Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: graphic design

Viktor Koen’s Steampunk Illusions

Viktor Koen’s steampunk visions populate a world of intricate illusions. He delights in making the physically impossible seem likely and predictable. Steampunk, conceived as a genre of science fiction, envisions a retro futuristic world powered by steam and the machine age.


detail from movie poster for Metropolis

Think of  Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis. In some sense, steampunk is a counterpoint or perhaps alternative universe to our own ever-digital, virtual world. Steampunk these days is often more about fashion, design and a look, like the one Viktor Koen is wearing.


Viktor Koen, from the TedxAthens site

His visual mix of the familiar with the fantastic is intriguing, graceful and strange – but all his images are quite carefully constructed, giving them an air of authenticity.

D.P.Toy No.19.72

D.P.Toy No.19.72

Perhaps you might see his creations as a commentary on our cultural icons of childhood, or a somewhat menacing satire exploding nostalgia and sentimentality.

D.P.Toy No.05.72

D.P.Toy No.05.72

Are we looking at the work of an adult exploring child’s play, a commentary on contemporary society, or just the musings of a fantastically gifted but peculiar artist?

D.P.Toy No.03.72

D.P.Toy No.03.72

However you want to categorize it, we’ve encountered Viktor Koen‘s work many times, perhaps without realizing it. Here are just a few mainstream examples:


cover of the NYT Book Review


Cover from Huffington Post Magazine




Cover for the NYT Dining Out Section

He’s an amazingly prolific and sought after graphic and visual artist, creating illustrations for major publications and personal work that juxtaposes images and ideas to make a point. He comes from a mix of cultures – born in Greece, trained at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, Israel, with an MFA with honors from the School of Visual Arts in New York City.


Viktor Koen in his studio, photo by Max Eternity

But, be warned, if you’re intrigued by what you see, you may find yourself spending hours wandering through the myriad images that haunt his website or at other sites that display his creations.

D.P.Toy No.40.72

D.P.Toy No.40.72

Because he’s so prolific, I thought I’d just write about two of his series, a fabricated collection of strange playthings he calls Dark Peculiar Toys and his Toyphabet. These two barely scratch the surface of what he’s about, but they do illustrate two recurring themes in his work – typography and mashups of the weird and wonderful.

Here’s Viktor, from an interview in Art Digital Magazine, talking about what led to his exhibit of Dark Peculiar Toys

I’m a toy collector.  I go to flea markets and fight with children over a bin of toys.  There’s no better excuse to buy toys, but to work on a series of toys.  I have a great time playing with them visually.

D.P.Toy No.10.72

D.P.Toy No.10.72

My father was an industrial designer and he gave me some of his old books and diagrams, and I retooled it to match the fictitious toys.  The whole project was very playful.  I always wanted to have these dark toys.

D.P.Toy No.20.72

D.P.Toy No.20.72

A lot of these are trial and error.  The juxtaposition of the sweet and something very wrong is something I always look for.

D.P.Toy No.16.72

D.P.Toy No.16.72

From Viktor’s Artist Statement about the exhibit

I photographed toys and objects that I collected through the years and travels, some of them parts of my personal childhood, and then mixed and matched them for hours. While this was a different form of play, the magic was the same.

D.P.Toy No.15.72

D.P.Toy No.15.72

A year after his Dark Peculiar Toys exhibit was launched, he used some of those concepts to create a mashup of the alphabet in his exhibit Toyphabet. He loves typography and finding just the right combination of alphabetical form and toy imagery was more difficult than you might think.



Viktor, from his Artist’s Statement:

Since typography is an addiction of mine and fusion a second nature to me, illustrated type became a natural extension of my work. The challenge of preserving the integrity of the type forms made the process of mixing and matching a complicated one. The result was characters with unexpected symbolic attributes, true to the original point of the series – that children are formulated way too early to the troubles ailing their parents.

I think there’s some part of us that enjoys being teased  about strange possibilities – like when we muse about an especially vivid dream. I think one of the attractions of Viktor’s work is how it seems so natural and strangely authentic while clearly it is not. The intricacy of the constructions makes us curious to find out more.

D.P.Toy No.09.72

D.P.Toy No.09.72

His work conjures an eclectic group of emotions and, while I wouldn’t want to encounter any of these object creatures in”real life,” they still tease the imagination with interesting possibilities. Maybe that’s the attraction of Viktor’s steampunk visions. We spend so much time plugged in to one machine or other, perhaps his creations point the way to the burgeoning cyborg in all of us.

D.P.Toy No.18.72

D.P.Toy No.18.72

At any rate, his work helps us see the world differently and for that we can be cautiously thankful. No, it’s not a lovely vision, but it does seem to echo the impermanence of our times and the hyper-wired world we find ourselves navigating.

So what do you think about his work? Do you like it? What does it conjure up for you? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.




Warren Lehrer’s Illuminated Novel

Warren Lehrer’s illuminated novel A Life in Books is a book about a man who writes books – 101 to be exact – and they’re all created, excerpted, reviewed and illuminated by Warren, a graphic artist/writer who likes to create books about unusual people – and all of them with a visual exploration of their subject that offers us a deep and more intimate sense of who they are and what they’re about.


Warren Lehrer

A Life in Books is so much more than a book, it’s an experience, really… as it pours out of Warren’s quirky imagination like a mellow single malt… to be sipped and savored. An acquired taste, yes, but definitely something to make time for.

