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A book for Maira Kalman
PROJECT TITLE: THE PRINCIPLES OF UNCERTAINTY BY MAIRA KALMAN . CLIENT: PENGUIN PRESS / MAIRA KALMAN . YEAR: 2007
DESIGNED AT BUCHANAN-SMITH LLC . ART DIRECTION: PETER BUCHANAN-SMITH
The Principles of Uncertainty is a visual essay by Maira Kalman that is part personal
narrative, part documentary, part travelogue and part chapbook. It was originally published online
as a monthly column in the New York Times website from May 2006 to April 2007. In October
2007, The Principles of Uncertainty was adapted into book form by Penguin Press.
The design of the book expresses the personal nature of Kalman’s material by adopting the
visual language of stationery. Headers are consistently placed on the book’s primary pages (ie. title pages, chapter openers, as well as the spine and back cover
of the book jacket), making the book feel like a notepad that Kalman has used to draw and
scribble her personal thoughts.
In transposing The Principles of Uncertainty from its original online iteration to book form,
much attention was paid to how Kalman’s material could be made to capitalize on the physicality
of a book. Because a book contains properties that do not exist on a screen, the content can reveal
meanings on a printed page that may not be as apparent on a screen. Nuances in Kalman’s text,
for example, could be accented by recomposing the text into forms that work with the bilateral structure
of a book spread…
A spread’s gutter could also be used to underline an illustration’s contents and reinforce its composition...
The following two spreads (pages 62–65) demonstrate how the book’s design uses repetition and cropping to emphasize meanings. Here, Kalman talks about her parents (illustrated with a painting of her parent’s wedding day), particularly her father, “who accidentally fell out of the 2nd-floor window of [their] apartment in Tel-Aviv, but bounced and did not get hurt.” Kalman originally ended this paragraph in the online column by saying, “Perhaps that is why he was a little crazy.” In the book, however, that line of text is removed from the paragraph and isolated on the next page…
…The text is then paired with a repetition of the wedding scene painting from the previous spread, but with half of the painting cropped to isolate Kalman’s father (thereby adding emphasis to the text). In design gestures such as this, the content’s subtleties are amplified in a manner that is achievable only in the format of a book.
The back jacket flap of a hardcover book traditionally contains a biography and a photograph of the
author. Kalman, however, wanted to ditch these standard elements and, in their place, run a portion
of the index printed in very large type. The publisher was not thrilled about this idea, needless to
say, but Kalman remained adamant. In the end, the publisher agreed to do it with the condition that
a very brief author bio be inserted somewhere on the flap.
Which part of the flap could this bio be inserted where it would feel deliberate, not arbitrary? As it happens, the portion of the index we had initially selected to excerpt for the flap were entries from the letter “F” (because the entries included several key words that seemed to nicely encapsulate the book) and this ended up presenting a convenient solution. An entry called “flap bio, Kalman’s” was simply added to the index, providing a logical slot for Kalman’s bio.