Given the effectiveness of Svensson and Diaz’s Letters alphabet book-in-a-box effort, it is surprising that they did not follow up the alphabetical theme from Animals, especially since animals have made up the most popular category of alphabet books for centuries. Another 24 or 25 books in boxes beckon. Alphabetical cubes of birds, cats, dogs and the zemmi! And what about the ampersand? And what different paper artistry might Diaz have performed if requested to fill out the series with further innovation? Consider Claire Van Vliet’s alphabetical Tumbling Blocks for Pris and Bruce (1996), Helen Hiebert’s Alpha Beta (2010) and Karen Hanmer’s The Spectrum A to Z.
Before its acquisition by Harpers in 1985, William Collins & Sons settled on the less risky venture of four books in boxes: Animals, Letters, Numbers and Colors. First with Elgin Davis Studios, James Diaz was the paper engineer behind all four and later joined David A. Carter (see his tribute to Bruno Munari here) to produce The Elements of Pop Up: A Pop Up Book for Aspiring Paper Engineers (1999), still used as a primary textbook.
Of course, B. S. Johnson and Marc Saporta pioneered boxes containing loose pages or leaves to be read in any order, but to find contemporary books in boxes where the box is not just a storage mechanism but functionally integrated, we have to look to Ed Hutchins, Sue Johnson and Hedi Kyle among others.
Giorgio Maffei’s 2008 definitive collection of book designs by Bruno Munari brings together two of Italy’s renowned book artists. Giorgio Maffei’s own work, his writing and gallery/bookshop (highlighted by his son Giulio Maffei’s extraordinary video catalogues Le vite dei libri) warrant a catalogue raisonné in their own right. The Italian edition published by Munari’s long-time publisher Maurizio Corraini was followed up in 2015 by this translation by Martin John Anderson and Thomas Marshall in 2015. For the Books On Books Collection, one of the great pleasures of Munari’s works is its attention to the alphabet, which this book documents.
Although not shown in Munari’s Books, an alphabet-related work that underscores Picasso’s calling Munari “our Leonardo” is ABC con fantasia (1973/2000). If we are to believe Fra Luca Pacioli, it was Leonardo da Vinci who inspired his “straight lines and curves” exposition for creating letters. Following in their footsteps, Munari provides the linear and curvilinear basics for the collector and offspring to join the game.
Although there are no words on numbered pages that have to fall in the right order, An Unreadable Quadrat-Print still presents the author/printer/binder with a challenge in imposition. White and red alternate, which is easy enough, but to cut or not cut a folio on the left and right, how to cut it, how to place the differently cut folios in the right order to achieve the variation in images when the pages turn, how to ensure a sewable area down the center for each folio whether it has a horizontal cut extending into the spine or a diagonal one extending from some point along the spine — that is impressive. It speaks to the sculptural process and result in making books, as well as the sculptural process of reading them.
The following sequences — the book’s first five double-page spreads and then its last six — take a normal page-turning approach, always turning from the upper right corner of whatever shape/page is available. Note how, in the last six double-page spreads, the pages and shapes become more complex.
Libro illeggibile (1966), below left, calls to mind Katsumi Komagata’s A Cloud (2007), and the one in the middle foreshadows Eleonora Cumer’s subtle artistry with transparent paper in Circoscrivere lo spazio No. 3 (2021). While Munari’s rare works press modest budgets, some of it — in its simplicity and popular appeal — has led Corraini Edizionito put it within easier reach. Numerous reissues of the 1984 Libro illeggibile MN 1 have pushed its price to €5. Short of the artist’s signature (which would likely obstruct the aesthetic intention), a copy from the latest 5000-copy print run will “perform” and deliver the same experiential value as one from the earliest run.
Munari’s many series of illegible books tap into book artists’ longstanding and ongoing preoccupation with whether a book without words can communicate information, narrative, sensations or feelings through material, shape or color and their permutations. The colors, shape, feel and binding of Libro illeggibile MN 1 evoke simple and sophisticated pleasure in their juxtaposition and sequence. The unchanging straightness of the top edge and the anchoring red thread of the binding set off the changeability of shapes and colors.
Although not a book of Munari’s making, David A. Carter’s Le sculture da viaggio di Munari is one way of bringing the spirit of Munari’s “travel sculptures” into the collection. Carter’s homage carries the blessing of Corraini Edizioni, further justifying its inclusion.
Travel sculptures started off as small sculptures (some even pocket-sized) to carry with you, so you could take part of your own culture to an anonymous hotel room. Later they were turned into ‘travel sculptures’, five or six metres tall and made of steel. One of these was seen for a few months in Cesenatico, another one in Naples. Others are sleeping among huge trees in the Alto Adige region.’ This is how Italian designer Bruno Munari (1907-1998) described his ‘travel sculptures’, which in turn inspired American illustrator and designer David A. Carter for this pop-up book. –Corraini Edizioni website. Accessed 3 August 2021.