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Speaking to the Eyes: The visual art of Bruce Kennett



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Kennett designed this exhibition catalog for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Beginning in the late 18th century, wealthy buyers bought unbound books, then had pages with illustrations added to the book by their binder. The exhibition runs January 25 to May 25. Bruce Kennett. (click for larger version)
January 28, 2010
Kennett says that as a book designer, "What interests me is what the reader is experiencing in the moment. Therefore, there needs to be an underlying, reassuring rhythm in the architecture of the book. You need to communicate the message that the author is presenting and support it in the best way you can." The design, then, supports the content. "I feel if people come up to me and say, 'Wow, I really like the design of this book' and it's the first thing that they say, then I've failed in some way. I want them to take in the content and have the design be a pleasing foundation to the content. If they are paying attention only to the design, then I've stepped too far forward."

Kennett's career as a book designer began with an interest in calligraphy, a skill that he taught himself as a teenager. In 1975, he saw the work of the Austrian book designer and calligrapher, Friedrich Neugebauer, at a show at Harvard. Kennett, who had only used calligraphy to make gifts for friends and had never thought of it as a profession, was electrified by Neugebauer's sense of color and design. The next day he returned to the exhibit, where he met Neugebauer and asked him to take him on as student.

Kennett spent a year in Austria as a Meisterschüler — master class student — with Neugebauer. "It was like a monk going to the scriptorium. My only job was to learn about the flow of letterforms and the design of books, six days a week, from eight in the morning to six at night."

At the end of the year, Neugebauer asked him to stay on, but Kennett declined. "I wanted what I had learned and studied to percolate through my system so I could figure out how to combine what I had learned with my interests in photography and technology."

Kennett stayed in contact with Neugebauer, and was honored when he was asked to translate Neugebauer's master work into English, which was published in the U.S. in 1980 as "The Mystic Art of Written Forms: An Illustrated Handbook for Lettering."

"It was a great honor to be chosen to do the book," Kennett said. "I'm thrilled when I see reference to the book and people talk about it as being one of the most beautiful, spiritually informed calligraphy books that has ever been made."

In the years that followed his return from Austria, Kennett worked as a freelance book and graphic designer, photographer, photo muralist and writer, and taught many of these skills, as well. By age 30, he had earned such a reputation in the world of type and book design that he was offered a job as a type designer by Mergenthaler Linotype, which was responsible for trademarked typefaces by some of the most famous designers of the 20th century.

"I often look back at how different my path might have been, because I was going to be one of five lieutenants under Mike Parker, who was head of the company. One of the other lieutenants was Matthew Carter, who's gone on to be the premier type designer of our age. There would have been a lot there that I would have enjoyed, but I didn't feel I could flourish in Manhattan."

Today, Kennett lives and works out of his home, the huge circa 1820 barn on West Side Road that once served as his father's [Frank Kennett] architecture office. While he works alone much of the time, he says collaboration with others is an important part of what he does.

"I like the dance of proffering a couple of ideas and having feedback from the author or client that helps me make a slight course correction so I'm always expressing the inner spirit of the project," Kennett notes. "The more often we can go back and forth with that, the better it's going to be. With one of my clients, Transparent Audio, we'll often argue until one of us convinces the other. Working with clients isn't about confrontation; it's about advocacy of something you believe in. If the other person convinces you, great! The product can only improve when there's that kind of engagement about what works the best."

That spirit of collaboration was once exemplified in small specialty printers like Portland's Anthoensen Press, where Kennett served as managing director in the mid-1980s. In the small circles of fine printing and scholarly books, Anthoensen was world famous, but like Vermont's Stinehour Press, it fell victim to the changing world of printing.

At Stinehour's closing, Kennett wrote, "The unity of spirit of the Stinehour Press is what I see as our greatest loss: it lived the principle that a closely-knit group could create an entire book from design through binding… As I view the closing of Stinehour through the lens of the current moment, with its extreme specialization and the flinging of digital files around the planet, I feel the loss of something essentially human ... a spirit that acted as thoughtful shepherd of the merely technical."

The books Kennett creates for private libraries, historical societies and corporations often take a year or more to complete.

"I like the contemplative pace of that because I get to reflect on things before they're forever captured in ink on paper and unable to be changed."

The elegance of his solutions is exemplified in the illustrated catalogue he created for a major exhibition on the complex relationship between poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Throughout the book, Kennett repeated the two poets' initials, SP • TH, bringing them out in gold and blind-embossing on the book's spine, and using them as an ornament on the interior pages. He selected Bembo as the typeface, as it had been chosen by both poets for their books. "I wanted there to be a kind of truth in that the type used was used in their books. It's a bit like painting the part of the ceiling that only God can see."

When the book won the American Library Association's Leab Award for the best exhibition catalogue produced in U.S. and Canada, Kennett wrote to the people who had bound the book, "Of course we all work because it gives us our livelihoods, but for some of us who are fortunate enough in our jobs, work also enables us to do something worthwhile, to make something tangible, to stray at times into the realm of the beautiful and pleasurable, and to meet interesting people. That is certainly enough for any of us. But once in a while, it is really wonderful to have that work recognized by our peers as the best of the best."

Book design hasn't been Kennett's sole focus. He's designed numerous photo murals for clients including Boston College Law School, Harvard Medical School, L.L. Bean, and, locally, the Conway Public Library and the Mt. Washington Observatory's Weather Discovery Room at the mountain's summit. The covers for Dana Cunningham's CDs are his work, as are the original banners for The Mountain Ear and The Conway Daily Sun, the Bryant Tolles book, "Grand Resort Hotels of the White Mountains," the visual identity for the Upper Saco Land Trust, and the label for Geary's Pale Ale.

Kennett has just finished the catalog for a show called "Extending the Book: The Art of Extra Illustrations," which opens this Friday at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. He's currently working on multiple projects, including a book of incunabula — books, single sheets and images printed between Gutenberg and 1500 — from Smith College's collection. He's simultaneously writing and designing a book on William Addison Dwiggins (1880-1956), a book and type designer, marionette maker and all-around creative genius. Kennett plans to finish four chapters by mid-February, then his agent will take it to prospective publishers, with Dwiggins' own publisher, Knopf, at the top of the list.

Getting it published will be a way of honoring and preserving WAD's legacy. "I do think that we should continue to honor the way books were made and printing was carried out. The image I have of myself is that I'm on a train moving through time. Some of my good friends are up in the locomotive, peering ahead as the headlight is piercing the darkness — that's where they want to be, at the very front of everything. I'm in the observation car looking back; I'm moving through time the same way they are, but I want to make sure we gather and bring with us things that are worthy of preservation."

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