Design is Play, Prestel Publishing, New York, New York, 2010


Project brief: A synesthetic fantasia, DIRTY BABY marries music to pictures, pictures to poems and poems to music: artist Ed Ruscha, guitarist and composer Nels Cline and poet David Breskin engage each other in a trialogue. Each form maintains its own singularity, its in-and-of-itselfness, but when they mate, the offspring is not pure. Here is the muttish bark of the new: a very dirty baby. The problem? How to make an art book that opens out rather than closes in, where the dominant modality is not forensic but rather creative and expeditionary. How to make a book feel like the first ascent of a mountain or the first descent to a river rather than the correctly organized answers to the experts’ exam. How to make a book that has neither front nor back, neither beginning nor end, but rather two sides, as an old vinyl—a side A and side B—a book celebrating doubleness in its intricate exploration of tripleness. How to make a really complicated book seem simple, elegantly so, and yet give away none of its secrets, allowing them to be discovered at varying depths and speeds by each reader/viewer/listener. A book that makes the receiver an active participant, not a consumer. No spoon-feeding. No instructions. Much mystery. Some problematic yet curiously engaging sex: a three-way or a four-way if voyeur becomes participant. Oh, and there’s a narrative—actually two: side A presents a time-lapse history of Western civilization (American subdivision); side B returns to the “cradle” of that civilization to investigate the American misadventure in Iraq. A radical recontextualization of Ruscha. New music for large ensembles by Cline. Sixty-six ghazals (an ancient Arabic form) by Breskin. Mix well.

Approach: I was seeking forms and structures for the book that would delineate and amplify its polyphonic aspects. I was looking to throw into tension—to both expand and compress—the six relationships present (image to music, image to poetry, poetry to music, poetry to image, music to image, music to poetry), looking for a free play of materials with both congruence and contrast. Given this brief, the book had to be elegant but also not just a little bit nasty, refined yet rough, with clarity and concision but still with plenty of ebullience, fervor and fire. A square, as close as one can get to a circle in book form, exactly the same trim size as a 33 ⅓ RPM long-playing record. Black, with some reflected light. And a dime, embedded and floating, like the real-size objects floating in early Ruschas. Dime a dance. Dime a dozen. One thin dime. Not on my dime. Not a dime’s worth of difference. Brother, can you spare a dime? In God We Trust.

The slipcase is a four-part sandwich: rough black recycled paper on the outside, two layers of corrugated black microboard in the middle and Plastazote LD33 on the inside. This unusual nitrogen-charged foam—happily the same grisaille as Ruscha’s spray-gun silhouettes—is our amniotic sac, swaddling for the Senzo-wrapped hardcover. These layers are die-cut eight times to reveal the title, the author names and the dime. The punched bars (and one circle) of the slipcase are rhymed reversals of Ruscha’s censor strips, prominently featured on all 66 pictures in the book. This shell both foreshadows and rubs the inside: with metaphor and fricative occlusion, form becomes content. Inside the book, endpapers richly saturated with color—a side A blue that comes out of Ruscha’s palette, a side B red similarly motivated—become floating fields for the four compact discs and place markers for each side of the book. (The book has no page numbers but rather track numbers.) The paper, a coated stock that feels almost uncoated, dulls the vast white acreage of the text pages into a calm matte field to harvest the ghazals. In the deepest interior, this same paper gets UV-coated to within an inch of its life on “divider” pages announcing the Middle Matter, carrying those same Ruscha colors to the crotch of the book. These divider pages also tell you to flip it over and play the other side, or send you in their hyper-reflectiveness back to the book cover, back to the outside, where the silkscreen names and coin glint dimly. And Bible ribbons—for marking, for flag making, for Wabi-sabi, irony and heartfelt fun.

Effectiveness: As I was the protagonist behind the project and one of the authors, I functioned as my own client. Given this, I admit I’d not have released the book if I didn’t consider it successful. But (of course!) it’s for others to judge whether the design is effective. This is something that should not be judged upon first viewing, first listen, first reading but rather over time, as textual and textural meanings accrete and overlap and (hopefully) strengthen through repetition. The design attempts to serve the pictures, sounds and poems of the book, to serve the ideas, themes and concepts. But in a real sense—and from the absolute beginning—the design is the book. A square the size of a record album; a black cover; the Senzo; the doublesidedness; the compact discs colored to “float” in monochrome endpapers; a rough slipcase: all these elements were present in my mind before a single word was written, a single note of music recorded and any one picture placed before or after the next.

Juror Notes

Anything but flimsy. Everything about this is grand.

Collections: 50 Books | 50 Covers of 2010
Repository: Denver Art Museum
Discipline: Book design
Format: Book


Design firms
Design is Play, Prestel Publishing
Creative director
David Breskin
Angie Wang, Mark Fox, David Breskin
Paul Ruscha
Production director
Massimo Tonolli
Production coordinator
David Breskin
David Breskin, Nels Cline, Ed Ruscha
Pinky Weitzman
DelMonico Books-Prestel
Project manager
Gregg Heine
Information architect
Ed Ruscha
David Breskin
Ron Saint Germain
Nels Cline
Joe Gastwirt
Trim size
12 x 12
Quantity printed
Blender Pro (display face), Documenta (side A text), Documenta Sans (side B text)
Trifolio S.R.L.
Black Senzo wrapped on cardboard (cover), Sirio, black-black, corrugated microboard (slipcase two-layer middle), Nerone, recycled black, 700 gsm (slipcase exterior), PhoeniXmotion Xenon, 170 gsm (endpapers and interior), Plastazote LD33 (slipcase interior)
Legatoria Zanardi (overseen by Trifolio S.R.L.)
Binding method