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Please Judge A Book By Its Cover— Studio Kohl x Penguin India

Design Log 27 Nov

Mumbai-based Studio Kohl recently collaborated with Penguin India to redesign the covers for a series of nine Indian texts which have been given a modern resurrection. While the books cover the history, culture and philosophy of India quite comprehensively, we are intrigued by the colourful, gently illustrated designs by Mira Malhotra and her team, which have infused a new life to these ancient texts.

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The complete book set by Studio Kohl and Penguin India

In the world of literature, one must not judge a book by its cover. But when the world of literature meets the world of fine arts, and the book cover looks as inviting as they often do, it’s hard to resist the temptation of taking it off the bookshelf and giving it a place in one’s home. Case in point: Studio Kohl’s latest collaboration with Penguin India, which has led to a set of nine gorgeous book covers of ancient texts that have been given a modern-day resurrection.

We spoke to Studio Kohl founder Mira Malhotra about the stunning collaboration:

How did this project come into being?

I was first approached by Penguin a couple of years ago. Their former art director Gavin Morris contacted me for a set of three books on the Ramayana by Arshia Sattar. These were then completed with Gunjan Ahlawat.

Till date, the first cover I did with them for Uttara remains my favourite. Since then, I have worked on another title by Faiz Ahmed Faiz with Gunjan, a book of poetry, and now these nine in the collection. I loved  doing it because it’s print work and there was research involved in the process

  • Arthashastra
  • Abhijnana
  • Kama Sutra
  • Home And The World

Traces for the 'Arthashastra', 'Abhijnana', 'Kama Sutra' and 'Home And The World' book covers.

Is there a Studio Kohl aesthetic incorporated into this project?

Studio Kohl is without a particular aesthetic, because as a studio I like to be able to serve as many clients as possible and my range of interests is quite broad. But I do admit we have certain aesthetics we succumb to or are good at.

For this series, our aesthetic comes from a great interest in vintage and retro India. I have a huge collection of these images for ready reference and it's a big influence on the project. Gunjan briefed me and asked me to adopt floral designs and patterns. The name of William Morris - the great textile print designer - came up, but his work is English. This is an Indian classics collection but it's still new and fresh, so we needed to combine some of that old style with some of the new. The colours are bold and fresh but the shapes and illustration style feel older.

What was the brief that you received for the project, and what was your process of immersing into it?

The idea was for it to be bought by everyone, of course, but more specifically to NRIs and Indians alike as a sort of souvenir or gift item - a primer on India and its origins. I like to look at it as the many shades of India. I deliberately made it colourful as I often do, each book a differing shade, but to avoid it being distracting and messy, I limited it to two colours per cover.

As for what constituted the content of the covers, I had to unify the books. I was already told that florals would work, but I felt that might be boring, repetitive and too classic if followed for all books. So I read the descriptors, short summaries and even the effects these books had on our culture to get a feel of their impact. I then listed down objects or motifs that looked similar or already exist in Indian art. This helped in making them look more cohesive and also allowed me to share initial textual directions with the art director and editor, before hitting the drawing board.

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  • 6  Babur Nama
  • 8  My Name Is Radha 3
  • 9  Tamas 3

Early composites of the book covers

How many people actually judge the book by its cover? Does the act of contemporizing the cover impact the readership?

I definitely think many people judge a book by its cover, not because they want to, more because they have to. From a reader's' standpoint, when you enter a bookstore, you're visually assaulted by so many covers and the best ones  stand out (the children's section is always particularly overwhelming). There are occasions where you will seek out a book by its title alone. But you have to cover (pun intended) all bases.

That’s why so much care went into this process with the art director, the marketing team, even the author (of course, none were alive in this case) to have art that best represents the purpose and content. I believe that contemporising a cover made it suddenly seem accessible. The content in these books are still rather relevant today but aren't packaged for them. The best covers will obviously stand out and be judged accordingly. I'll always remember The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell with the matchstick on it, for instance.

Was reading an important part of the process?

I didn't read them, mostly because the deadline was very short and the team didn’t give me the texts but a summary. Also, in my opinion, reading a whole text in its entirety isn't the best thing to do because it’s overwhelming and confusing: you start to pick words or phrases that inform your visuals and you end up with tonnes of imagery with the luxury of choice. I usually read the books after I design them.

Reading for pleasure and for a brief are two different processes for me because of work and play. Instead, I read a bit of background, a summary, and then branch out slightly with my research and focus on the highlights. In this case, I needed to check what was done earlier with these books. We didn't want to repeat imagery because these books have existed for years.This is particularly hard because Indians do not document or archive information, let alone imagery, well. On the bright side, there is plenty of room to do something good because few have done justice to these books via their jackets.

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Early illustration and inspiration for 'Arthashastra'.

Take me through the design process for each book from the series.

Penguin India has already quite an enjoyably explicit Kama Sutra that's illustrated by one of my favourite illustrators, Marcos Chin. It's more joyously sexy than instructional; so our version had to be different from the other Kama Sutras. Instead of using full human figures or anything explicit, I decided to use a hand holding a rose, which is already associated with eroticism, and seen in many old Indian paintings.  

Babur Nama's cover, on the other hand, has full bodies of animals and birds, but the Mughal paintings it's inspired from treat these forms as more idealised and decorative, so they worked. In Arthashastra, there is warfare and weaponry, but the book is also viewed as a sort of reference book for the flora and fauna of India, as documented by Babur.

Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore is inspired by the homes of the time in which it was written - old colonial houses and their antiques. My Name Is Radha: The Essential Manto bears a beautiful Indian boudoir look that I can't help but fall for. For both Manto and Tagore, the ideas came from the Penguin team, so it felt new and exotic to me to work on. Kural was a simple, lighter book, and so it got the most lightweight cover. I, Lalla was inspired by Kashmiri embroidery because I often think of poems as being like embroidery.

Tamas went through three rounds to go from starry nights and flaming earth to just flames to houses on fire and then two opposing warring entities to signify partition, again represented wholly by just their very masculine hands in a somewhat political propaganda style. Lastly, Abhijnanashakuntalam shows that pivotal moment before the fish swallows Shakuntala's signet ring, so of course for the florals, we used lotuses.

Photographs of the books commissioned by Penguin

And what was the reason behind this particular colour palette?

We felt that each book needed a different colour to hold it's own, or they'd be way too similar what with the style of illustration. The illustrations, already vintage, needed colours more fully saturated to feel modern. They're also simple colours, not subtle colours because the way I see it, these books are very strong and have had an influence.

The design world is crossing boundaries in a sense that somebody would want to own the book set as works of art. Do you agree?

That has always been the case. These become sort of collector's editions. The idea has been prevalent abroad for quite some time, but is newer here in India. And I certainly hope someone buys them for that reason - it would be a huge compliment. Many classics sets are bought to just look good on the shelf. I'm not entirely against that, all kinds of art should be appreciated!

The Penguin designers in the U.K. and U.S. have always maintained a high standard of design for their book covers and rightly so. Badly thought out covers and illustrations shouldn't go with brilliant texts. To me, that’s blasphemy.

Check out the Penguin-Studio Kohl collaboration here.

Design Log is a weekly design document logging every relevant art and design occurrence in India.