Marian Bantjes: A woman of letters

I Wonder is a book that turns heads. As I read it on rail journeys to and from work, I notice many people around me sneaking glances at it, wondering what this sumptuously decorated tome was.

Theirs is an entirely appropriate response to a book of essays by the Canadian artist Marian Bantjes, beginning with one on the sense of wonder, then turning into a journey of contemplation on subjects ranging from honour and remembrance to hideous signage in Saskatoon, a city in central Canada, and Santa Claus.

The tone varies wildly, skittering from the academic in the first chapter, which not only discusses wonder but also offers a history of ornamentation, to the wryly humorous, in a response to the look of the Latin alphabet, to the touching, in a treatise on the tactile experience afforded by the letters she and her mother wrote to each other. Tying all this together is a sense of Marian’s personality, and her personal response to graphics, both ‘important’ and everyday.

Even when she geeks out over heraldry – despite claiming that she doesn’t want to descend into nerdiness – Marian’s funny and thoughtful approach makes the reading always interesting. This individuality seems to apply as much to her personal projects as to her work for high-profile clients, among them Saks Fifth Avenue, Penguin Books, Wallpaper*, The Guardian, Wired and the designer Stefan Sagmeister, who wrote the book’s foreword.

The design and production values put I Wonder some way above the rest of the glut of design books released last year. I’ve not seen gold used so lavishly in a design monograph before. It dominates a great many spreads; the front and back covers and spine contrast an intricate pattern of it highlighted with silver; and it’s even used to edge the pages. Its use brings to mind illuminated manuscripts – though with a style that’s clearly Marian’s own, revelling in ornamentation without tying it to some overarching iconography.

I put a series of questions to Marian as she travelled across the US and Canada giving talks about the book, including a lecture at AIGA in New York.

How would you describe yourself and what you do?
These days I call myself a graphic artist. This is how ‘ye olde graphic designers’ described themselves, and it suits me well. Also ‘commercial artist’, [in that] I create art and design for clients, but I have a personal voice in that work. People come to me for that voice.

What prompted you to create a book about the sense of wonder, as well as the areas that you wonder about?
I was wondering about things, including wonder, and I thought those things might be interesting to other people too.

I also specifically wanted to work with text and image in an interdependent form. I wanted to prove that ornamentation need not be superfluous and that it can add to written narrative.

Why did you decide to include a variety of different tones in your writing, from the almost academic approach of the early sections to a very funny personal response to letterforms in ‘The Alphabet: A Critique’?
Mostly that’s just the way I am. I think and speak in all of those voices myself. Sometimes we’re funny, sometimes we’re serious, sometimes we are personal and revealing, sometimes not. Ultimately, despite the different tones, I think there is a cohesiveness to the book in the themes and threads which run throughout it.

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