Marian Bantjes & Jessica Helfand | Essays

The Bantjes Covers

There are designers who draw, and designers who think; designers whose knowledge of historical form both enhances and frames the work they make; and designers who make things that oblige us to reconsider the history — and the future — within which their work resides. There are designers whose technical virtuosity raises the bar, catapulting us all into an entirely new stratosphere — not unlike the way fluency in a foreign language reshapes our phrasing and our cadences, our idioms and our gestures. There are designers who work hard, wickedly hard, because they love what they do and they are what they do.

And then there is Marian Bantjes, who is all of this. She's a visual contortionist whose ideas about space and shape know no limits. Hers is a lofty, loopy love affair with typography and pattern and color: with them, she plays and inverts, flips and subverts, twists and turns and reinvents the world. In this as in so many things, she is utterly fearless. She's also her own worst critic — tireless and critical about not only what she makes but how she makes it.

What follows is her own step-by-step process to produce the cover for her new book, I Wonder, recently published by Monacelli and Thames & Hudson: it's an expository monologue, in which Bantjes reflects and rejects iteration upon iteration until she finds an acceptable solution.

Acceptable to whom? In an age in which everyone claims to be a designer, Bantjes' approach lies somewhere between perfectionism and fetishism. Which is, by the way, the whole point. 

— Jessica Helfand

Cover 1a

I started with a basic template: this was a grid for me to work from. I wanted to juxtapose a "modern" design with an ornamental one.

Cover 1b

My intent was that the cover would be printed with two golds and a silver: so quite subtle in the ornament. And then there would be round holes punched in the cover which would see through to a fly-page behind. That page would be an array of gemometric lines and shapes in white, black and silver and the letterforms would not be that evident on the page itself, unless viewed through the holes on the front. I knew this was risky, but ...

Cover 2a

This is my first sketch for the design. I was uncertain about it ...

Cover 2b

But I decided to take it into Illustraor for a trial. I decided it looked too Celtic.

Cover 3

Moving away from Celtic and into Rococo, it seemed just too obviously swirly.

Cover 4

Attempting to introduce some of my signature straights + curves ... but this reminded me of a Baroque clock ...

Cover 5

I'm not sure what I was thinking. Clearly I didn't think it through for very long. I decided to turn to patterns, and bring the cover into full-color + gold.

Cover 6a

I was quite happy with this. My intent was to have the checkerboard in silver foil, as well as the silver blocks in the round letters. (I had abandonded the idea of the holes as having too much potential to go horribly awry at the last minute. This very nearly became the final cover, and was the one that Lucas Dietrich took with him to the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Cover 6b

But when I showed this cover to my friend Henrik Kubel, he was, to my dismay, not overwhelmed. He thought the spine was a joke, or an obvious stroke of supreme laziness (which it was). He finally said the design looked "Illustrator-y". Whether true or not, there's not a worse adjective he could have used — it went straight to the heart of my insecurity and I instantly knew I had to start again.

Cover 7

So I began to play with the idea of doing the whole thing in foil blocking.

Cover 8

For a while I considered possibly even having two covers for the book — a white version and a black version.

Cover 9

In the end, there was only one version. The result is, as you can see, close to the final. The foilers were skeptical of wrapping the edges of the binding and wanted to pull the design back from the edge. But I badly wanted a complete fill of pattern, so we did a test and it worked out fine.

Cover 10

This is the final artwork for the Thames & Hudson English version; the =North American cover has the Monicelli logo on the front cover. The only thing I regret is that when the foilers printed a sample, the text on the back, in H&FJ's Acropolis Black Italic was badly filling in. I had to do some work on it and letterspaced it. My intent was that after the foiling it would look "normal," but I think it's too letterspaced and airy in the end.

