Vintage Creative Director Suzanne Dean describes the journey of the cover of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and falling in love with the colour blue
And so I fell in love with a colour – in this case, the colour blue – as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.
Bluets is part essay, part poetry. It is Maggie Nelson’s meditation on desire and suffering seen through a blue lens. It tells of new love and then heartbreak, and about the author's lifelong obsession with the colour blue. It is a collection of fragments presented in short paragraphs, which winds its way past famous blue figures such as Yves Klein, Leonard Cohen and Billie Holiday.
My brief was to create something beautiful. I read the text and was mesmerised. I too had always loved the colour blue and happily immersed myself in the exploration of all things blue. I collected, painted and photographed. I began noticing blue objects wherever I went. They snuck up on me; they jumped out at me. This obsession hasn’t abated since I finished designing this cover.
I visited the wonderful art shop, L. Cornelissen & Son, near the British Museum in London.
It is an Aladdin’s cave for artists, and has been in business since 1855. The shelves are lined with jars of pigment and the cabinets are filled with numerous shades and tones of art materials.
I experimented with many different variations while creating the book cover. The pigments and pastels dulled once photographed. Would blue paint be more immediate than a photograph of the pigment? The fourteenth–century author Cennino Cennini wrote about ‘The Character of Ultramarine Blue’ and how to make it, in his book Il Libro dell’Arte:
Ultramarine blue is a colour illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect beyond all other colours: one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that its quality would not still surpass.
I considered multiple ideas, always wondering how you reflect the potency of blue on the page, and whether blue becomes bluer when you add a spot of complementary colour next to it.
I felt I had to respond emotionally to the text, but nothing seemed adequate for this extraordinary work. How do you get the vividness that the eye sees on the printed page? How can you step closer to the original pigment?
I had painted patterns in blue ink, but none were strong enough as standalone pieces.
Just as the text was layered in its paragraphs, so I experimented with layering the patterns in Photoshop and setting them against a black background.
The blue became almost iridescent, sharp and electric. I knew I had a cover that I felt satisfied with, and I was overjoyed when I gained Maggie Nelson’s approval:
‘First cover ever that I love on the first try!!’
More about the author
A Guardian Book of the Year
Maggie Nelson is one of the most electrifying writers at work in America today, among the sharpest and most supple thinkers of her generation - Olivia Laing
Bluets winds its way through depression, divinity, alcohol, and desire, visiting along the way with famous blue figures, including Joni Mitchell, Billie Holiday, Yves Klein, Leonard Cohen and Andy Warhol. While its narrator sets out to construct a sort of ‘pillow book’ about her lifelong obsession with the colour blue, she ends up facing down both the painful end of an affair and the grievous injury of a dear friend. The combination produces a raw, cerebral work devoted to the inextricability of pleasure and pain, and to the question of what role, if any, aesthetic beauty can play in times of great heartache or grief.
Much like Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, Bluets has passed between lovers in the ecstasy of new love, and been pressed into the hands of the heartbroken. Visceral, learned, and acutely lucid, Bluets is a slim feat of literary innovation and grace, never before published in the UK.