Slowly Downward and Other Stories

Upon discovering that Stanley Donwood — designer of Radiohead’s sleeve art since… OK Computer, I think? Maybe he did some stuff on The Bends before that, but I don’t think so — has a book out that’s a retrospective of his work with commentary and unseen concept and development art, I’ve been thinking a fair amount about books, and art books in particular.

(That I can remember his name without really trying is one of those weird memory things, for me; I can’t remember the full name of people who I actually know and are important to me, and yet the fucking guy who does Radiohead’s artwork, him, I can recall with no trouble.)

When I was in art school — fuck, a quarter century and some more years ago, now — I was increasingly drawn to the idea of the art book as a statement in and of itself. Lacking a course called Maybe You Want To Make Comics Or Something Who Knows, I specialized in graphic design (Visual Design, I think the course was officially called) for the majority of my time there, but it was never posters or covers that I felt truly excited by; I liked the idea of doing something across an extended space, and building a relationship with the viewer beyond one single image. It was probably my background in comic fandom that was behind this, but it’s no surprise that I ended up some very enamored with the idea of books as an artform in and of themselves.

We had a reasonably good library in the art school at the time, and Aberdeen had a similarly reasonable — in retrospect, probably only okay, but it worked for me at the time — public library, so I’d obsessively look through art books and catalogues and limited edition portfolios and the like. It was the ’90s, so there were collections and anthologies of design houses, too that I kept returning to: ones from Tomato or David Carson or whoever. All of these books would feel filled with potential and inspiration in a way I wasn’t finding elsewhere: this, I thought to myself, is what I want to be doing with my work.

The final year of my BA (Hons) course, I was making small-run zines. My post-graduate degree, I made a very-limited edition (only five!) hardcover book. All of these were imperfect examples of an idea I was just stumbling towards, messily and embarrassingly in retrospect. Looking back, though, the entire reason I started writing properly in the way that got me where I am now, is because of all of this. The words were an excuse that became the main reason in the end.

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