Tingles down the spine Sydney Morning Herald 22/06/2002

Susan Wyndham
Susan Wyndham was on the judging panel for this year’s APA Book Design Awards.

The success of a young graphic artist, with a bent for the messy and the handmade, highlights the spectacular state of book design in Australia, writes Susan Wyndham.

Peter Carey’s reaction to Jenny Grigg’s designs for a new edition of his books came immediately in an email to her: “A triumph!!!!!! Fucking fantastic!!” The jumbled lettering on his Collected Stories was “amazing, inspired” and True History of the Kelly Gang with its big, black “NK” against a creamy, torn paper background was “truly wonderful, like a [Colin] McCahon painting”.

Grigg, who came to books from designing magazines and CD sleeves, can’t return the compliment as she has not read much of Carey’s work. “I tried to read them but I’m not a huge reader,” she says. “I read enough to get the flavour and to see that he’s clever with words and the kind of characters he invents. Reading could be important for a lot of books but these didn’t require it because the design is abstract to the stories.”

Like Carey, the judges of the 50th Australian Publishers Association Book Design Awards saw in 33-year-old Grigg a groundbreaking and mature new talent. This week she was named young designer of the year, winner for best designed cover of the year and co-winner for best designed literary fiction book (both awards for all eight of the Carey books).

Grigg’s abstract designs confirm an emerging trend towards graphic rather than illustrated book covers, and a return to treating books as tactile, crafted objects. Her co-winner in the literary fiction category (and winner for best-designed book of the year), Mary Callahan, created a lavish, type-based design for Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan. Also short-listed in that group was Alex Snellgrove’s New Selected Poems series, using each poet’s handwriting decoratively on the covers. In the literary non-fiction category, Gayna Murphy won for an aptly word-heavy cover for Hilary McPhee’s publishing memoir, Other People’s Words.

Grigg credits Callahan with having “started things” by using rough-hewn type (supplied by typographer Stephen Banham) in her prize-winning design for Flanagan’s 1997 novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping. Callahan has produced exquisite covers such as Robert Dessaix’s Night Letters, Robert Drewe’s The Drowner, and spare ones like Don Watson’s Keating book, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart. Flanagan pushed her in a different direction with his demand: “Don’t give me a ‘beautiful’ book with another luscious, velvety, soft-focus photograph.”

Callahan and Flanagan collaborated even more closely on Gould’s Book of Fish, starting before he had written a word, the text and design growing out of each other into a gorgeous artefact that was a nightmare for the printers. She worked in the real fish paintings of convict artist William Buelow Gould, used a different colour ink for each chapter and added green marbled endpapers. The black cover with luminous fish and lettering “gives the impression of sunlight penetrating the inky depths of the sea. I wanted the cover to be a bit surreal, not just a facsimile edition of an old book.”

For Grigg a beginner in the field redesigning the complete works of Australia’s double Booker Prize-winner was a plum job. She moved to Brisbane just as publisher Carol Davidson joined the rather staid University of Queensland Press with a brief to liven up its image and introduce Carey to a younger readership. “This young woman just popped in. I loved her work and I loved the fact that she had so much magazine experience,” says Davidson (who has since gone to Random House as sales and marketing director).

Working in a small team with Davidson and UQP’s production manager, Terry Farley, was key for Grigg. “Book design is usually so slow, unlike magazine design. You have to put in memos and wait. This was so direct: three people in a room and I would suggest, Let’s try this’, and we made decisions there. I asked if I could use the books as sculptures and reinvent the whole shape from scratch, and they saidyes’.”

She came up with a squat, square shape that stands out from the rectangles on the shelves and “sits nicely in the hand”. Rebelling against years of working around a back-cover advertisement on magazines, she wrapped her designs right around the books and confined all the blurb to folded-in cover flaps. Bravely, she used tiny lettering for the books’ titles and the author’s name.

The cover art grew out of Grigg’s fascination with typography. She collects old poster woodtype and had recently bought an old letterpress proofing press. “I love irregularities,” she says. “After working on the computer for magazines, I wanted to do something messy and handmade.”

Illywhacker, narrated by “a terrible liar”, has a cover printed on a worn, black Bible cover and features a large, curly “Y” from Grigg’s collection “jokey and cheeky, everyone’s favourite letter”. Oscar and Lucinda, the odd gamblers’ love story, has a looping, pastel “L” like a pound sign. The Tax Inspector “the most uncomfortable read” has a harsh black “X” on yellow and Grigg calls it “my Rosalie Gascoigne”.

Bliss, the story of a dead man, lies the title letters on their backs. Jack Maggs, a riff on Dickens’s Great Expectations which opens with a man in a red waistcoat, has red lettering printed on torn-out book pages. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith uses a manila folder as background “because it was the last book I did and I needed some blue in the series”, Grigg says.

With their glossy covers and deckle-edged pages, the books went on sale days before True History of the Kelly Gang won the Booker Prize last October. True History is now available in an extraordinary five different editions to suit all segments of the market and has sold close to 250,000 copies in Australia mostly in a cheaper, more conventional paperback, but about 40,000 in “the K book”, as Carey calls it. Many of his fans have felt compelled to buy his complete works again in the new set.

That such uncompromising design also works as a marketing ploy speaks for the sophistication of Australian book publishers and buyers. As the judges’ report for the APA Book Design Awards says: “Books which would have been standouts a few years ago are now taken as the base level making those examples of startling, innovative design all the more remarkable.”

The Carey covers are only a part of Grigg’s work. The daughter of two scientists, she grew up “not in a pop culture world, not even in a business world” but with paints, pencils and a flute. Studying visual communication at the University of Technology, Sydney, her main challenge was learning to use computers.

After a start at “a crappy teen pop magazine”, she became art director of Rolling Stone for four years and designed CDs for local bands. Fred Woodward, the magazine’s US designer for 12 years, was an inspiration and influence “artistic in a commercial way”. Briefly at MTV doing on-air graphics, she returned to print when editor Kathy Bail moved from Rolling Stone to HQ magazine.

Her first book design was for Bail’s DIY Feminism, a collection of young women’s writing. For the cover Grigg overlaid red lips onto a woman’s swimsuited groin in a 1950s advertisement, and commissioned women artists to illustrate the pages. The book won her the APA Young Designer’s Award in 1997.

After HQ shut down, Grigg moved to Brisbane, where her family lives. The success of her assignment for UQP led to many more book designs. In her awards portfolio were the very diverse Goddess and the Galaxy Boy by Ingrid Woodrow, In One Skin by Kristina Olsson and Flyboy and the Invisible by Matt Zurbo.

For the more recent Night Train to Granada, a bohemian memoir by G.B. Harrison, she crowded stamp-size images from the author’s black-and-white photographs onto the cover, plus a red postage stamp featuring Spain’s General Franco. Breaking all the rules, with small type run sideways, it is a defiantly original and striking design.

Just as her work is being celebrated and no doubt emulated, Grigg has underlined her independence by moving to London and quitting book design. As well as joining her boyfriend there, she says, “I am trying not to have plans, to give myself a zone to work out what to do next. I would love to do sculpting, printmaking, drawing, painting. I want to go back to my beginnings.”