Warren Lehrer has never been satisfied working with words alone, or images alone—to him, the liaison between the two is where a creative work truly springs to life.
“What is the future of print?”
It’s a question I grew accustomed to over the years, first as an editor at Writer’s Digest magazine when ebooks were picking up steam in their second wave, and later as a journalism professor and editor of a magazine called … Print.
When it pertained to books, my guess was usually something akin to this: As digital books continue to grow in popularity, print will increasingly become the domain of that which cannot be replicated in e-ink alone—say, for example, Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams’ S., which contains a plethora of die-cut ephemera inserted at strategic points throughout the book, handwritten margin notes from multiple characters in different colors, and more. The notion of the digital and print facsimile would eventually fade, with the latter using its medium to redefine its advantage.
So far … I’ve been wrong. (Very wrong!) In fact, in September 2019, the Pew Research Center released its latest reading survey, surprising many with the data that print books still dominate over both ebooks and audiobooks, despite the predictions of the oracles of yesteryear.
Still, if someone were to ask me what the future of the printed book should be … my answer would remain the same: tomes that constitute the most robust and brilliant use of the form and its possibilities and limitations. And the next thing out of my mouth would be a list of names, including this one: Warren Lehrer.
From the outset, Lehrer was toying with the boundaries of the boxes we tend to put the arts in. As a kid, he blended language and image, and never really stopped. When he showed some of this work to his painting teacher at Queens College, he was rebuked: “You're barking up the wrong tree,” he recalls being told. “Don't ever combine words and images. They're two different languages, and they should stay separate.”
Luckily, his professor’s admonition only fueled him: “I left his office reeling like I’d been given a mission in life.”
The book and play French Fries, which Lehrer created with journalist Dennis Bernstein, debuted in 1984. Documenting a murder at a fast food restaurant, the story is told in expressive typography that dances about the page, giving visual life to the text—“helping the eye to hear and the ear to see,” as Julie Lasky wrote. Portrait Series: A Quartet of Men followed, in which Lehrer further explored his techniques. Screams are documented in enlarged type; moments of silence engender blank pages.
A Life in Books: The Rise and Fall of Bleu Mobley debuted in 2013. The “illuminated novel,” whispered by the eponymous fictional author in a jail cell, delves into his life and work—being all 101 of his books, the covers of which Lehrer designed in full. Since a book is not always just a book, a book by Lehrer is not just a book by Lehrer—the novel was complemented by a traveling exhibition, interactive contests, a live show, animations and much more.
This fall sees Lehrer returning to his roots with Five Oceans in a Teaspoon, his new collaboration of expressive poems with Bernstein—which prompted design critic Steven Heller to dub the duo “the Lennon and McCartney of viz-lit.”
When you read one of Lehrer’s books, it tends to feel … like the future. For the sake of story, storytelling and the printed form, it is my most sincere hope that it is.
In celebration of the latest episode of Design Matters, take a moment to check out a trio of highlights from Lehrer’s body of work below—and for the author’s curated list of boundary-breaking books, visit Designers & Books. If you haven’t read Lehrer’s work or the rest of the titles on his list, a wonderland of innovative word and image awaits.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
A Life In Books: The Rise and Fall of Bleu Mobley
Say the Critics: “Warren Lehrer has spent a decade writing and designing a book that is way more than a book. A blend of writing and design, which extends to performance art … a typographical and design tour de force.”
Official Copy: “Written and designed by award-winning author/artist Warren Lehrer, A Life in Books is an extraordinarily original, funny, heartwarming and heart-wrenching exploration of one man’s use of books as a means of understanding himself, the people around him, and a half-century of American/global events. Rich with stories that spring from other stories, this genre-defying novel orchestrates a multicultural symphony of characters from Bleu’s life and books: lovers, mothers, children, friends, enemies, teachers, students, runaways, rebels, thinkers, dreamers, believers, skeptics, the displaced and dispossessed. It celebrates the mysteries and contradictions of the creative process, and grapples with the future of the book as a medium, and the lines that separate truth, myth and fiction.”
Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America
Say the Critics: “Boldly carries the tradition of oral history into the 21st Century. An electrifying collage of voices, faces and spirits.” —Eve Ensler
Official Copy: “A kaleidoscopic view of new immigrants and refugees living in Queens, New York, the most ethnically diverse locality in the United States. For three years, Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan traveled the world by trekking the streets of their home borough. This book documents the people they encountered along the way. First-person narratives are illuminated by strikingly direct photographic portraits of the subjects alongside the objects of their worlds. Lehrer's postmodern, Talmudic design juxtaposes the multiple perspectives of these new Americans, now thrown together as neighbors, classmates, coworkers, enemies and friends. They reflect on the good, the ugly and the unexpected in their stories of crossing oceans, borders, wars, economic hardship and cultural divides. These soulful narrativ
es are put in context by the authors' personal and historical observations. The voices, images and sounds collected here form a portrait of a paradoxical and ever-shifting America.”
Five Oceans in a Teaspoon
Say the Critics: “Brilliant and beautiful. Thank you for bringing in the new.” —Alice Walker
Official Copy: “Five Oceans in a Teaspoon is an innovative, beautiful and moving collection of short visual poems written by muckraking journalist/poet Dennis J Bernstein, visualized by pioneer designer/author Warren Lehrer. Thirty-five years after the publication of their book/play French Fries, considered a classic in visual literature and expressive typography, Bernstein and Lehrer have reunited to complete a book of visual poetry they began 40 years ago. As with his journalism, Bernstein's poems reflect the struggle of everyday people trying to survive in the face of adversity. Divided into eight chapters, Five Oceans in a Teaspoon reads like a memoir in poems. It spans a lifetime: growing up confused by dyslexia and a parental gambling addiction; graced by pogo sticks, boxing lessons and a mother's compassion; becoming a frontline witness to war and its aftermaths, prison, street life, poverty, love and loss, open heart surgery, caring for aging parents and visitations from them after they're gone. Lehrer's typographic compositions give form to the interior, emotional and metaphorical underpinnings of the poems. Together, the writing and visuals create a new whole that engages the reader to become an active participant in the navigation, discovery and experience of each poem.”