It plays like a literary jazz riff, maybe like Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. Here’s Warren, fingers pumping up and down on the keys, laying down pungent notes, sparkling phrases, blowing lilting tunes about who we are and where we’re going. This crazily ambitious book, rich with art and artifice, sends us meandering through all the little cultural byways, pausing here and there to test our assumptions of how life is supposed to be in modern America.  He does it in a way that often brings us up short, saying “hey, never thought about it that before, but yes, it sounds right…”

This illuminated novel pokes around the often invisible infrastructure of American life, soloing on subjects we’ve rarely given a second’s thought. But when he’s finished playing through one of his passages, we breathe it in, smile and turn the page, ready to discover where he’s taking us next.

36. Lehrer performs ALifeInBooks_RGB72dpi

all images from “A Life in Books” site

Here’s what I can tell you for sure:  Warren Lehrer is witty, ingenious, sly, serious, a graphic wizard and literary innovator. His earlier much-acclaimed work  Crossing the Boulevard (created with his wife and partner, Judith Sloan) is a portrait of the multi-culti mix of people that populate their Queens neighborhood.


Boulevard was a graphical tour de force – focusing on stories and lives of immigrants from many lands who make their home in a cornucopia of cultures, individual styles and customs. And what great, mind bending stories. The book is rich with humanity captured in all its poignant glory. And just like the immigrants, breaking the boundaries of their old lives to come to the land of opportunity, Warren used his singular design sense to reform the frame of the page and refocus the eye. So, what do you do for an encore?

1. Lehrer_ALifeInBooks_cvr_RGB72dpi

You use your background as a graphic designer, storyteller, humorist and satirist to explore the life work of your alter ego, Bleu Mobley. According to Warren, Bleu has evidently written 101 books and this illuminated novel, as Warren calls it, tells/shows us his story, including Bleu’s ruminations about his life, covers of his 101 books, artifacts, letters, reviews and excerpts from many of them. So the mystery of the man and the past 50 years or so of American history/culture he “lived” through come together in a mashup of “fact” and “fiction” leaving us to discover our own truths about how we view ourselves and our world.

For example, in one passage, Bleu is at a bar with a friend watching the Iran Contra scandal play out on television. They talk about the feds, spies and the government’s intelligence operations. Bleu decides to get a copy of his FBI file, which arrives highly redacted. So Bleu decides to use the file and create an artist’s book, De-Classified. We see sample pages – which are basically patterns of black and white as if inked by an artist gone mad, with almost no text left untouched. It’s at once clever, funny, curious and political – a reminder of those forces in our society that view almost any opposition as a threat to be wiped out. And this was created before Edward Snowden gave us all a new perspective on the NSA.

And so it goes…

But enough from me –  here’s Warren giving the pitch:

Warren is a visual artist trapped in a world of words. So he makes A Life in Books a visual feast. There are the 101 covers, of course, but he’s taken his concept further with animation and music for the web, like this video from book number 95 showing his Illuminated Manuscripts.

In the guise of a children’s book, he wrote, or should I say Bleu wrote, How Bad People Go Bye-Bye – a pop-up book about capital punishment. An excerpt:

And then, in a world of psychobabble where every disorder is ordered, here’s the story of a planet with its own psychiatric disorder:

Warren has so many riffs and funky drum beats that each book is like a new melody – new styling, key and rhythm. This is a book to peruse. You want to sample it, tap your feet to its satiric melodies, smile with his sassy little horn bleeps and then put it down for the next time you can rock to its rhythms.

You can catch an interview with Warren from NPR’s Studio 360 here:

So what’s the takeaway? A Life in Books is fresh, funny and filled with little gems of wit and whimsy. I admire what Warren was trying to accomplish – giving us a memoir rich in memorabilia, that is at once revealing and mysterious, a commentary on ego, celebrity and American society. But while I love his graphic sensibility and imagination in service of his creative ambitions, for me the weakest part was the book excerpts. It was great fun encountering them as concepts, but too often a bit of a slog wading through them as text. If you find yourself a fan of Warren’s satiric sense of humor you will really like this book. And if you’re just curious about discovering a new way to tell a story, you should definitely check it out.

A Book By Its Cover

Chip Kidd with some of his book jackets

My mother told me not to judge a book by its cover, but Chip Kidd would say otherwise.  He’s been designing dust jackets since 1986 and, just looking at the some of the examples below, you can see a great sensitivity to the power of words, text and images.

When you think about it, a successful cover has to work on different levels. It should entice you to pick up the book in the first place and also convey a sense of what you’ll encounter as you make your way through the pages.  It’s the only visual representation of all those words on the page.  And it has to help sell the book.  So there’s a lot more thought and creative effort required than just the aesthetics of good graphic design.    

Chip has been lauded for the visual punch he puts into his work.  A few years ago some of his designs and the thoughts that created them were discussed in Time Magazine. Below is an example of his approach to an eight-book series on the life of Buddha.

And I was fascinated by one of his more recent efforts for the book, IQ84 by Haruki Murakami.  In Murakami’s book, a woman seems to enter a parallel reality and as Chip wrote for the publisher, he wanted to reflect that by “an interaction of the book’s jacket with the binding/cover underneath.” 

So here is the book binding
Here is the translucent book jacket
And here is the final effect
If you want to spend a few more minutes on this, Chip explains his thoughts about design, books and their covers at a Ted talk.  And while you may find his style a little too NYH (New York Hipster), what he has to say is funny and certainly makes you think about creating those first impressions.  If the Ted video doesn’t play, click here.
Here’s a link to his website which also has some random observations I liked.  And if you still want more, here he is with his band ARTBREAK and “Asymmetrical Girl.” Check out the visual treatment for this semi-satirical visual mashup.  If the ARTBREAK video doesn’t play, click here.