Andrew Shanahan on the tricks of food photography

Take your chicken. Baste with wood varnish ...
Those yummy pictures in cookbooks aren't always what they seem.

From The Guardian, Friday 13 October 2006

Here's a great kitchen tip. You know how bowls of soup in food magazines always have a few bubbles rising artfully to the surface, giving that freshly ladled-from-the-tureen appearance? Well, you can recreate this effect quite easily at home by lightly drizzling some washing-up liquid into your soups but, please, only use the best stuff; this is no time to cut corners. Next, take a plastic straw and gently blow into the soup, creating an entire bowlful of bubbles. Using a pin pop away until you are left with just those few artistic ones that will survive for hours. The taste might not be to die for but at least your bowl of soup will look just like it does in the food magazines.

In the curious world of food photography this is the sort of advice that passes for normal. After all, this is the industry that firmly believes that the first taste is with the eye. The importance of culinary aesthetics cannot be overstated. Humans are predisposed to assess food's nutritional value, or lack of it, by its appearance - so get the pictures wrong and you could be conveying the message that this food is not fit to eat. Besides, aspiration sells. Who would buy a book of recipes for dishes resembling what they usually have for tea?

It takes a lot of people to get food looking its best. There can be up to five bodies beavering behind the scenes with their various flexible roles and responsibilities. The photographer and stylist will compose the contents of the dish and decide exactly how they want the picture to work. A props person will source, say, the perfect cake-stand and a home economist will buy ingredients and prepare the food. Finally, the client is often present to make sure that the money they are forking out - a food photographer alone can charge thousands of pounds a day - results in a drool-inducing image.

The simple reason so much work and personnel are involved is that producing beautiful images of food is not easy. For starters there is the small matter that cooked food gives off steam, which can fog up a camera lens. "Lots of things can go wrong," says Georgia Glynn Smith, who has been a food photographer for 10 years and has worked with Nigel Slater, Gordon Ramsay and has just completed work on Allegra McEvedy's Colour Cookbook. "Lighting is probably one of the easiest things to get wrong. If you light a plate of food wrongly then you can make it look grey and cold. Light it wrongly another way and you see the fat and skin forming on sauces. Aside from the lighting there's the problem that if you use the wrong [type of] film then meat comes across as too red."

It's not only technical issues that hamper the shoots. According to Glynn Smith, some foods simply do not have what it takes to make it as a model. "Sausages are these rude, fatty, obscene things. I did a whole book on sausage and mash once and that was a challenge. Then there was an entire book on soups and that was logistically difficult because there's really only so many ways that you can photograph soup."

Perhaps because of these associated difficulties, the industry has developed an impressive repertoire of tricks to enhance the appearance of food. "Let's say you wanted to photograph a roast chicken," says Maureen Murray, a food stylist with more than 10 years' experience. "You can't use a normal roast chicken because from the second that it's out of the oven it starts to go wrinkly, so what you do instead is plump up an uncooked chicken by injecting it with boiling water. Then you either use wood varnish or a mixture of honey, Fairy Liquid and gravy browning and you paint the bird to achieve the roasted colour you want."

Washing-up liquid is by no means the stylist's only secret ingredient; if you have ever wondered how the breads and pastries in photographs get such a beautiful shine and want to replicate this look then you need to go to a DIY shop and ask for some button polish.

Murray also has the answer to one of the most pressing riddles of modern life - why does food never look the same when you cook it as it does on the front of the packaging? The answer is because the food in the "serving suggestion" photo might not even be cooked. "A blowtorch is a very useful tool for a food stylist. Say you were doing a photograph of a beefburger for a restaurant, you might use your blowtorch to cook the outside of the burger to get it looking really crisp and nice but the inside wouldn't be cooked at all. It's easier that way to get it looking absolutely perfect. You can even use the blowtorch to melt the cheese on the burger."

Although these shortcuts are still regularly used, Glynn Smith has pioneered a more natural style of food photography that dispenses with the trickery and fakery and instead relies on capturing the attractiveness of freshly prepared, beautifully cooked food. "I fell into food photography really and I would photograph very much off the cuff. Because I was new to the field it just totally never occurred to me why you would do these fake things to food. I only learned why you might have to do some of them through talking with home economists afterwards. But it's becoming much more acceptable to see food looking real in photographs now." One of the perks of this natural approach, he says, is that you get to eat the food after you have photographed it.

