Eiderdown Books is passionate about championing women in the arts. For this blogpost, we spoke to Clare Skeats who created the series and book design for the Modern Women Artists collection.
Hi Clare. Could you start by telling us a little bit about your job as a book designer: how you got into doing it, and what your job involves? I’ve been working as a book designer for over 20 years and have been freelance since 2004. I got into the industry after graduating with a Graphic Design degree from Bath College of Higher Education (as it was then known), and shortly after that I joined Penguin as a junior cover designer. I was always a big reader, so getting to combine graphic design with books and narrative, was a bit of a dream! My job now still involves cover design – on the same broad spectrum of subjects that my in-house roles involved – but I also design the interior of books. I enjoy the problem-solving aspects of that, especially when it gets quite technical and I learn something new. A part of my job I particularly enjoy is art direction, where I can bring in an illustrator and really define the tone and visual language of the whole book. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredibly talented people over the years. How did you come up with the concept for the Modern Women Artists series design? When Harriet and I first met, she was very clear about her chosen format for the books – a 64-page, ‘B’ hardback, which was inspired by the Ladybird series of books. I liked the modest, almost utilitarian quality of this as a format, and felt it was the perfect size to encourage collectability. As a book designer, one is often briefed on the hierarchy of type versus image, but it was important that the cover provided a platform for both the work and the subject’s name – especially since the series exists to amplify these women and their output as artists. The type and image both occupy a plane of white, which is framed by a colour from a limited palette which will be repeated throughout the series. The colours are intended to reference the muted, early 20th Century palettes such as those found in Charleston House and on Curwen Press endpapers etc.
The fonts and typography you’ve used in the books have also been designed by women, is that correct? Can you tell us a little more about that? Yes, that’s right. Harriet was keen for as many aspects as possible of the design and production of the books to be by women, including the design of the type, which is another thing that excited me about the project. Type design still seems to be a largely male-dominated industry, so finding an appropriate typeface that met the criteria wasn’t straightforward. However, I was grateful to Harriet for initiating this research, as I’ve since used more typefaces designed by women, on other projects. After several trials, I opted for Lelo, designed by Katharina Köhler. Although Lelo is a contemporary sans serif, it has its roots in the geometric forms of early 20th Century typefaces – so it sits well with the dates of the women featured in the series. Furthermore, its clean, robust forms felt appropriately progressive and uncompromising – in the spirit of the women featured. The Modern Women Artists branding uses a typeface called Hesse Antiqua, which was digitised in 2018 to mark the 100th birthday of Gudrun Zapf von Hesse, who cut the original letterforms while working as a bookbinder at the Bauer Type Foundry in Frankfurt, in the 1940s. Von Hesse was something of a pioneer herself, as it was highly unusual at the time for a woman to be working in the type industry. This background, together with the period-appropriate flared sans serif forms, made the typeface the perfect fit for the series.
Which other women designers inspire you in your practice; historical figures who have influenced the industry, and/or designers who are working today who are doing exciting things?
In terms of historical figures, I was completely entranced by the Annie Albers show at the Tate, back in 2018. Such an extraordinary body of work, it was almost overwhelming. The House of Illustration in London recently held an exhibition of Sister Corita Kent’s work, which reminded me of her brilliance. The combination of her religious faith, radical teaching practices and her interest in 60s popular culture, make her such a fascinating figure. The energy in her compositions, the fearless use of colour and her interest in vernacular lettering, have such an appeal for me as a graphic designer.
I’ve long admired the work that A Practice for Everyday Life produce. Commercial book publishing can sometimes feel like a battle with a ‘more is more’ mentality, so I find the elegance and restraint in their work so seductive. Someone I came across quite recently is Evie O, who took over a job I had been working on, so I looked her up out of curiosity. There is a refreshing boldness to her design work that is quite unusual in the context of commercial publishing and I admire her for that. I think this sensibility shows in her abstract paintings too, which I also really like.
As well as designing books, you also work at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design teaching Graphic and Communication Design. What trends or interests do you see for the next generation of designers? I think students have definitely become more aware of how design can support or even initiate social change, which is something we encourage. The prevalence of graphic symbolism attached to movements such as Black Lives Matter has also inspired this I think. Issues around sustainability and climate change also continue to be an area of focus for many of our students. We place a lot of emphasis on collaboration and encourage the students to embrace the opportunities provided by learning in such an internationally diverse cohort, and what those different perspectives can bring to their own understanding of a subject. I think that a graduate of our course definitely leaves with the sense that design is not just about the individual, or about putting more ‘stuff’ into the world. The shift to online learning during the pandemic has been particularly challenging for art and design subjects, but I’m amazed at how well the students have coped and the work they have managed to make. Interestingly, the gender ratio of students has notably shifted since I started teaching, and we have a significant majority of female students now. It will be interesting to see how this shapes the design industry in the future.