Rare & Beautiful

Unusual Book Design for Unusual Times: Revisiting the Work of Iliazd

The designer, publisher, and polymath Iliazd created some of the most inventively conceived books of the 20th century.

By Peter Kraus June 23, 2020

The Russian-born book designer and publisher who went by the name of Iliazd and worked in Paris from the 1920s to the 1970s occupies a unique place in the history of the illustrated book.


Covers of 65 Maximiliana, ou l‘exercice illégal de l’astronomie (1964).

While the first great modern artist’s book, Parallèlement, illustrated by Pierre Bonnard and published by Abroise Vollard in 1900, was revolutionary in design, Iliazd was the only publisher of artist’s books for whom the design of the book took on great importance. With the notable exception of Matisse, who was intensely involved in the books for which he provided illustrations, artists of this period simply turned over their contributions to the publishers, and accepted the results, which largely consisted of illustrations accompanied by text, with design and layout considerations kept to a bare minimum.

Ledentu le Phare (1923).

It was Iliazd who was the glaring exception. Born in Georgia in 1894 (d. 1975), his original name was Ilia Mikhailovich Zdanevich. In 1920 he began using the name Iliazd, and in 1921 immigrated to Paris, the center of artist’s book publishing. In 1923 he published the experimental typographical masterpiece Ledentu le Phare. Representing the apogee of Russian Futurist book making in many ways, this was not a deluxe livre de peintre (artist’s book), but rather a modest paperback. Featuring a collaged cover and consisting of a dramatic poem written in “zaum,” Iliazd’s invented language, it was printed at L’Imprimerie Union in, what was for publisher, a large edition—530 copies.

It was not until 1940 that Iliazd published his first conventional artist’s book under his imprint, Le Degré 41 (The 41st Degree). The book was Afat, a collection of Iliazd’s poems, with illustrations by Picasso, who would eventually illustrate six books for Iliazd. The most sought-after of these later books is Chevaux de Minuit by Roch Grey for which Picasso contributed a drypoint and twelve engravings. Published in 1956, it was issued in an edition of fifty-two copies.

It is readily apparent from handling any of Iliazd's publications that the physical aspect of the book is of paramount importance. Reminiscent of Russian nesting dolls, they reveal themselves like the peeling of an onion. The books comprise numerous layers and covers that must be carefully penetrated, passing from the vellum covers through varieties of different papers until one reaches the text and illustration concealed in the middle. The unique physical quality of the books along with the imaginative layouts and often stunning illustrations, combine to make quite extraordinary objects.

Chevaux de Minuit (1956).

Iliazd had been actively involved in the Dada movement, and to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the birth of Dada in Zurich in 1918, he published Poésie des Mots Inconnus in the relatively large edition of 158 copies, which came out in 1949. The book contains texts by twenty-one important writers from the twentieth-century avant-garde, accompanied by illustrations by twenty-three artists, including Hans Arp, Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Alberto Giacometti, Fernand Léger, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso.

In 1964, Iliazd published his masterpiece, which is also one of the outstanding artist’s books of the twentieth century. 65 Maximiliana, ou l‘exercice illégal de l’astronomie (65 Maximiliana or the Illegal Practice of Astronomy) combines iliazd's unique layout with a series of thirty-four magnificent color illustrations by Max Ernst executed in etching and aquatint. As described in a gallery label at New York’s Museum of Modern Art for a 2018 exhibition of Ernst’s work that included this book, “The title refers to a planetoid discovered in 1861 by the unsung German astronomer Ernst Wilhelm Tempel, who named it in honor of Maximilian II, then king of Bavaria. Ernst’s text and biomorphic aquatints pay homage to Tempel as a kindred spirit seeking to represent domains outside ordinary human perception; they are complemented by the typography that Iliazd designed to float, constellation-like, across each page. Ernst also added a hieroglyphic script of his own invention to many of the pages.” The resulting book is quite unlike anything else and represents the pinnacle of the genre.

Interior pages from 65 Maximiliana, ou l‘exercice illégal de l’astronomie (1964).

Between 1940 and 1974 when he published his last book, Iliazd published a total of twenty books with a degree of attention to design unmatched by any other publisher of artist’s books. In doing so, he created a remarkable body of work that continues to attract all who love art and books.

For those interested in finding out more about the books highlighted in this article, including questions pertaining to possible acquisition, please contact Peter Kraus at Ursus Books & Gallery: (212) 772-8787 or ursus@ursusbooks.com.

Peter Kraus is the founder and current owner of Ursus Books & Gallery in Manhattan, which offers a comprehensive selection of art reference books, superb copies of rare books in all fields, and decorative prints.


This is the tenth installment in a collaboration with Peter highlighting important books from the past.

Previous articles in this series are “Desert Island Books,” “Architecture and the Illustrated Book,” “The Way It Happened: Modern Art Exhibition Catalogues,” “Matisse as Book Illustrator and Designer,” “Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler: Publishing Artists and Authors in the Early 20th Century,” “Paris and the Artist’s Book in the 1920s and ’30s,”  “Discovering Old Design Books in Japan,” “A Dialogue with Color,” and A Flowering of Creativity: Ladislav Sutnar and F. T. Marinetti.”

Please note that Designers & Books will receive an accommodation from sales resulting from this collaboration.

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