Along with this shift towards a more natural style of photography, greater policing by the Food Standards Agency has also led to the industry adopting a more honest approach. "There used to be a lot of cheating with the photographs for packaged foods," says Murray. "But nowadays you have to be absolutely spot on, so stylists have to work with what you get in the package. That can be quite difficult if you're just working with a basic supermarket lasagne say. You would love to be able to put a bit of parsley or basil on the top to improve the look but you can't, because you would end up with customers coming back into the shop saying, 'Where's my bit of parsley?'".

Food Photography

Summer 1965: Paul Levy on how we began to eat with our eyes
From the Observer, 30 July 2011

Food photography has changed a good deal since that old rogue Clement Freud was the Observer Magazine's cookery writer and people like me read him compulsively. But it hasn't got any wittier than this people-free image of a deconstructed picnic, with only the shooting stick and binoculars to tell you that we're off to the races. I don't believe we at the Observer ever used any of the shoe polish/gelatine/shaving foam for whipped cream tricks of the food photography trade. But like every article or cookery book published in the Delia era, we did go through a didactic phase when the purpose of the food image was not to amuse but to tell you how the finished recipe should look. We grew out of that when Angela Mason joined the magazine as food editor in the 1980s, and Ann Barr and I coined the word "foodie". Suddenly we began to acknowledge that food existed to be eaten, and people began to appear in the food pages, along with mangoes and radicchio. (I appeared on the cover a few times, once as Bacchus and once as Henry VIII.) At about the time that photorealist painting was in vogue, our food photography became hyperrealist. When Jane Grigson did her delightful last series Slow Down, Fast Food, we photographed a gigantic hamburger with an implausible bite taken out of it, our tasteful riposte to the cigarette-stubbed-out-in-the-fried-egg school of lurid food photography.

Paul Levy was the food and wine editor of the Observer for more than 10 years and wrote a prize-winning column for the paper. He is also the editor of The Penguin Book of Food and Drink.

French Cooking for Men – Len Deighton

French Cooking for Men
Len Deighton

Published by HarperCollins, 2010 (Hardback)
Revised from Où est le Garlic?, 1965; Basic French Cooking, 1979; and Cookery Course, 1990
Cover design by Arnold Schwartzman

French Cooking for Men was originally published in 1965 as Où est le Garlic? It was written and drawn by Len Deighton, a military historian, cookery writer and novelist. The cookstrips were originally written and drawn by Deighton for The Observer and developed from notes that Deighton pinned to his kitchen walls whilst cooking.

The cookstrips are fantastically simple: they present, in a concise, considered and practical manner, the very basic details needed to cook authentic French food. Deighton uses drawings to annotate and illuminate the cooking process with a minimum amount of text: these are perfect for consulting whilst cooking and reveal the author’s mastery of cooking in his ability to strip each recipe or technique down to its bare essentials. In a text that runs alongside each cookstrip, Deighton elaborates on the individual dishes, further revealing his love for and the depth of his knowledge of French cookery, building the trust and confidence of the reader.

Deighton is firmly associated with London of the swinging sixties: his character, Harry Palmer, as played by Michael Caine in the 1965 film of Deighton’s novel The IPCRESS File, epitomised a cool, sharply-dressed, working class and cultured masculinity. Palmer shares with Deighton, a passion for cooking, which, given Deighton’s fanbase and the popularity of his character, must have helped sales of this book and introduced a generation of men to the joys of cooking. The over-riding tone of the book is masculine: cool, concise and clever; with its core of Deighton’s erudition and enthusiasm, French Cooking for Men, with its practical approach to demystifying the process of cooking, functions as a timeless instruction manual that is as useful and relevant today as when it was first published.

Front Cover
The cover is a collaged photograph which juxtaposes a cut-out detail from a vintage (probably early 20th Century) sepia-toned photograph of a team of chefs against one of Len Deighton’s cookstrips which is reproduced in black and creamy-yellow. The chefs are wearing traditional kitchen whites: white double-breasted jacket, striped trousers, white neckerchief and tall white hat. They are organised in three rows; the front row seated and the back row standing on a platform of some kind. In the centre of the photograph sits a man in a dark suit, possibly the restaurant owner; the cover designer, Arnold Schwartzman, has replaced his features with the smiling face of Len Deighton. The featured cookstrip is ‘Potato’, chosen, according to the cover designer, because ‘it seemed to capture the very essence of this book’s friendly and approachable method of instruction.’

