Cover Appeal

One of my favorite parts of the urban exploration that I've been undertaking this month is visiting bookstores. When I say bookstores, I'm not talking about the big chains that start with B, but the small, independent stores, the used bookstores, even those thrift stores that have a good book selection.

In New York, the most popular non-chain store is The Strand. Yep, been there many times, and its annex. Labyrinth Books is another good one with a lot of discounted books. Housing Works Used Books Cafe is great not only for finding used books but just hanging out or hearing an author speak. Coliseum Books recently went out of business (as did Murder Ink, one I didn't get the chance to see - both are indicative of the difficulty, or impossibility, of running an independent bookstore on an island of high, high rents) so I hit it's 50-70% clearance sale. And don't forget Urban Center Books for all your architecture needs. I'm sure there's more I'm forgetting about, but my point isn't to be thorough but to get across the range of options (still) available beyond the big boys.

My point also is design. One publisher's books that I've (surprisingly) seen numerous times in the last week and a half are Zone Books. Like the stores I noted above, Zone Books is independent. They publish "a select list of titles in the arts, humanities, and social sciences," all falling under the rubric of academic. For an architect like myself they're known for the six-volume Zone series, particularly a couple edited by Stanford Kwinter and others.

I say surprisingly above because Zone books are really not that popular, even when compared to other academic publishers like MIT Press, and because they seem to have an almost cult following whereby their titles are hard to come by and asking prices of out-of-print books is very high. Also, many of the topics that Zone presents are like PhD theses in their specificity and breadth. As illuminating as they probably are, I don't think I could make it through a 2,000-year history of the Great Lakes region of Africa or 545 pages on funeral oration in Ancient Athens. But when I pick up these titles (and I did, both of them, at Coliseum Books), I nevertheless feel an impulse to buy them. Why? Because of those covers.

Take a look:
(image made from this page

Designed by Bruce Mau and Julie Fry, these covers are an apparent design exercise in consistency and difference. What I mean is that there appears to be a consistent feel across the various covers, yet each is individual, setting itself apart not only from books by other publishers but from themselves. This consistency comes from elements like the small Zone Books black bar centered on the bottom of most covers, but also blurred images, duotone images, and a limited palette of (simple) fonts. The quilting above also deceptively presents each book as the same size or proportion, though I know for a fact (as I own it) that La Jetee is a book in landscape format.

Regarding difference, it seems to come primarily from color and image selection. Given the consistencies, these help to differentiate each book, especially the latter and its pertinence to the cover. The quilting above is also deceptive in that it reinforces this difference by gridding the books in alphabetical order, thereby eliminating any intentional grouping via color or subject.

Unfortunately, Bruce Mau devotes only a few lines to his role, sounding more like a businessman than the hot-to-architects designer that he's become.


  1. Amazing. I too judge book by there covers, unfortunately always have and always will. Or fortunately? Great knowing not the only one and beautiful illustration of them tiled together. Thanks!!

  2. If you like architecture books (and which architect doesn't?), you may be interested in this new blog - a monthly review of architectural books both new and old.
    Or maybe you won't, but at least now you are enriched by the option.
    Beautiful quilt, by the way!

  3. ottelms - Yep, we're not alone. At a bookstore in Brooklyn Heights a few hours after writing this post, I found not one, not two, but six Zone books. Again, part of my braining is telling me to buy one, but the topics didn't interest me too much, or they were just too plain expensive ($80.00 and used!).

    Sesqui - Thanks for the link. Sounds like a great idea and your review of Ghostly Ruins is a good one. I'm doing a small review on my weekly page this coming Monday. I'll add a link to my post that day and the sidebar, too. Oh, and nice http address.


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