A Life in Books: A Typography and Design Tour de Force

Warren Lehrer, a founding faculty member of the Designer as Author MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and head of the graphic design program at Purchase College, SUNY, has spent a decade writing and designing a book that is way more than a book. A Life in Books: The Rise and Fall of Bleu Mobley is a typographical and design tour de force.

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A book that is a performance. Warren Lehrer presents “A Life in Books,” explaining: “The fabulous artist/illustrator Jonathan Rosen collaborated with me on the cover and hand-painted the title lettering based on my design.”

In his SVA classes on writing and designing the visual book, Lehrer has students re-interpret and re-imagine the book, creating handmade artists’ books, exploring new formats, binding techniques and ways of storytelling. This is his own visual book, in 380 highly illustrated pages, published on October 29 by Goff Books.

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Lehrer in between his cross-country book-tour events and his normally busy life of teaching, writing, designing and developing projects with his wife, Judith Sloan, for their nonprofit arts organization, EarSay.

Q: Would it be fair to characterize A Life in Books as a blend of writing and design, which extends to performance art, including acting and music?

A: Lehrer: Yes. I didn’t just create a life story. I created my main character’s entire creative universe. It’s a multimedia experience, but the physical book sits at its center.

The narrative goes like this: Over the course of one long night in the darkness of his prison cell, Bleu Mobley whispers his life story into a microcassette recorder, tracing his journey from the public housing project of his youth to a career as a journalist, then experimental novelist, college professor, accidental bestselling author, pop-culture pundit, and unindicted prisoner. Bleu’s life’s work is a collection of 101 eclectic books-within-a-book, which are visually presented with cover designs, promotional copy and excerpts that read like short stories.

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A typical spread in “A Life in Books” combines fictional character Bleu’s narrative, the cover design for the book he wrote at that time in his life, a catalog blurb for the book and a book excerpt. This spread introduces Bleu’s first novel, “The Switch,” about a day on earth when everyone is switched with their number-one nemesis. The orientation of the cover can be switched.

One of my main goals was to juxtapose what an artist says about his or her life with real evidence—a retrospective monograph—of that work. I lay it all out there. Then I let the reader decide where the truth lies.

Another goal was to find a broader audience: I hope this book will be equally appreciated by fiction fans, people who enjoy short story collections, people who are into graphic design, popular culture and/or humor, and by people who simply love beautiful books. The people who come to our longer performances will experience live readings and excerpts dramatized by actors and musicians.

Q: A few practical questions. First, how long did it take you to write the book and create its component elements?

A: It depends when you start counting. My wife and collaborator, Judith Sloan, says ten years. I say eight. So, I’ll compromise—nine.

Q: You are head of the graphic design department at Purchase, a notable conservatory school. And you also teach in the MFA Design program at SVA. As well as doing a million other things. How did you find the time?

A: One of the best things about college teaching is that it gives you time to do what you do professionally. I spend about half my time teaching, preparing for classes, and doing things like answering students’ 3:00 a.m. emails—these days, students email you day and night—and half my time writing and designing my own projects.

I do try to draw the line with students, and summers are the greatest time for working in a concentrated way on projects. For more than twenty years, Judith and I have been spending summers at a cabin on a river in Maine. I take all my urban stories and equipment up there for three months. And I’m very disciplined. I work ten- to thirteen-hour days. I’m also an insomniac.

Q: What inspired you to embark on this project?

A: My previous five books were nonfiction. For example, Crossing The Boulevard documents 79 immigrants and refugees from all over the world who live in Queens, New York. It’s about very real people and world events, and part of documentary work is making sure everything is accurate. After completing it, I felt a need to work on something that gave me more room for invention and for exploring the inner workings of characters. Over the years, I’d accumulated drawers full of short stories and interior monologues I’d written. I had lists of book ideas and book titles. From all of that, the writer-artist character, Bleu Mobley, emerged, as well as the people and scenarios that inhabit his books and his life.

Q: And your inspiration for the name Bleu Mobley?

A: He was born a bit prematurely, bluish in color. His mother was part French, and she exclaimed, “Bleu!”

Q: As in “Sacré bleu!”