Original Penguin cover, 1965

The title of the book and the author’s name appear above the photograph, reversed out of a red band, in white. The title and author’s name are set in Goudy Heavyface Condensed; at this scale the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the typeface are revealed, amplifying the slightly irreverent treatment of the photograph and, by extension, the playful authorial tone inside the book. At the bottom of the photograph, reversed out in white, is a quotation from the food writer Fay Maschler, which is set in Condensed Franklin Gothic, an approximation of one of the hand-drawn typefaces rendered by Deighton in his cooking strips.

Around the photograph and the red strip containing the title is a narrow white border which, in turn, is surrounded by a wider, navy blue border: the combination of red, white and blue is an obvious reference to the Tricolore, the French flag.

Through its design, the cover references two disparate periods of time: the 1960s when the book was first published; and the early twentieth century. This melding of history highlights Deighton’s nostalgia for traditional French cooking and also plays on the current day nostalgia for the retro masculinity of characters featured in the TV series Mad Men and Len Deighton's own creation, Harry Palmer.

Inside Pages
The book is landscape format, with a modest size of 19.5 cm by 13.5 cm, it is printed one colour, black, on a grey-white uncoated paper which is not very substantial and gives lots of see-through. The landscape format, unusual for a cook book, has been designed to fit the size and format of the 50 cookstrips which form the heart of the book. The body text has been set on a two column grid with equal inside, outside and top margins with a deeper margin at the bottom containing page numbers and footers. The two columns of text are separated by a rule which although slightly unnecessary and decorative, fits with the elaborate use of borders and fleurons used elsewhere in the book. The body text is set in Optima and is justified. Titles, sub-titles, footers, page numbers and section openings are set in Clarendon in regular and bold, in various combinations of uppercase and sentence case.

The book is divided into sections, each dealing with, as you might expect for a cook book, types of food: meat, cheese, wine, etc. The book also includes sections on French and English culinary words; menu planning; advice on pots, pans and serving dishes for the kitchen; a complete description of French sauces; and, finally, the 50 cookstrips - ‘Basic French cooking in 50 simple lessons.’ The sections openings are announced with a full-page decorative design: the title is set in centred, uppercase bold Clarendon with a sub-title in centred, sentence case Clarendon below it; a flamboyant line border with fleur-de-lys corners and a printers ornament separates the title and the sub-title; in addition, each section features a historical black and white line engraving that relates to the content of the section. I would suggest that these section openings are knowingly kitsch, adopting bourgeois design affectations that gently poke fun at the perceived idea, by most English people, that the French are unnecessarily obsessed with taste and refinement.

The book contains no photographs but is illustrated with numerous black and white line drawings that appear throughout the text, usually at a modest scale and fitting into the width of the column. Some of these illustrations are in the same style as the drawings in the famous cookstrips. The cookstrips were produced by Deighton in the mid 1960s, when, instead of taking cook books into the kitchen with him, he drew comic strips of the recipes and stuck them to his kitchen wall. The cookstrips have a simple charm, drawn in black on white, they have a naive yet sophisticated style that places them firmly in the swinging sixties.

The cookstrips present a complete cooking course: the earliest strips begin with the basics of measuring heat and bulk, then progress to how to perfectly slice vegetables, make various sauces and pastry then on to more complex dishes such as daubes and poached chicken. The tone is wonderfully simple throughout: each strip usually consists of five numbered panels at most, but usually less; a minimum of written instructions or lists of ingredients is supplemented by line drawings that illustrate a process or particular ingredient. The cookstrips are mainly annotated with handwriting which is consistent, clear and readable; the handwriting is accompanied by titles and subtitles that are mainly set in different weights and widths of Bureau Grotesque - occasionally, these titles appear to be hand-rendered, adding to the quirky charm of the cookstrips.

It is perfectly possible to cook the dishes from the information supplied in the cookstrips but Deighton supplements them with a page of commentary that runs on the opposite page; here, Deighton offers his thoughts on the dish in question with tips for its preparation and variations that can transform it. This text is set in the same two column style as elsewhere but with the addition of a fleuron at the foot of the text, centred on the two columns, that balances the two pages and anchors the text.

The original drawing of the cookstrips are supplemented with found images - clip art - that are from a variety of sources but mainly appear to be Victorian. The selection of these images perhaps reflects the 1960s interest in Victoriana - Peter Blake’s use of Victorian ‘scraps’ for his collages for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, is a good example. Like the collage that appears on the cover, the use of these found images is interesting in terms of history and nostalgia and how the meaning an image can change with time and context.

