Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Pentagram Papers

Since 1975, the Pentagram design firm has been publishing a small series of booklets that are sent out exclusively to clients and colleagues. Called The Pentagram Papers, they explore different topics that caught the interest of the Pentagram partners. They cover a wide array of subjects from Cuban cigar bands and crop circle designs to Chairman Mao paraphernalia and slide rules. Although graphic design is always at the forefront of these booklets, the subjects are described alongside reproductions of the articles under discussion.

Aside from the often wonderfully obscure and interesting topics, it is the design of these booklets that is useful for anyone interested in putting together small books on one subject. Usually under 40 pages in length, they all follow a consistent format and look. Almost all are 5 ¾ by 8 ¼ in trim size and feature a black heavy weight matte cover stock that has a white ruled border following the outline of the booklet. The cover is French folded and acts as a jacket for the staple bound interior booklet.

There are 36 Pentagram Papers booklets published as of 2006 and they are often hard to find. A friend introduced me to them earlier this year and in searching for other have only found a few titles which were prohibitively expensive. One substitute for searching out each individual booklet is a book published last year by Chronicle books called appropriately, The Pentagram Papers. In over 200 pages, it features all 35 booklets that have been published since 1975. Nesting in the back cover of this book is Pentagram Paper #36 (which is on the subject of African pictographic markings).

The Pentagram Papers is broken into four sections: Cultural Phenomenon, Personal Passions, Collections, and Retrospection. Because of these delineations, this book does not describe each booklet in chronological order of publication. By reproducing photographs of the actual booklets open to spreads, you get a sense of each topic and the approach to the design interior but the entire booklet is not reproduced. Understandable but disappointing as I want to see the entire series complete.

Since The Pentagram Papers book is designed by Pentagram it looks and feels good from cover to cover. I didn’t know a lot about Pentagram before but after reading the introduction to this book, it sounds a hell of a lot like the design world’s version of Magnum Photos.

“Merging a group of creative and successful designers into a coequal partnership has its drawbacks, however. The nonhierarchical organization of Pentagram causes inevitable collisions among strong-willed individuals. But what makes the Pentagram model work are core beliefs held by all the partners…”

I also discovered through the intro that the designer Alan Fletcher was a founding member of Pentagram and was with the firm until 1992. Fletcher’s book The Art of Looking Sideways is one of my favorites for its 500+ pages of visual intelligence and playful design.

My reference to Magnum Photos isn’t the only thing in this post that has to do with photography. These books do feature many photographs (mostly catalog style shots of objects) but two seem interesting for the photos. One is on the underground French presses that worked during the Nazi occupation and one other booklet is on a series of photos taken in a sculpture garden in Bomarzo, Italy by the photographer Enzo Ragazzini.

The only Pentagram Paper I have found (except for #36 which comes with the book) is # 33 which is called The Slide Rule Vanishes. This is a small memorial to what was a common tool used by most everyone in the 1960’s and before but has become a rare sight today. Written by Lance Knobel, it features photographs of many examples from his slide rule collection.

Sounds like the perfect subject to lull you off to sleep on one of those restless nights? Guess again (stick with Swann’s Way to cure that insomnia). I doubt many of these booklets could be considered dull. Even one the one with the title: The Australian Rural Mailbox

Book Available Here (Pentagram Papers)

Book Available Here (Art of Looking Sideways)