“I see the books that I work on as having multiple authors; there’s the curators, writers, publishers, architects, designers—it’s a collective process,” says Kimberly Varella of the Los Angeles-based design studio Content Object. The designer seems to approach her work with a Fluxus sensibility, taking a multidisciplinary, intermedia approach. As she puts it, the books she creates have distinct “multiple signatures.”
“There have been volumes written on ‘who is the author’,” she says. “I’m fascinated by that grey area between what is a design practise and what is an art practise.”
Varella was drawn to editorial design years after she’d graduated from CalArts and spent time working in L.A. as a performance artist. Her fascination with collective art practises is what eventually drew her to the design discipline, and she began working at a local studio before setting up Content Object in 2013. The studio focuses—as the name suggests—on “object-orientated” art books and catalogs. It views a book as an experience that unravels for the reader. Whether that publication takes the form of a high-end coffee table tome, an esoteric artist-made hardback, or a political rag; it’s the process of how it’s made that’s of most interest to Varella.
One of the first books that Varella shows me is Made in LA 2014, a catalog for a Hammer biennial exhibition that brought together the work of 35 L.A.-based emerging artists. The show’s concept circled around the idea of “exhibitions within the exhibition”, so when thinking about the “objectness” of the catalogue, Varella and her collaborator Tanya Rubbak focused on the idea of a book within a book.
The catalog takes the form of a boxy casing housing two publications. “This first one is the accompanying essays,” says Varella, waving a thin, saddle-stitched, two-color zine in the air. “We thought if you want to read the essays, it’s best to be able to toss it in your backpack and leave the bulky piece at home.” She picks up the second publication, holding the sturdy hard-back in two hands.
“It’s hard to describe the book in because it’s a user-experience—it’s intimate,” she says, leafing through the thick and glossy pages.
What I enjoy about Content Object design is the little details that Varella delights in—one example is her love for how different paper-stocks or color bleeds can become like bookmarks, visible along the pages when a book is closed. I noticed this with the publication that first drew me to Varella’s portfolio, Experience: Culture, Cognition, and the Common Sense, a 2016 title from MIT Press that brings together essays new and old by writers, academics, and artists. The publishers invited Olafur Eliasson to design its heat-tech cover, which reacts slowly to the user’s touch.
After imposing my fingerprints on the soft, brownish front a few times, the second thing that I noticed about Experience is how dark pages meet the spine and act as a dividers against the colorful bleeds (these garish tones—lurid pink and an oozing green—are a staple for Content Object). The differing tones of these pages become a way to direct the order that a reader engages with the content—you don’t necessarily have to start a book on its first page, Varella’s design suggests.
“Dividers like these are one of the themes that carry through my designs,” Varella says. Her gorgeous 2015 catalogue Beauty, for example, made for the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, uses two paper-stocks so that the reader first opens the book to the publication’s centre. That’s where you’ll find the cover page, the contents, and even the masthead.
“Beauty is such a loaded topic, how to we bite into it?!,” says Varella of this concept. “I first started thinking about the body, and ideas around exterior and interior beauty. For me, the book has also always been a metaphor for the body—there’s the spine, the head, the foot—it’s already there in language. I thought, let’s have the content of the book be ‘the heart’ then have the beauty on the inside, so the reader should begin their experience at the very heart of the publication.”
A glowing pink gutter on many of the pages enforces this throbbing heart idea. Varella also highlighted the names of contributing artists in this vibrant color throughout the text, so that it threads through the publication like barely visible pumping veins. It’s the same pink of the thread that literally holds the spine together, too, adding another body allegory to the mix.
“Metaphors can be fun and playful, but I don’t want them to be gimmicky. I hope for them to be believable,” says Varella. “Sometimes I’ll throw one out, and then scale back and see what rises to the top.” Beauty was also selected as one of AIGA’s 50 Books / 50 Covers in 2015.
With her most recent catalog design, Varella returns to closely collaborating with her immediate community, the L.A. art scene. Machine Project: The Platinum Collection is a new encyclopaedic book exploring the essence of Echo Park’s not-for-profit arts organization and community event space, whose mission since 2004 has been to produce performance-based cultural programs. As Varella guides me through each page, I get a sense for how she’s infused her years of experience visiting the gallery and its shows into the sequencing and layout. She’s using the form of the book to communicate an atmosphere, to articulate years of collective thought.
“When I start a new book, I always start with the form,” says Varella. “I think about the page size, the type, the architecture, the paper changes. I ask, ‘is it a big book, or a small intimate one? Is it hard or soft?’ Everything has a different meaning. I’m fascinated by this, by how a book is perceived and how it’s read.”