Diagrams, in different styles, are used throughout the book: there are simple line drawings of animals showing French cuts of meat; simple tables that detail the preparation of food for freezing; drawings with hand-rendered type that explain the intricacies of French culinary language; simple but informative line drawings of kitchen equipment; and flow-charts that show the relationship between different types of French sauces.

Kenneth Grange at the Design Museum

“Perhaps it’s selfish, but I think every designer should want to own and live with what he or she designs.” – Kenneth Grange

Kenneth Grange: Making Britain Modern, Design Museum, 20 July – 30 October

Images from top: Kenwood Chef A701, restyled by Kenneth Grange, 1978; Wilkinson Protector razor, designed by Kenneth Grange, 1991; InterCity 125, exterior silhouette and interior designed by Kenneth Grange, 1976.

Jake Tilson – Notes on Recipe Design

Notes on recipe design from Jake Tilson's A Tale of 12 Kitchens: Family Cooking in Four Countries

Published recipes are like small poems. The literary and typographic rules that apply to them today have developed slowly. Over the centuries surprisingly few approaches to structuring a recipe have been tried.

When writing out a recipe for a friend it seems unnatural to separate the ingredients as a list in the order they are to be used. For a domestic cook it's also counterintuitive to translate the unmeasured handfuls, teacupfuls and dodgy oven temperatures into a more universal form. If an ingredient is missed out you can annotate the recipe later and your friends can call you up if a procedure isn't crystal clear. Equally strange would be to write an informative description or anecdote after the recipe title.

Published recipes today tend to adhere to a descending order of structured parts - title, headnote, servings (yield line), ingredients list, method (instructions) and variations. Some recipes also state the preparation time. Within each section lingers a minefield of grammatical rules and typographical conventions that need to be addressed. A recipe title should be short, seductive, and work well in an index

Headnotes are for bedside reading, providing background material and for somewhere for a writer to place an anecdote or to display their knowledge of artichoke varieties. Many nuts and bolts cookbooks do away with headnotes altogether. The ingredients list should be typographically separate from the headnote above, and the instructions below. To save space the lists often appear as two columns. The method (instructions) should be concise and use single paragraphs to break up the procedures in the recipe. Variations are for additional practical considerations, alternatives and add-ons.

These factors are merely the foundation for a successful recipe from which nuances of form can progress. A reference book, Recipes Into Type - A Hanbdbook for Writers and Editors (HarperCollins, 1993) by Joan Whitman and Dolores Simon, stretches across 258 pages to help with the other intricacies involved in getting a useable recipe onto someone else's kitchen counter. How did we arrive at such a compact literary form?

Cookbooks were printed as early as 1474 - De honesta vuluptate et valetudine (On Right Pleasures and Good Health) by Platina (1421-1481). The book contained many recipes from the earlier Tuscan manuscript by the cook Maestro Martino de Rossi (1450-1475) Libro de arte coquinaria. Another early cookbook is by Marcus Gabius Apicius, 1st century - Apicius de re Quoquinaria, printed in 1498 in Milan by Guillermus le Signere from recipes dating from AD 14. Earlier recipes were carved on Egyptian stone tablets, written on ancient Roman kitchen walls or handwritten as manuscripts.

For centuries a rather haphazard approach to collecting recipes by families and professional cooks developed, as they recorded and passed on their recipes. This rather unstructured, unplanned and disorganised approach was carried forth into early printed cookbooks - resulting in books that read like novels whose pages had been shuffled and rebound out of sequence. Ingredients quantities were often missing, no alphabetical order was applied, cooking times and temperatures were unable to be specified or not mentioned at all. Most early printed cookbooks would only have been of use to an experienced cook. A name and short text, with ingredients mentioned as required, was often all you were given.

As cookbooks began to sell in greater quantities to a domestic market in the 1700s their recipe structure became more organised. However, the common practice of borrowing , stealing or adapting recipes, or using entire sections of another author's book, meant that some recipes may have been written in the previous century. The origins of these might stretch back even further, as manuscripts. Confusion still reigned. Looking at books from the early 1800s there are inklings of organisation. Separate ingredients lists appear, as do paragraphs for each major part of the method, and even a yield line. There are indexes, chapters and alphabetical order. With authors such as Mrs Rundell, Eliza Acton and Mrs Beeton the recipe format we are familiar with today matured and settled down. Typographic conventions for structuring a recipe on a page also became set, as did much of the language for describing culinary procedure.

