Summer 2000

Not exactly kid's stuff

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Steven Guarnaccia<br> Harry N. Abrams, £9.95<br>

Bembo's Zoo: An Animal ABC Book

Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich<br> Henry Holt & Co, $17.95<br>

As children’s books go, both of the above represent the ambitious end of the market. Ambitious in the sense that they attempt to introduce an extra bit of artifice (design, designing and designers), into a cultural zone inhabited by an incredibly voracious curiosity, that is, the mind of a child.

In Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the groovy-looking bears live in a split-level house that is stuffed with furniture and fabrics by nearly 20 Modernist design greats, such as Alvar Aalto, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Eameses, to name but four. Despite this, the story is told in a fairly conventional way, except that the bears go out walking because their chilli, not porridge, is too hot. Edith, my six-year-old, found this angle amusing and so the Tale Moderne , as it is subtitled, looked set to deliver a different kind of Goldilocks experience. That, though, was really that.

Apart from the trappings of their dwelling, no designer knowingness or indeed consumer spending activity, seeps into the bears’ actual behaviour. They don’t invite Goldilocks to pop down to the Conran Shop with them for a quick spot of retail therapy, nor do they offer to show her the collection of Wallpaper* magazines that clearly lurks somewhere within their singular lair. When finally Goldilocks wakes up, she flees this place of wondrous modernity as if it were the darkest, coldest, scariest cave imaginable. And that, after smashing an Eames LCW chair to smithereens by sitting on it!

This criticism may sound harsh, but given the book jacket’s assertion that children ‘may even pick up a design tip or two’, the question that has to be asked, albeit by an adult, is: ‘How, exactly?’ There are no child-friendly potted biographies of the assembled greats to generate further interest. Also, given that the bears are a fairly hip, sophisticated bunch, they stick to a conventional Goldilocks plot, so the space in which a tip or two may be picked up is not clear. On to the shelf with that one, and onwards to Bembo’s Zoo, an even more ambitious project.

Mr de Vicq de Cumptich’s book attempts to render images of zoo animals with the letterforms of the font Bembo and only the actual letters of the alphabet used in each creature’s name: a complex strategy that leads to some clever successes, such as the inverted lowercase Rs of the crab’s legs, or the bold configuration of what look like Os, Es and Cs making a peacock’s tail.

So far, so good. That is, until Edith exclaims, ‘That’s a skinny elephant!’ Unfortunately, this is her younger sister’s favourite animal and, yes, the defining bulk of the pachyderm body does seem to be missing from the two Ps (one backwards) and a sideways capital E. And that really is the only fault with this book, albeit a big fault. On at least half the creations you find yourself looking at the caption first for clues as to which animal Mr de Vicq de Cumptich thinks he is rendering. Again, I don’t mean to be harsh, but the capital A ears of the jaguar create an impression more akin to the cartoon Top Cat than a sleek, jungle feline. (And the X-ray wolf at the letter X slot will simply not do. A quick glimpse at my dictionary yielded a xeme bird and a xenacanthine fish. So what if they’re extinct – Mr de Vicq de Cumptich has a dragon at D.)

Gary Phillips, art editor, The Observer, London

First published in Eye no. 36 vol. 4 1994

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, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.