vimeo.