A: Yes, and his surname was made up by his tale-spinning grandfather, Mordechai Jacobson, a Jewish émigré who’d escaped from Poland during World War I, became a rag merchant on New York’s Lower East Side, came up with a non-Jewish-sounding name to use on certain occasions.

Q: You can’t make this stuff up! Yes, you can! At your recent New York book launch/performance event at Greene Space, your father stood up and said that the Bleu Mobley character is a lot like you. Is he? How much of your protagonist is you and how much is not?

A: Fifty-fifty. Bleu taught in a college literature department; I’m in the design department. The stuff in the book came from many places: my experiences in academia, in the publishing industry, as an American for 50-something years, my encounters with a wide array of people—and a lot came out of my imagination. The Bleu character is fatherless, but I have a wonderful father. My mother is totally not Bleu’s manic-depressive, artist mother. I know people with bipolar disorder, so I drew on that for the mother character who struggles with her illness but is also Bleu’s muse.

Q: Did you write the chapters in the book in chronological order, or did you mix things up?

A: I started with the idea for Bleu’s first novel, “The Switch,” then charted the outline of Bleu’s story, starting with why he was in prison. The outline was huge, and it kept changing. This became a massive file of Word docs: Bleu’s narration, the excerpts of each work. Each excerpted book told me things about Bleu’s life that I hadn’t planned on. Such as, when his daughter is diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, he can’t afford to be an experimental, avant-garde fiction writer any more. He needs money and begins writing what will sell, in many different genres: legal thrillers, children’s books, pet lit. For example, the series of self-help books about angst-ridden love relations that begins with “I Could Love You So Much If Only I Didn’t Hate You,” is followed by “I Could Love You So Much If Only You Didn’t Hate Me,” is followed buy “If Only I Didn’t Hate Myself,” all written under the pseudonym Dr. Sky Jacobs. Bleu even invents hybrid genres like culinary murder mysteries (“The Night Crustaceans Screamed”) and religious porn (“End Times”).

Q: As you were writing, did you envision the covers?

A: Sometimes I designed the covers first. The covers helped me write the book. I really worked those covers. Each is a labor of love. Maybe not as much love as the cover for Crossing The Boulevard, which I must have redesigned 400 times. These, many times, too. I did most of the cover illustrations myself, some in collaboration with Melina Rodrigo, a former SVA student. Another former SVA student, Donna Chang, and I worked together on dimensionalizing the covers: “Let’s angle it at this angle.” “Let’s tatter it more.” “Make this one be 400 pages, 150 pages, paperback, hard cover.”

Q: One of the most distinctive things about this book is its eclectic typography. How did you approach the typeface selection?

A: I used three main type families throughout the book: Filosofia for Bleu’s narrative. two weights of Interstate Condensed for the catalog descriptions, and Adobe Garamond for the book excerpts. I used hand-lettering and a bunch of other typefaces—ranging from Akzidenz Grotesk to Weiss—for stuff like illustrations of notes and envelopes and for the book excerpts that are “reproduced” as though they’re facsimiles of actual pages. And I ran the gamut when it came to the title lettering on the different book covers, though Bleu had his favorites (he designed the covers of all his books, having gotten started on all this in his public-school print shop).

Q: Let’s take a look at a selection of covers, in somewhat random order:

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“The End of the End of Books” is Bleu’s novel about a long-term mental patient at the height of the Y2K scare. Surrounded by all manner of “End Of” books, this character, sane in an insane world, begins by typing sentences on a manual typewriter.

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“Urban Removal” is the story of a sculptor who wants to stay in her gentrifying neighborhood and conducts un-beautification workshops.

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This self-help book by Bleu’s alter-author Dr. Sky Jacobs uses charts and diagrams to help readers figure out where they’ve been, how they got there, and possibly where they should go next.

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Trying to cope with a bad back, Bleu, in the guise of Dr. Sky Jacobs, writes his first self-help book.

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A novel about a lifelong doodler who loses touch with reality and falls inside one of her doodles.

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A book about a planet that thought it was the center of the universe.

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A “true fiction” novel narrated by an atheist who tells nothing but the truth—so help him God.

