Willis Regier | Essays

In Remembrance of Richard Eckersley

Design by Richard Eckersley. (Detail from copyright page of Avital Ronell's The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech, 1989)

Richard Eckersley died on April 16, having given the best years of his life to establishing the importance of high-quality book design for university presses. In 1980, David Gilbert, director of the University of Nebraska Press, foresaw that Nebraska needed to have a superior book designer if it wished to publish complex and heavily illustrated books. For nominations, he sought the advice of another great contemporary book designer, Richard Hendel, now with the University of North Carolina Press. Hendel strongly recommended Richard Eckersley, who was looking for a permanent opportunity in the United States.

Richard and his wife Dika, also a designer, defied all prejudice about the American Midwest and moved to Lincoln, where both immediately began to revamp the look of print design, far from the usual design centers of New York and London. Richard's first assignment upon his arrival was a project Nebraska has undertaken for the Joslyn Art Museum of Omaha, Karl Bodmer's America, a large-format book with color throughout, featuring the water-colors of a Swiss artist till then little known. As Gilbert had hoped, the book itself became a work of art, winning high praise in national media and making a resounding statement about Nebraska's commitment to book design. In 2004 Nebraska published a long-awaited successor: Karl Bodmer's North American Prints, again masterfully designed by Eckersley.

That commitment enlarged year by year. The Press undertook a series of translations of French surrealists — André Breton's Mad Love and Lost Steps, Louis Aragon's Treatise on Style and Adventures of Telemachus, René Daumal's You've Always Been Wrong, Mary Ann Caws's collection of manifestos — and Eckersley made them gorgeous. The bread-and-butter of the Nebraska list was the history of the American West and the centerpiece of the Nebraska's list in the 1980s and 1990s was the thirteen-volume set of The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary E. Moulton. Eckersley designed these volumes too, planning the full set carefully before the first volume appeared. Those fortunate enough to own the complete and jacketed set can see at a glance how Eckersley effectively asserted the importance of river travel to the success of the expedition.

Acquiring editors at Nebraska took it for granted that the most difficult books would be designed by Eckersley, but Debra Turner, the production manager, knew that even Richard could be overwhelmed. Building on the strong core provided by Richard and Dika, she hired other talented designers — Andrea Shahan, Ray Boeche, and Roger Buchholz — who learned from the Eckersleys and quickly came into their own. Their continued work at Nebraska will be part of Eckersley's living legacy.

That legacy is enormous. His books and jackets have been annually included as selections in the annual Association of American University Press competition, as well as frequently included in the AIGA "50 Books" competition, and among them are many that were instantly hailed as masterpieces of the publishing arts: Karl Bodmer's America and The Journals of Lewis and Clark, of course, but also Jacques Derrida's Glas and Cinders, Avital Ronell's The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech, Warren Motte's Small Worlds, a steady stream of translations of contemporary French writers (including books by Marcel Benabou, Marguerite Duras, Jean Echenoz, Maurice Blanchot and Gérard Genette), and many, many more.

Eckersley also designed books from other presses. He designed yet another competition winner, Avital Ronell's Stupidity, and has been a source of inspiration, consolation and advice for book designers throughout the Association of American University Presses.

I have also had the high honor of writing a book that was designed by Eckersley. He did another spectacular job, creating yet another AAUP winner. In my acknowledgments I admitted that the best justification for the book was that it gave raw material for Richard to convert into beauty. That's the plain truth. He was wonderful throughout the design process, soliciting my input, listening carefully, and in the end exceeding my supernally high expectations.

A gentle soul who understood all too well the dark humor of Samuel Beckett, Eckersley lived much of his life the hard way, in a fashion that tried his thin body with late nights, cigarettes and alcohol. He will be adored because of his book design, but those who knew him well loved him because he gave everything he had to his art and to others. Famous for his artistic restraint and occasional exuberance, he demanded much of himself, and gave himself generously, to the very end.

