Interviews, Essays, Etc.

Much More Than the Sum of Their Parts
November 22, 2011

Designers & Books visited Bob Gill in his studio on lower Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Gill, a founder of Pentagram's forerunner—Fletcher/Forbes/Gill—was seated in an Eames lounge chair next to a floor-to-ceiling wall of books. Scattered about were all the tools of the graphic design trade—of both the analog and digital variety: a Mac and trays of pencils and markers, a scanner as well as straightedges. The conversation with Gill covered his favorite books, the fact that he is not an avid reader, and comments about the many books he’s written, including his latest—Bob Gill, so far.

Designers & Books: Your new book, Bob Gill, so far., is your 19th. As you look back at the prior 18, are there any that you are particularly attached to?

Bob Gill: Forget All the Rules, which was one of my first books, was perhaps the most successful of all the ones I’ve written. When I am traveling about to various parts of the world to give talks, it sometimes happens that someone will bring up a dog-eared copy of it and ask for an autograph—which of course is very satisfying. So in many ways that book is special. Most of my subsequent books were just excuses—albeit very pleasant ones—to show later work.

D&B: I enjoyed looking through the work that’s showcased in so far. I especially liked the sequence of paired quotes and images.

BG: Those were done for a project for the New York Times. To celebrate the arrival of the year 2000 the paper asked me to do a diary to be sent to advertisers and friends of the Times, to mark the beginning of that most auspicious year. “Do something wonderful!” they said. So I thought it would be fun to do something with well-known quotes—but pairs of quotes that contradicted each other when juxtaposed. Today with Google, this would be a snap. But this was before I was able to use a computer. So I went out and bought 30 books of quotations, and I started reading and reading. I read every one of those books, and then when I saw something that I thought might have a counterpart, I wrote it down, and then I waited until I stumbled on a companion. It took days and days to find quotations that were interesting and stood on their own and which could be paired with an equally sensible quotation that contradicted the first one.

D&B: I can see how that would have taken some time to complete.
BG: Months! The most interesting pairing is, “Some things have to be seen to be believed; some things have to be believed to be seen.”

I’m very interested in juxtaposition. I always love putting two things together that add up to much more than the sum of their parts.

D&B: You’ve written a number of books for children. When you think back to when you were a child, were there books that were of special importance to you?

BG: When I was about eight years old, I had a teacher in public school who believed very strongly that children should be encouraged as much as possible to read. Her encouragement took the form of saying on Friday afternoon: “You will read a book this weekend, and you will bring a book report to school on Monday morning.” That was the charge to the class every single Friday. We knew it was going to come. Well it turns out that there weren’t any books in my house, not a one. And I must say, I never asked for one. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as books. Well, of course I must have known what they were. But they didn’t strike me as something that I needed or wanted. 

D&B: No wall of books like the one beside us here?

BG: No. Anyway, so Sundays were always the same. After dinner I’d say, “Oh, I’ve got to do a book report.” I remember my mother had hundreds of sheets of yellow paper. I guess she was a secretary once, and she probably took a ream of sheet paper. So she would stick it in the little portable typewriter that we had, and I would dictate a book report. I’d make up a title and an author—“Jim’s Favorite Toy by Austin Oscar.” And my mother thought it was very cute, and she’d type out: "Jim’s Favorite Toy by Austin Oscar." And then I’d keep going until it was finished.

D&B: And then what happened when you got to school?

BG: Monday morning I’d turn it in, and inevitably the teacher would put it up on the wall. Every Monday I made the wall.
D&B: Having written so many books, can we make the assumption you are an avid reader?
BG: I meet people all the time who say, “Oh, I can’t wait to get home tonight. I have this new novel, which everybody says is brilliant, and I’m just going to get into bed and have a wonderful time reading.” My wife is like that. She’s a voracious reader. And I envy her. But the truth is that even when I have to read something that’s important—like right now I’m working on an illustration for an article in the Times, and it’s quite long article, and obviously I’m going to read it—but I don't enjoy reading. After 25 or 30 minutes my eyes glaze over. I just don't like the act of reading.

D&B: In spite of that, however, there are seven interesting books on the list you gave us. One of them is The Art of Looking Sideways.

BG: Yes. It’s a terrific book.

D&B: Also, it turns out, it’s, it’s on the lists of two other graphic designers on Designers & Books—Tom Geismar and Jennifer Morla. 

BG: As it should be.

D&B: What appeals to you about it?

BG: Two qualities in particular. One is that it’s a rare book that you can open up anywhere and not feel you’re missing something that happened on the page before. Almost every spread is a different experience. Fletcher is such an inveterate collector—just like his house, which is such a joy to walk into—wherever you look in the book is filled with interesting things. So that’s one reason. Sometimes I just open it up just for the pleasure of seeing what’s on page 66 and 67, you know?

D&B: And the other reason?

BG: And the other thing is, he has a wonderful eye. So everything that’s in that book is of interest, not only to graphic designers but also to everyone. It’s the only book I’ve ever known of by a graphic designer, including my own, that’s of interest to everybody. My books are certainly not of interest to everybody; they never were written for everybody. But Fletcher’s—it’s just wonderful, for everyone.

D&B: Stephanie Barron’s book on Magritte is also on your list. Have you always been a big fan of Magritte?

BG: I would put it even more strongly than that. Had I discovered Magritte when I was say 16 or 17, in my formative years, I wouldn't be sitting here now talking to you. I would be someplace else. I would be a painter—not a graphic designer.

D&B: What’s the source of your attraction to him?

BG: I know him because I feel so close to him and his work. I love the fact that he painted in a suit, and that he was married to a very bourgeois, fat woman, and that he lived in a bourgeois neighborhood, and that he didn’t hang out with artists. And it’s funny, because there are all these scholarly books written about him offering explanations about his work. And the explanations that they conjure up for his wonderful images, like a train coming out of a fireplace—they don't mean anything at all! He just felt like doing it.

D&B: Sounds like he would be on any list of people you wish you’d had the chance to meet.

BG: I would have enjoyed that, yes.

D&B: Given how you feel about reading, it’s sort of ironic how large a role books have played in your life—whether because of writing them or because of how carefully you pay attention to the ones that you do choose to read.

BG: Yes, occasionally it has happened that in spite of my pathology and my aversion to reading, a book will worm its way into my consciousness and affect me profoundly.

(November 22, 2011)

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