Q: I have to confess that I’m not reading in chronological order. I start to read a chapter and then my thoughts take me where the writing takes me. Or I look at the images of the jackets and the typography and get lost there.

A: Someone called this book a browser’s delight. You can skip around, skim-read the text, look through the images and book covers, and focus on what interests you. But it’s my hope, of course, that people will go back and read from the beginning.

Q: Are you planning to enlarge any of the excerpts, to turn them into full-length books?

A: I’d like to complete two Bleu Mobley books fairly soon: the “The Poetry Roll” with one poem on each sheet of toilet paper, and the pop-up book on capital punishment: “How Bad People Go Bye-Bye.”

I just came from Rutgers University, where I’ll be an artist-in-residence in the spring, working with creative writing and graphic design students who will complete one or two Bleu Mobley books, perhaps as enhanced e-books. And there is a contest on my website.

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Page spread featuring “The Poetry Roll,” 1001 two-ply toilet-paper poems. “Just read, wipe, ponder, and flush,” suggests the author.

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In the children’s genre: a rhyming, pull-out, pop-up book on the history of capital punishment.

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From “How Bad People Go Bye-Bye,” an interior page on stoning, before and after.

Life is crazy. I’m really burning the candle at both ends. But I love it.

Q: What do you love the most?

A: I love being alone and just working. I also love presenting the work in readings, in performance with a live audience or via the media, such as this Studio 360 radio interview with Kurt Andersen.

Q: Judith was a big part of the performance at Greene Space, but she’s not always on the program, right?

A: Unless you’ve written major best-sellers, authors these days have to do a lot to make sure people know about their books. I arrange the book launch events, signings and performances in conjunction with giving lecture/performances and workshops at colleges. Judith is an actress, oral historian, writer, sound and radio producer. She’s known for her solo shows and character portrayals. I’m always happy when she can participate.

Q: When experiencing A Life in Books, what do you most want the reader to be thinking about?

A: The creative process. The relationship between life and art. Fifty years of American and global events. How very funny and very serious things live side by side. New ways of writing and reading. The future of the book.

Q: Let’s talk a little bit about the future of the book. The lead story in last Monday’s New York Times business section, about digital books, proclaims, “Books are dead. Long live the book.” Is the book dead?

A: The book is changing. Bleu eventually comes to realize that the book—threatened by short attention spans and electronic devices—is no longer the primary vehicle for telling stories. By that time in the story, he’s got a factory of assistants who help write his books. He quits writing and turns his factory into an entrepreneurial think-tank for exploring the legacy and future of the book. They come up with a line of book lamps, book toys for boys, book clothing, and large-scale flying books.

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Printed books not selling so well? Everybody needs new clothes. How about book clothing?

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And lighting fixtures. The Bleu Mobley team’s “Illuminated Manuscripts.”

I’m partial to the book lamps (“Illuminated Manuscripts”). See them come to life in this video.

Right now, I’m working on a book app that will combine video and animation and that will approach the electronic book in a dynamic way. Although I love physical books, I’m interested in exploring the tablet as new vehicle for telling stories. And this book, with all its various parts, is turning out to be well suited for it; in an enhanced e-book the parts can move and be interactive.  

Q: Finally, what do you most enjoy reading? Who are your favorite authors?  Which books most inspired you?

A: I’ve written an annotated list of 22 books for the Designers and Books website focused on works of visual literature: books—mostly fiction, some non-fiction, a few hybrids—whose visual composition is an integral part of the writing.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer is on my top-ten books of any kind list. Also, Maira Kalman’s Principals of Uncertainty. Favorite books that had an influence on A Life In Books include Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler and Rabih Alameddine’s I, The Divine.

1001 Arabian Nights is the ultimate collection of stories nested between the covers of one book. Scheherazade kept telling stories in order to survive, which is true of Bleu Mobley and a lot of writers, if not for humanity itself.


print-collections_underthecIn this download from Print magazine (Under the Covers), you’ll get 34 pages of book cover design advice, inspiration and eye candy—all in one handy place. See dozens of book covers, including the new, the old, the reimagined—even the ones that never saw the light of day.

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