Willis Regier is currently the director of the University of Illinois Press, having previously held the same position at University of Nebraska Press and Johns Hopkins University Press. He is the author of Book of the Sphinx (University of Nebraska Press, 2004) and the editor of Masterpieces Of American Indian Literature (Bison Books, 2005).

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History, Media, Obituaries

Comments [10]

Richard Eckersley is amazing. The Telephone Book is a wonderfully challenging and thought provoking work of art. I was lucky enough to participate in his workshop a few years back at Uarts. It's amazing how much all of us learned about book design in such a short period of time (just 3 days!). He will be missed.

Between 1985 and 2006, Richard probably designed 400 to 500 books. Perhaps 20 of these were designs that wound up in museums. Having said that, the 400 plus books that were not candidates for museum exhibition were important, to their authors, to their readers. They were above all easy to read and a pleasure to hold. This is not easy to do. Most designers pay lip service to Beatrice Warde's crystal goblet & then go and design books that in some way attempt to point up the cleverness of the designer, all too often at the expense of the text. Not Richard. When his humor came through, and it frequently did, it would usually be limited to the title page, the copyright page, or the jacket. If it appeared in the text, it would be appropriate.
Charles Ellertson

We first met Richard in the early '90s in connection with the glossary project of the AAUP (Association of American University Presses). Richard cared deeply about professionalism and education in university press publishing; he took the glossary project to heart, and worked on it tirelessly for the better part of two years. At the time, the language of graphic arts was evolving and under stress from the substantial changes in technology. The goal of the glossary was to ease and inform communication, and to help young people entering the field.... Richard's wit was on display with his definition of:

 'Centered typography: 'A style characteristic of traditional, symmetrical design, in which type elements are vertically aligned on a central axis, like the skeleton of a Dover sole.'

His way with words by his comment on the term:

'Center on longest line: Used most commonly in connection with verse and verse extracts to achieve a balanced layout, though the result is often the reverse. Alternatively one may ask that an element be "visually centered"; that is, positioned so that it "looks right"-rather like hanging a painting with a warped frame, and equally frustrating.'

Richard's care with the finest points of typography was a passion. I remember his dismay over the presence of an unstressed character for zero in expert fonts of otherwise inflected, classic faces such as Janson and Adobe Caslon.

Our last project with him was setting type for a large catalogue of nineteenth-century prints; special characters were needed for Native American languages. Richard and I worked on creating those special characters throughout a summer. It was in his attention to all the finer points, ones perhaps ignored or overlooked by the rest of us, that revealed the depth of his caring.

When one of Richard's books was completed, it felt suffused by a thoughtful intelligence that was in every particular in support of the text; it's practically a visceral perception.

When Richard allowed his wit free play in a project, it never overwhelmed the text: rather if anything, it funtioned like an enlarger to make the message more readily accessible to readers. Once, he placed only one letter of the book's title on each page of the front matter: Book as time-lapse message. And it was indeed appropriate to the subject; in other hands, it might have been a gimmick.

In teaching design workshops, Richard was patient, thoughtful, insightful. Ever optimistic in his expectations of excellence, his piercing intelligence challenged those working with him to attempt levels of achievement, of care, we would otherwise have let go in face of deadlines. Richard Eckersley's influence on scholarly book design, on the design community, on the typographic community will outlast us all.

Barbara Williams

This is especially timely (the article not his death) for as I had just been thinking about this in the context of two books I'm reading. One -- On Holiday -- is a anthro-historical look vacationing in the Western world, written by a Swedish author who had taught at UCSC. It was published by the University of California Press, based in Berkeley. And aesthetically very pleasing, good font choices (which are, as they should be, listed in the back), nice section headers and a cleaver book cover. Very nice on the eyes.

The other book is Working at Play, which is a historical look at vacationing in the U.S. (I'm a little obsessed with the history of vacationing, but that's another topic.) Working at Play, published by the Oxford University Press (whose U.S. offices I believe are in Princeton), is an afront to the senses. Poorly printed, bad type and layout, with an unappealing (and over designed) cover. Nothing about it says: read me.

