David Bowie Is the subject of this V&A book

Graphic design studio Barnbrook has designed the David Bowie Is book which accompanies the V&A’s exhibition of the same name, set to open later this month. We spoke to Barnbrook’s Jon Abbott about the project…

Graphic design studio Barnbrook has designed the David Bowie Is book which accompanies the V&A’s exhibition of the same name, set to open in London later this month. We spoke to Barnbrook’s Jon Abbott about the project…

“It was an honour to be asked to do this book,” says Abbott of the commission. “The V&A is a fantastic institution and the exhibition promises to be something quite special. We knew designing this book would be a big responsibility, Bowie is such an iconic figure and the museum expected an appropriately iconic design. Also, there is a responsibility to Bowie’s fans. We wanted to create an engaging pop-object for an audience who have come to expect the unconventional.”

The cover (above) features an image from photographer Brian Duffy’s Aladdin Sane photo shoot (art directed by Celia Philo in 1973) in which Bowie stares directly at the viewer. The image has been given an orange treatment and the word “is” appears set in Albertus (a headline typeface that is used throughout the book) as a spot varnish.

“Orange is the main accent colour throughout the book,” Abbott explains, “as it is one of the colours that has appeared at many stages throughout Bowie’s career: the hair of Ziggy Stardust, the Aladdin Sane flash, the covers of Low, Heathen and Scary Monsters, as well as the RCA single labels all feature a shade of orange.”

“We knew that variety in design was required to visually represent Bowie, an artist with an incredibly diverse creative output, but we opted for a more singular approach to the headline typography and colour,” says Abbott. “Partly this was driven by the varied content which includes costumes, portraits, lyric sheets, drawings, models and other memorabilia. We did experiment with a multifarious typographic approach but in the end the use of one headline face felt most appropriate for the content.”

“There are a number of reasons for choosing Albertus as the headline typeface,” Abbott tells us. “London plays a pivotal role in the story told by the exhibition and we wanted the book to speak the language of London without resorting to Johnston (as fantastic as it is). Albertus seemed like an appropriate alternative: it is used on the street signs in Lambeth, the borough in which Bowie was born.”

“Furthermore, Albertus was commissioned by Stanley Morison (creator of the quintessentially British Times New Roman) and designed by Berthold Ludwig Wolpe (German born, British designer), so the Anglo-Germanic history drew a nice parallel to Bowie’s time in Berlin.” See CR’s piece on Wolpe here

“Drawing inspiration from songs, costumes, films, portraits, landmarks and more, we created a set of graphic elements to use throughout the book,” says Abbott. “These are used as background textures and in graphic juxtapositions to introduce a playful, pop sensibility”

The book’s body typeface, Priori Serif, is one from Jonathan Barnbrook’s own foundry, Virus Fonts. Drawn by Jonathan Barnbrook and Marcus Leis Allion, the typeface was influenced by British typographers Gill and Johnston, and fittingly it found one of its first outings on the cover of Bowie’s 2002 album, Heathen.

“Editorially, images are used full-bleed where possible and each essay has a unique design relating to the content,” says Abbott. “Costumes were photographed on white, moving away from the traditional museum language and towards a more contemporary, fashion-influenced style. Lyric sheets were put on black, treated as precious objects. They are fantastic – the music plays in your head as you read them.”

In short, Barnbrook has ensured that the 320 page hardback David Bowie Is book is a suitably reverent visual and informational treat for Bowie fans. It’s got photos of the man himself from before he embarked on a musical career through photos taken during performances and of most of the hugely imaginative stage costumes he’s worn over the years. It’s got song lyric sheets, album artwork sketches, and numerous essays that cover the singer’s life, music and ever evolving style.

“The V&A editorial team were great to work with, encouraging us to be creative and facilitating our ideas,” says Abbott of the project. “It is important to credit Paul Morley not only for creating such an intelligent concept but also for being constantly helpful in the generation of new David Bowie Is headlines.”

“Actually, adds Abbott, “there’s a great quote by Morley in a piece he wrote for the Telegraph’s Review magazine on Saturday that sums up the approach that the exhibition (and book) title has facilitated:

‘[Bowie] flooded plain everyday reality with extraordinary, unexpected information, processing the details through a buoyant, mobile mind, and make intellectual discovery seem incredibly glamorous. He helped create in my own mind a need to discover ways of making sense of both the universe and the self by seeking out the different, the difficult and the daring.’

“So,” Abbott continues, “rather than making Bowie and antique in a museum collection, the title, David Bowie Is, places him at this very moment, omnipresent in our cultural environment. The extendable title is informed by Bowie’s cut-and-paste accumulative appropriation, which has, in turn, influenced our thinking and methodology. Bowie was able to channel avant-garde ideas into the populist mainstream without comprimising their subversive, liberating power – and we hope, in some way, to articulate this in print.”

David Bowie is runs from March 23 to August 11 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Visit vam.ac.uk for more info. The accompanying book will be available from the V&A shop, priced at £35. Also look out for a Collectors Edition of the book (£395) which will be housed in its own perspex case and include a lithographic print signed by Bowie himself.


PS There’s a great interview with Celia Philo, who art directed Bowie’s Aladdin Sane photoshoot with photographer Duffy in 1973, here on Stylist Magazine’s site: stylist.co.uk.

CR in print
The March issue of CR magazine celebrates 150 years of the London Underground. In it we introduce a new book by Mark Ovenden, which is the first study of all aspects of the tube’s design evolution; we ask Harry Beck authority, Ken Garland, what he makes of a new tube map concept by Mark Noad; we investigate the enduring appeal of Edward Johnston’s eponymous typeface; Michael Evamy reports on the design story of world-famous roundel; we look at the London Transport Museum’s new exhibition of 150 key posters from its archive; we explore the rich history of platform art, and also the Underground’s communications and advertising, past and present. Plus, we talk to London Transport Museum’s head of trading about TfL’s approach to brand licensing and merchandising. In Crit, Rick Poynor reviews Branding Terror, a book about terrorist logos, while Paul Belford looks at how a 1980 ad managed to do away with everything bar a product demo. Finally, Daniel Benneworth-Grey reflects on the merits on working home alone. Buy your copy here.

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