Inside the Collection

Books, the best thing since sliced bread

Hand-drawn Alphabet book by William Harrison and Beginning to Read by ER Boyce
(left) Hand-drawn Alphabet book handmade by William Harrison, Australia, 1894. 97/132/1 (right) E R Boyce, Beginning to Read, England, 1950s. 2007/108/1 Collection:Powerhouse Museum

In this National Year of Reading, it is appropriate that the Powerhouse Museum mounts an exhibition which celebrates excellence is Australian book design and publishing. While the Museum collection contains hundreds of books, including the two children’s books illustrated above (one hand made in Australia by 13 year old William Harrison for his niece in England, the other published in England but used in Australian schools), it holds very few winning books from the Australian Publishers Association (APA) annual Book Design Awards (BDA).

This is about to change, as research and development of the Cover story: 60 years of Australian book design display, has drawn our attention to the changing look of the book and the dramatic changes which have shaped the design, layout, printing and production of Australian books over the six decades of the Australian Publishers Association Book Design Awards (1952-2012). As these Awards promote and recognise creativity, excellence and innovation in Australian book design and production, it seems highly appropriate that the Powerhouse Museum now preserves aspects of this important legacy.

Held in conjunction with the 2012 Book Design Awards event (Thursday 17 May) and the 60th anniversary of the Australian Publishers Associations (APA) Annual Book Design Awards (BDA), Cover story showcases a selection of award winning and highly commended books, plus numerous BDA catalogues. The image on the cover of the 1998 BDA catalogue (illustrated above) and the conceptual caption, ‘Books: the best thing since sliced bread!’ printed on the back cover, playfully and metaphorically highlight the relevance and significance of books and reading in everyday life. This catalogue was designed by Dean Lahn in collaboration with conceptual photographer Andrew Dunbar. APA invited Lahn to design the catalogue as his book, Body Piercing (a self initiated project produced in collaboration with Andrew Dunbar), won both the Best Designed Book of the Year and Best Designed Jacket of the Year categories of the 1998 BDA awards.

1998 APA Book Design Awards catalogue
1998 Book Design Awards catalogue, designed and typeset by Dean Lahn, Lahn Stafford Design, cover photograph by Andrew Dunbar. Reproduced courtesy Australian Publishers Association

Judging of the Book Design Awards was tough in the early years as the Association tried to improve overall standards. The comment from the 1953–54 judges was typical: “We found examples of first class printing, good layout, good binding, good jacket designs, and good illustrations, but unfortunately all these virtues were seldom combined in the same book …”

By 1967–68 the standard had lifted. That year the judges commented: “Partly as a result of the competition, nearly all books submitted were the work of trained and responsible designers and fewer books are now left to the anonymous chances of the composing room”.

In recent decades, the standard of entries has been high and competition fierce.

In 1993, The Australian Dream: Design of the Fifties, designed by Colin Rowan, won the Best Designed Book of the Year (see below) and Refreshing: art off the pub wall, published by Allen & Unwin in association with the Powerhouse Museum (also designed by Colin Rowan) won Best Designed Paperback priced below $25.00 in 1990.

The Australian Dream: Design of the Fifties 1993
The Australian Dream: Design of the Fifties, designed by Colin Rowan, published by Powerhouse Museum, 1993

Photography books and books about nature have also featured prominently among the award winning books, but since the mid-1990s, the Best Designed Popular Reference Book and Best Designed Book of the Year categories have been dominated by cookbooks. By 2002 a trend had emerged for cookbooks not to feature food on the cover at all. Within this group, the strong graphics of Damien Pignolet’s design for French (2006) and David Thompson’s bold simple design for Thai Food (2002) stood out from the crowd. The judges’ commented that the whole design of Thai Food, ‘from the particularly lush hot pink Thai fabric cover to the beautiful internals — elevated this book from a cookbook to an object of desire’.

The children’s book category of the Awards has also been strong from the beginning, with the best childrens’ books often having a sophisticated sense of fun which blurs the boundaries between adult and children’s literature. The Museum’s Cover story display features memorable award winning childrens’ books from the early decades including Animal Talk and other stories (1954-55), Ombley-Gombley (1969-70) and Storm-Boy (1974-75), through to the outstanding children’s picture book of 2007 – Shaun Tan’s remarkable The Arrival. The 2007 judges’ were ‘unanimous in (their) appreciation of this extraordinarily beautiful, haunting and original work of art’.

Even though sales of ebook readers continues to accelerate, the late 20th and early 21st centuries may well be remembered as the golden age of luscious, highly tactile, coffee table books. BDA judges’ comments over the last 10 years reflect this: “this is a book to hold close and enjoy” (2010), “cleverly designed to include stroking, coveting and ultimately treasuring” (2007), “the luscious feel of the book conveys a genuine warmth” (2006), “the whole design elevates this from a cookbook to an object of desire” (2002), “the attention paid to every detail makes this a complete package” (2000).

Cover story: 60 years of Australian book design opened on 14 May and will be up at least through to the 24 June, and maybe longer. The Powerhouse Museum Research Library holds more BDA award winning books, and these are available for viewing by appointment. Monday-Friday 9am-5pm. Tel: 92170258

Post by Anne-Marie Van de Ven and Judith Matheson

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