Beware Wet Paint

by Alan Fletcher

Published by Phaidon Press

268 pages, 2004

The art of looking sideways

by Alan Fletcher

Published by Phaidon Press

534 pages, 2001




The Art of Wet Paint

Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum


Designer Alan Fletcher's books, which one could understandably assume to be about design, are less about design than intellectual stimulation. These big, beefy books are gem-filled treatises on thinking. On positioning oneself within the universe of thought, of ideas, of opinion.

Beware Wet Paint, originally published in 1995 and recently published in paperback, contains much of Fletcher's design work. Call it a catalog. Call it a gathering of his work as a designer, as well as a collection of his effect on the design community. Fletcher was a founding member of Pentagram, the well-known design firm. While this is a claim to lasting fame, his work will last longer -- and it was, let's say, designed to.

Beware contains more than 100 examples of his often groundbreaking work, each of them an encapsulated moment when one man's design became the world's chew toy. Color. Image. Shape. Type. These are the tools Fletcher uses to create his images, endlessly juxtaposing this with that, then that with something else. In every instance, there's a moment of realization that this is not just design, but simply the outward-most show of a genius at work.

If you don't believe me, check out Fletcher's The art of looking sideways. If Beware Wet Paint was a catalog of images that spoke volumes, sideways is a catalog of volumes that create a massive image.

And I do mean massive. At 533 pages, this doorstop is nothing less than a compendium of man's ability to think, to argue, to challenge, to resolve. While certainly designed in Fletcher's collage style, the book's primary tool is type. Fletcher seems to revel in how type can interact with other type, image, color and design itself.

sideways isn't so much a book you read; rather, it's an experience you savor over time. If it were a bottle of wine, you'd want to sip it gradually, over a period of years. Gulping is completely out of the question. On every page, you'll find a juicy little nugget.

On page 162, for instance, is a watercolor of flowers and a short note about The Accademia in Venice and the art that hangs in its galleries. On the opposite page is a Philip Roth paragraph, with interspersed quotes from Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Wilde, Paul Auster, Napoleon Bonaparte and others, as well as a brief definition of the word "mopery." (I say interspersed because the Roth is line-spaced to fill the page, and the other quotes are placed between the Roth lines.)

Interesting. Intriguing.

And the whole book is like that.

On page 277 is a color photograph of a ruler in the shape of a J, with a caption explaining that it's an "Indian tailor's measuring rule found on a market stall in Jaipur." Across the gutter, on page 278, is a single quote, small white type on black: "Man is the measure of all things," with its source, Protagoras. Hmm.

sideways is a book about the revelation and illumination that come from juxtaposition. It's a book about the mind's spark. It shows us that, for all our differences, we are all thinking creatures, and even as we are thinking different thoughts -- and even if those thoughts do not agree in any way -- we're thinking. That, at least, we can share -- and celebrate.

You might say that Beware Wet Paint and The art of looking sideways are the party favors of that celebration, one volume using design, the other using words. For all their wit, all their color, all their philosophical, linguistical, theoretical diversity, they are enthusiastical parties thrown in honor of our collective gray matter, with the overall takeaway being that, without a doubt, gray matters. | May 2004


Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse and a contributing editor to January Magazine and Blue Coupe. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, New Jersey where he is hard at work on an exciting new chapter in his life.