William Drenttel | Essays

VAS: An Opera in Flatland

I first saw the work of Stephen Farrell while walking with Richard Meier through the opening of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Triennial in 2000. Stephen made a 600+ page book about at typeface, Volgare, inspired by a Renaissance manuscript in the Newberry Library in Chicago. That evening, the two designers on the Cooper-Hewitt board found something exquisite in the work of Stephen Farrell that transcended design disciplines: craftmanship in a single volume that posed a challenge to the scale and ambition of the other projects in a major design exhibition.

Three years later, I received another book, this time in the mail, and again I was stopped cold. VAS: An Opera in Flatland is the first full-length novel by Steve Tomasula and Stephen Farrell. A tour de force of narrative typography, it is unlike any novel since the appearance of the House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (Pantheon, 2000).

Note: A review of VAS by Rick Poynor appeared in Eye Magazine (Issue 49) 15 September 2003.

[Disclosure: Winterhouse Editions is distributing this title by special arrangement with the authors.]

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media, Typography

Comments [3]

After reading Rick Poynor's review in Eye, I tracked down VAS to see what the hype was about.

It is a magnificent object: thick, colorful, and visually rich. I did not read the book from cover to cover, but I spent time flipping through its pages. Each spread is unique. Each turn of the page affords new surprises. My immediate reaction was that it lacked a sense of unity. However, I was pleased to see a book pushed in these new directions (almost cinematic). My next mission is to read it front to back.
Jason A. Tselentis

It's hard to comment on a novel that is designed in this nature, because there really isn't much to compare it to. It's refreshing to see writer and designer work so closely on a book. Actually it just makes sense. You have to wonder, had writer and designer always worked this way, if book design might be a lot different today. When I look at the work of McSweeney's and Farrell, I see something big developing in the publishing industry. Possibly a revolution.

Why shouldn't design be a part of the dialogue that takes place between reader and story? Although there are many theories against that, when I pick up a book like VAS, it's clear that print is not dead. VAS literally feels alive with it's flesh and blood pantone colors. In this case design serves a higher purpose. When was that last time you talked about the way a novel felt in your hand?
Aaron S.

I am a student in Graphic Design and have been learning about
typography, the form, structures and rules of classical typographic
elements. We have learned about classical book design as well as
"modern" book design, however, I still find it to be static and
uninteresting. This book really pushes what book design means and
how a designer can relate to the text.

As stated before, print by some people is "dead", this is the type of
interaction and flavor that is needed in print design if we want books
to continue to be artifacts that people will want to purchase and
keep on their shelves.
Liz W.

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