Alessandro Segalini, the brilliant typographer and cover-designer for Contra Mundum Press, is also a professor at Binghamton College, where his lucky students have the opportunity to delve deeply into the complexities and mysteries involved in translating the ideas, mood, context of a book into a cover design that is not only beautiful, but that somehow conveys to the potential reader something important about the book. In a book such as Musil's Theater Symptoms: Plays and Writings on Drama, the challenges are increased by the manifold material within the book, not to mention Musil's own resistance to being pigeon-holed in any one movement, position, stance.
First, Alessandro had his students read my preface and introduction to the book, and they all wrote a little bit about what it evoked for them and came up with some questions. Then I had the pleasure of visiting the class (via Zoom, of course) to talk with them about the milieu of Musil's work, the turbulent 20's, and European Modernism as well as the concerns of Musil's work in general and the particular themes and subjects in this book. It was a fascinating conversation for me, raising many intriguing questions about how complex ideas might be distilled, symbolized, represented in a single cover, about the nature of translation itself, from language to language, from verbal to imagistic, and so on. It challenged me to think about how I might distil someone as complex as Musil, and something as multi-faceted as this book into a few words or images. We came up with a few basic ideas: multiplicity, union of opposites, many-faced, lacking a solid place to stand, open-ended....
Yesterday, Alessandro sent the results to me and Rainer Hanshe, the heart and brain of Contra Mundum Press, and we three chose our favorites of the many, many very impressive cover designs. Interestingly, there was a great variety of opinions (Rainer and I chose completely different favorites, which just shows there is not always any accounting of taste). Below you will find the five finalists, along with excerpts from the artists' commentary on their process.
This cover is by Yanfen Liang, who writes, that after long introspetion: "Finally I found a black figure, a black figure is shaping itself. This picture is called Hombre puzzle and I found it on illot.net. This is like a Musil experience. Every experience of each person will become a part of the body. At the same time, one hand grasps an eye puzzle, both eyes look straight ahead as if to examine and observe, but at the same time, they are also observing themselves. In order to be more meaningful, I divided the picture into three stages, from blur to clear. This shows how the personal experience has changed and clarified thinking. I think the overall picture shows a bold observer, critic, and thinker."This cover is by Yingyen Chen, who writes that Musil's passion for both art and criticism was an inspiration for the creation of the cover. "With the inspiration of symbolism," Chen writes, "I came up with the idea to use abstract shapes instead of an actual image to create the design. The sharpness of straight lines, as the tenderness and elegance of art, intertwine with each other and create counterparts". Musil's passion for "writing and criticizing in such a complicated and unstable period" was a further impetus for the "dualistic and dialectic" choice of colors, shapes, and fonts.Brian Wissing designed this one. He writes: "The eyes in this cover were an important message for me from the beginning. It makes a lot of sense to think about relating eyes to his work. I was intending to relate the eyes with how introspective he was into his society in his writing and in his critiques. Whether you want to paint it as a good or bad thing, he was great at looking, observing and judging. The magnifying glass plays with that as well. [...] There is even the lone eye on the back cover, staring you down as you read the synopsis. While I don’t intend to make anybody uncomfortable necessarily, I do intend to hold people attention and hold their gaze".
This cover is by Marina Stern, who writes: "My intention is for these images to express the deterioration of art and ideologies over time, and also highlight the helplessness which Musil may have experienced within his life (considering the historical context of war and censoring of the arts). The back cover depicting Perseus and the beheading of Medusa develops a metaphor between Musil's ideologies and the overcoming of manipulation, represented by Medusa. The image of a deteriorating face, and the beheading of a symbol of hate, represent Musil’s views on the arts and creativity: allowing ideas to fall into the realm of the generic, and the dissolving of arts into history mean the loss of creativity. Thus, Musil strives for true creativity and fights against the deterioration of the arts". When it came to choice of fonts and colors, Stern writes: "Hierarchy is made clear with the largest text being the title, and in close proximity the author’s name is below. Cochin was used for the front cover title, developing a powerful, strong, and semi-traditional or historical feel. Skia is used for the author’s name and back cover description. This choice is attributed to the font’s similarity to old greek writings, and also due to its readability and legibility in large blocks of text (simple sans serif style). These fonts blend well due to matching angles in certain letter forms. The paper background was another feature I added since its crinkled, imperfect texture adds to the sense of something deteriorating or flawed. Horizontal patterning on the front highlights a breaking point and deterioration of normalcy. While in back, the line highlights the statue’s gaze. The wine color choice melds with the darkness of the paper background while creating visual interest. Lastly, the positioning of the line art, including the face on the cover and face on the back, create an inward-pointing line of sight. Along the spine, the deteriorating statue looks straight ahead and outward at the reader: all lines of sight direct the viewer’s attention".
Evangeline Kontos came up with this design, explaining: "Musil spoke out against the decline of art, and even social relations, and he did so in an unequivocal manner. When thinking of design ideas to represent “Theater Symptoms”, I wanted to depict Musil’s candid personality-- his sarcasm and honesty during the uniformity during the World War. [...] The red line formed into the shape of a capital “M”, for “Musil”. The red line represented “cutting through” normalcy and repetition, as Musil strived for reformation in the art world (and social/ political issues) with a plain-spoken attitude. I drew the black lines on Illustrator and erased a path to fit the red line. I cut the edge of the red line to a sharp point that fittingly “points” to the author's text. I added a light beige background to add dullness, and to complement the monotone/repetitive lines. The red stroke stands out amongst the background, as Musil did. I used the Bely Display font for the title, as I wanted to represent a more classical feel, as Musil lived and wrote during the World War. I paired the font with Futura, a modern sans serif font that is obviously different from that of the title. The two, I believe, pair well together, and the contemporary feel of Futura suits the author. The spine features the same fonts, this time in red, that once again cut through the black lines. In all, I hope that this concept can show through to the reader, or at least compel the viewer to open the book".