Anyone who's never judged a book by its cover has never seen a book. A book's cover, after all, is a mini-billboard touting its contents. It's impossible to deny that we make assumptions about the quality of the text inside based on our attraction to a cover image itself.
The importance of book design is finally getting its due, thanks in part to two notable recent books and a local book arts exhibition. In By Its Cover, by Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger, two professors of graphic design and art history examine the evolution of American book-cover design.
While lacking such a broad historical component, a much more arresting volume is Chip Kidd: Book One: Work: 1986-2006, a career retrospective by Kidd, which examines his work as Knopf's most famed graphic designer. Just flipping through his images and their accompanying essays will convert anyone to the idea of the bookstore as art gallery.
The field of book arts takes the idea of book design several steps further, viewing the entire book as an art object using traditional book-making methods, binding, typography, handmade construction and the relationship between text and art—in addition to modern graphic-design techniques—to expand the possibilities of the book as narrative vehicle.
What does all of this gibberish mean? It means that you must see "Half-Life: 25 Years of Books," the new career retrospective exhibit by local book artist Barbara Tetenbaum. Tetenbaum discovered book arts as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and started Portland's Triangular Press in 1981 with a bank loan of $150. Her masterful, varied interpretations of the book have been featured in exhibitions worldwide and earned her a Fulbright scholarship in 2003, in addition to her current position as the head of the Oregon College of Art and Craft's department of book arts.
While Kidd possesses the ability to exploit the book cover, Tetenbaum's design expertise extends to all aspects of the book itself. Her unusual, enchanting graphic juxtapositions range from surreal to nostalgic, demonstrating command and interest in exploiting all elements involved in book design. According to Tetenbaum, even a poster containing an excerpt from Toni Morrison's Sula is a treasured work of art. One piece on display is an accordion-style book with text from French Surrealist Erik Satie, a collaboration with Julie Chen entitled Ode to a Grand Staircase (for Four Hands). It contains the quote, "Jean Cocteau once said that the smallest piece by Satie was like a keyhole: It seems small until you put your eye up to it."
So do Tetenbaum's books, containing a world of design within inches of space.
Collins Gallery at Central Library, 3rd floor, 801 SW 10th Ave., 988-5123. Opening reception 2 pm Saturday, Dec. 3, with music by Foghorn Stringband. Exhibit closes Jan. 10.