Final cover

Ultimately I am overjoyed with the cover. From the very beginning I had planned to have gold-foiled page edges and I always wanted it to feel like a brick of gold. It does! The book is surprisingly heavy for its small size and it's not only shiny and flashy, but the feel of the satin is gorgeous: it's very sensuous. And visually it's so very me: familiar in a historical way, but also contemporary.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, Media

Comments [23]

wow. gorgeous. you've come a long way, baby. Hope to see you Wednesday! -yer lovin', FS
felix sockwell

Marian, you and your work are immensely inspirational to me. The ability to peek behind the curtain at your creative process is priceless for a young designer like myself! Good to know there is a lot of hard work, trail and error and elbow grease behind your work, just like us mere mortals. The only difference is that your final results are pure magic! Can't wait to get the book.

Thank you so much for revealing the process sketches.
Lorraine Wild

Nice stuff, I'm better off for having been made aware or your existence.
Olly Killick

What a privilege it is to see into your process! I'm so happy you came to the resolution you did, so very you indeed!
Kate Rascoe

Wonderful post. Like Jessica, I agree that Marian (and her work) is 'all of' that. Viewing the process sketches alongside Marian's voiceover is most enlightening. Thank you both. Love the final cover.
Pam Williams

When we look at the intricate beauty and discover the patterns of Marian’s work, we realize in wonder—the existence of a collective unconscious and the power of archetypes. Thanks
Carl W. Smith

no idea what is going on here. more like an "artist" having her way and getting paid at the expense of the book. neither good typography nor good art for that matter.
jack w

Gorgeous process. Marian, if you're out there, I'm curious about the decision to abandon the encapsulated Deco type... you didn't say much about it, but that seems to have really freed you up.
Jay Harlow

Thanks for sharing your creative process!

Leafed through this book today. Reminds me of the nonsensical work of Jonathan Barnbrook. This may be every bit as bad, if not worse, than that.
Hiram Morales

Just got my copy yesterday... it's a beautiful thing. My eight-year-old daughter saw me reading it, hopped into my lap and she too fell under its spell.

Not all design has to fit into a tidy box.

Wow, great post Jessica and I agree, Ms. Bantjes is a visual contortionist. I haven't been this inspired and excited about beautiful lettering since Lubalin, Carnase, Peckolick, D. Young, Doret and Huerta period. Also a most beautiful book and thanks for sharing her process. Looking forward to checking out this new book by Ms. Bantjes.
Jack T.

Bantjes strikes gold again.
Mark Busse

No one made a comment about all that metallic ink and environmental responsibility? Is it not a no-go? Please put me right on this as it does indeed look lovely.
Mark Stevens

"...shiny and flashy" - same strategy used to sell cheap 'bling' at the mall.
Kilgore Trout

I'm no modern purist, but this work is more akin to a No Limits rap album cover at Wallmart than than to what Carl W. Smith describes as the expression 'of a collective unconscious'.
Greg William

I f'n love you.

It all turns me off. It feels like an attempt to overcompensate for something. No originality, nor a good appropriation of good techniques and visuals that do exist. 'neither good typography nor good art.' Sorry to say that I agree.

It's sort of sad how some are so quick to turn off to Bantje's book cover. It's even sadder at how close-minded some are to her aesthetic. True, Bantjes work isn't something that grips me either, but I still appreciate the process and the explorations. I appreciate that there's someone doing this type of work and doing it very well. Even if there's little emotional connection to this work, I can still learn from it.

I understand that the design field is comprised of different sects with their own design dogmas, but it doesn't have to be like that.


The problem with Bantjes' work is that she is a one trick pony; only with a really cool trick. You have seen one piece of hers, you have seen them all. I appreciate it for what it is, but it is just not that interesting, and definitely not worthy of the hero-worship she has been receiving.

@ Marc, I disagree completely. Marian's elaborate calligraphic style reminds me of the great craftsmanship of Persian carpets. One would hardly call them one trick ponies - well, you could, but it would be idiotic. Pattern has meaning.

I especially appreciate seeing the process in this development. It's rare to glimpse the exacting work this takes compared to the final piece. I see the endless joy in her work. And I don't see hero-worship, It's appreciation for handmade art.

Mark Andresen

nice.. good job !!!

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