Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Re-Presenting III: The Designer

Designers transform plain text into something that readers can fall in love with at a glance; but they also bring the chaos of a manuscript into order, sometimes catching problems that everyone else misses. I meet with our designer, Rita Lascaro, on the Upper East Side to talk about her life as a designer—she's saved more than a few of our books!

How did you start in design?

Long story. I went to Parson's school of Design to study illustration because, when I was in 8th grade, I wanted my drawings and paintings to be in magazines with my name in little type next to them. I found out when I got older that this meant being an illustrator. After I graduated college I never got enough work as an illustrator, so I started doing mechanicals for various designers—this was before computers when every word in a book was pasted down with one-coat rubber cement by some troll like me. Well, I started doing mechanicals for a Braziller freelance designer named Ed Smith. At that time, if you were in George's office doing something, he'd ask you to do something else. One day, when I was delivering a job for Ed Smith, George turned to me and said, "Could you design a book jacket for me?" I said "Sure,"—not knowing about type or anything—and I went home to do a painting, because that's what I knew how to do. That first book was a novel called The Past. I did a strange painting of three people in green swirls for the cover that, somehow, George accepted. I put some type on it and that's how I started designing.

So—I don't know this and I don't know how many people actually do—how did you manage to do design before computers?

Well, for one thing, you couldn't experiment as much with type. The client would give you pages and pages of typed text and you wrote in pencil on the manuscript what you wanted the type to look like—font, size, and leading. This was called specing type. Today, you use design programs like Quark or Indesign—but back then you did it in your head or with thumbnail sketches, using what you saw in type sample books or what you had learned from experience. Then you would give the marked-up manuscript to a typesetter and—I actually don't know how they magically did it—they would set the type and then print it out as repro. Repro was photographically-created type that came out of a typesetting machine in a roll, which was then chopped down into smaller sheets. You took a repro sheet, put rubber cement on the back, waited for the glue to dry, put the sheet on a plastic cutting board, got a straight edge, cut out blocks of type, and then arranged blocks of type on a mechanical board for each page. You'd have to separately glue down folios, running heads, headlines, captions, photostats of pictures—it took a tremendous amount of time and a bigger art staff than today. For a 300-page book you'd end up with 150 boards that you then had to carefully clean up with a rubber cement pickup to get rid of stray bits of glue. Just covering each board with a protective sheet of tracing paper cut exactly to the size of the board and taped to the top took forever. If you wanted to change one word in a line, you'd have to cut two parallel lines with your Exacto knife, one above and one below the whole line, cut between each word, remove or replace the incorrect word, and then shift all the words in the line so that they were spaced evenly. Sometimes you had to this between the letters in a word. Your mouth is dropping open, Maxwell! It was crazy labor intensive work; you needed a good eye and a good hand. Now you know why I don't charge for revisions: I can do them cheerfully now since the corrections don't involve knives and glue.

The next question obviously is: what was your big nightmare project?

I can think of one for Braziller: I was working with a Braziller designer named Dana Levy—he was wonderful—doing mechanicals on the first full book that I ever had to paste up. Dana had shown me his design, suggesting a certain number of lines per page, so I just started putting that number of lines on every page. But when I got to the last page of the book, I found that I was short copy. I didn't know that I was supposed to "cast off" and count to make sure that I had enough copy to fill out the book before I started pasting it all down. So I had to take up all the copy with rubber cement thinner and move the lines around to make the book fit the way the designer wanted it to fit. I remember a lot of glue, my hands cracked and dried from rubber cement thinner, and being very embarrassed that I had done it wrong. That was one nightmare project. But I would say that every book has some kind of nightmare, there's always a catastrophe. Remember the first book I did with you, dear Maxwell? I finished designing the entire book and then you realized that the Word file you gave me was not final copy. I did that book twice for you, my friend!

So what project was wonderful for you?

The book that I worked on for a couple of years with the Sleepy Hollow Country Club. My father was a member of the club and, at age 84, he was my agent, trying to get me a book deal with them. I not only designed that book, I did all of the picture research and I found that fascinating. I had a lot of control over the book, deciding which images to use, what size they would be, and where they went—it is very much a picture book—so that it ended up looking the way I wanted it to look. Sleepy Hollow was a club that my family belonged to for over thirty years and, even though I am not a golfer or a tennis player, it was an important part of my life. We spent almost every major holiday there for big family meals. We were there for family lunches, dinners, and barbecues. My father passed away while I was working on the project but, before he died, he helped me with the book from his hospital bed. It was very special to me.

Thank you, Rita, for talking with me.

I actually do have one great Braziller story to tell you before we finish this interview. I thought you were going to ask me for a memorable moment at the George Braziller offices, so I thought about this one. I worked on a book for Helen Frankenthaler—incredible artist—and she came to the office for a meeting on George's birthday. She brought a cake and paper plates and plastic forks for George. We all sat down, Helen Frankenthaler took out the plates and, in front of us, wrote "Happy Birthday George" on each plate. As she put the cake on them and handed them out, I know we were all thinking "I don't want cake, I just want to keep the plate with Helen Frankenthaler's handwriting on it!" But the plates were all ruined by cake and they were all thrown away. Helen told George that she baked the cake, but it was obviously store-bought. That's my memorable story.

I actually think we still have one of those plates somewhere . . . George managed to keep one!

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