Both books were published in the late 1990s about extremely similar topics. (They each have separate theses, of course.) There is no reason for the two books to be at such opposite ends of the design spectrum, except that obviously UC Press has put more emphasis on the importance of design than has Oxford Press, an unfortunate decision when the books are held side by side in comparison.

I remember one afternoon sitting across from Richard Eckersley, who had a rather Hoagy Carmichael-like mien and a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. "What use are chapters? Why have them in any book?" he asked, then answered, "A chapter ending might mean, time to kiss the wife, or a pause to visit the loo, or take a nap. They serve no other function." He was equally entertaining on the subject of quotation marks, em spaces, the fact that the world really only needs four typefaces, and more. We talked about Chip Kidd in our last conversation; Richard admired him, though in my opinion, Kidd as a book designer is the antithesis of Richard Eckersley.

Richard, along with his wife Dika, another brilliant book designer, was my mentor. His understanding of typography and design was unparalleled, in my experience. What some might call restraint in his designs was surely respect; just as the greatest musicians give themselves over to the music of the composer, so did Richard give himself over to the words and intent of the authors, never imposing himself or the design on those books inappropriately, and, for that reason, making his work immediately distinctive and recognizable, at least to those of us who love book design. His brilliant wit and prodigious intelligence are there, too. He once said to me that it is always better to make someone look twice or even three times than to hit them over the head with an idea. His books always laid easily in the hand, were more readable, and were as beautiful as they could possibly be. Besides his fierce intelligence and wit and uncompromising integrity in matters of design, he was supremely gentle, kind, and generous.

I have so much more to learn from him, and I feel so very fortunate to have been able to know and learn even a bit from him. We are all fortunate to have access to the many books he designed; we can all benefit from what those designs teach us.
Diane Wanek

"Between 1985 and 2006, Richard probably designed 400 to 500 books. Perhaps 20 of these were designs that wound up in museums."

Does a bibliography of titles designed by Richard Eckersley exist? If the University of Nebraska Press does not already have this available, I hope they do publish it soon. That would be an appropriate honor to his legacy. It's important that his entire body of work—not just the award winners—be accessible to typographers and graphic designers (among others) in the future.
Lorraine Wild

We are all fortunate to have access to the many books he designed; we can all benefit from what those designs teach us.I have so much more to learn from him

Having been a friend of Richard Eckersely's since 1988, and now saddened by his death and the loss it represents to graphic design, I've spent a bit of time thinking about his gifts and contribution.

Though he was a master of understatement, both in the flesh, and in his designs, his contribution has been nothing less than profound. He was/is perhaps the most inventive designer of the university press tradition, a mostly conservative one - with exceptions. Saying such a thing, however, might irritate him though secretly he might know it was possible.

As a teacher, he was kind, lucid and ever-patient. As a person, he was loyal and dryly hilarious. As a raconteur, he was sans pareil.

So it's a very sad week to read this week of his passing.
Robert Tombs

Richard made a strong impression on me in two brief encounters. When this young, completely untrained designer showed up at a couple workshops over a decade ago, Richard was incredibly welcoming, patient, intelligent, and funny, all in his own comfortable, understated way. Yes, he was an amazing designer, but he was also a wonderful human being. He will be missed.
Steve Dinneen

The funny thing for me, as a young designer, is that Eckersley's work was acknowledged on a (i guess) subconscious level for year, years before I read his obit in the NY Times and then researched his work - it was like a satori: "ahhhh, so THAT was the person behind that pattern of excellence with type and space and innovation!"
Suddenly I realized the progression of the designers who, for me, had a much more visible presence: 23 Envlope(Vaughn Oliver & Nigel Grierson), Peter Saville, Dave McKean, etc., but all of whom owe a debt to Richard Eckersley. I welcome any discourse or further thoughts..
Eric Cooley
Seattle, WA
Eric Cooley

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