Autumn 2009

Relax and you’ll be swept away

The Floating World: Ukiyo-e

By John Warwicker<br>SteidlMACK, £45

Where to start with a book like The Floating World: Ukiyo-e? There is a tendency for books (with pictures) by designers that aren’t expositions or memoirs, to be labelled self-indulgent or unfathomable. Previous books by John Warwicker and his partners at Tomato have been tarred with just such a brush, and damned with faint praise too; along the lines of ‘looks good, but what’s it all about?’

Add text and you can more accurately deliver ideas, meaning and understanding. With this personal project, Warwicker has produced a new kind of book. Melding images, quotations and his own writing, elucidated via layout and typography, Warwicker orchestrates a poetic reading / viewing experience that both informs and entertains. At times it ‘sounds’ like music; the arrangement of words offers more than one route across the page, effortlessly. The flying punctuation, the italicised side bars, the subtle colour shifts – after this, a ‘normal’ book feels bland, dumb and scrappy.

But I ask where to start not out of exasperation, more like exhaustion. There are so many references and strands; some ideas are familiar, other sources and musings appear oblique, and possibly deliberately shrouded. I hesitate to suggest what this book is about, as each reader will find a different emphasis.

Veering from ancient literature to pop culture; from reflections on cities, technology, wilderness and the elements, to investigating notions of creativity, consciousness, knowledge and representation, this book is literally all over the place. Warwicker hasn’t constructed a watertight argument but spun a web, creating a network of references to ignite interest, hoping that the reader will explore further.

Typography, drawings and photographs of urban and rural fragments and views are all used to affect the pace and tone of his offering. From reportage to musing, from textual analysis to a barrage of thoughts (he overlaps quotes, repeats lines), there is no one narrative but always his presence, questioning, observing and remembering. This is the story of a designer, an artist, a child and his grandfather.

Another question: who will read this book? Publishers make products, for sale. In order to do so they have an end-user in mind at all times. That this book got made at all is not only testament to the perseverance of the author and editor (which is hinted at in the text) but evidence of a risk taken. The pay-off is that it feels more like a limited-edition artwork than a machine-made – stamped, folded, glued, chopped – trade title, the result of both Warwicker’s considered design, and the print, paper and technology used. (I’m not sure the binding is up to protecting such an extraordinary tome, though.)

Back to the end user. Because of its personal insights on the process of drawing, alongside an exploration of the nature of creativity, a painter or a philosopher might enjoy it. Whether it ends up on the coffee tables of young designers, or people who have bought other ‘tomato projects’ or on reading lists handed out by design educators, depends on just how much time they give it, and how open to contemplation they might be. At first look, it exudes ‘difficult’. But, go with the flow, pick it up and put it down, read and re-read, stop and look, and this book will begin to give up its secrets, sometimes quietly, other times, insistently. I admit to having been intimidated; now I could keep reading, and reading... and not just because it’s 400 pages long.

Cover and spread (top) from the foreword of The Floating World: Ukiyo-e. Design, images and text by John Warwicker.


First published in Eye no. 73 vol. 19 2009


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.