After the general adoption of a headnote, ingredients list and method, it's interesting to see cookbooks today that use other approaches. The wonderful evocative works of Elizabeth David use recipes that appear as tight, well formed gems - not an ingredient list in sight.

Cookbooks that bring together recipes from a wide range of sources occasionally bear the structure of the original recipes - echoes of the varied hands which wrote them - if the editor allows it. Good examples of this approach are the seminal cookbooks on seafood by Alan Davidson (Prospect Books) - some recipes have separate ingredients list, others incorporate them into the method.

Tilson, Jake (2006) A Tale of 12 Kitchens, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Tutorial 14th July 2011

Today I met with Teal Triggs, Course Director of MA Design Writing Criticism and author of the recently published Fanzines. I'd been keen to talk with Teal because of her involvement and enthusiasm for writing as part of design education - and through recommendations by various people. I'd also been looking at the MA Design Writing Criticism course website where I'd found some really interesting projects. It seems that food and eating are a big feature of the curriculum of the course; seminars often involve sharing food and the group attend cookery courses establish the idea of making and collaborative practice. Teal had invited me to a seminar last week, organised by students on the course, including Sarah Handelman who has several blogs around food, and with contributions from Jake Tilson and Love Da Pop. It was a great seminar and I enjoyed drinking beer and eating Japanese rice crackers whilst listening and asking questions.

I began our conversation today by explaining why I had initially contacted Teal and bringing her up to date with my progress so far. Writing is a major part of the MA Graphic Design at LCC. I've written texts before but I'm more familiar with copy-editing - I quite like to have something to react to, so the first essay that I wrote last year was somewhat daunting. Luckily, the course is very well structured so by the time I came to write the essay, I already had a position (naive, but still a position) and a set of references that I was able to structure into a (hopefully) persuasive argument. Writing the essay gave me confidence to continue writing which is just as well, as critical reflection and report writing is a major component of the course. As part of my final major project I've been looking at cook books. I decided that I wanted to write about the books that I had analysed because one of the main reasons for coming on the course is to be able to articulate more clearly what I think is going on in design(s) - to do this I think you need a good grasp of language and writing, for me, seems to be a good way of ordering thoughts.

I had sent Teal a copy of the text that I had written about John Pawson and Annie Bell's cook book Living and Eating. I wanted to get some feedback - not necessarily whether it was good or bad writing - but whether it was doing what I wanted it to do: which is to articulate what the design of the book is doing - how the typography instructs or directs the reader; how it establishes the brand or authorial voice; and how it addresses the audience. I explained my methodology, informed by Gillian Rose and by Cal Swann, which is to use the same structure to analyse each book; starting with the cover - looking at the dominant elements etc; noting the typefaces, the colours; and all the details that make the cover distinct from other covers before looking at the inside with the same attention to detail. Each 'review' then finishes with an overview which takes on a much more subjective position.

Teal asked me if I'd considered the tone of my writing; what was my voice? I explained that these texts had essentially been written for myself, as a way of gaining a greater understanding of design but, because I had posted them on a blog, they no longer were private texts. Aside from the problem of the distinct and over-familiar tone of voice that permeates many blogs, I had made a decision to make them public and there was an awareness that someone might read them, therefore they needed to be finished to a level that I felt comfortable with.

Teal then asked me whose writing that I admired. I really like
Catherine McDermott's and Jon Wozencroft's writings. The two books that Wozencroft wrote about Neville Brody explain, in an accessible manner, Brody's practice - in simple terms, Wozencroft writes that Brody wanted to do XYZ so he did ABC: cause and effect. I also like Robin Kinross's writings - for his directness and for the fact that he has a position and he sticks to it. You could say the same about John Kane. Essentially, I like to read texts that explain, without becoming too self-consciously theoretical (i.e. resorting to languages outside of graphic design), how a design is functioning, what it's transmitting.

Teal's next question was
who was I writing for and why? This was quite difficult. I had considered that there might be an audience and I had a vague idea who that might be but, in reality, the texts were written for me and the only 'real' audience I had thought about other than the non-specific audience of the 'blogosphere' is the tutors who will read these texts when they form part of my final major project hand-in. Teal suggested that a way forward could be to write a profile of my intended readership; this was an exercise that the MA Design Writing Criticism course took part in - a fun exercise and usually with constructive results.

We then had a look at the text I had written about Living and Eating. Teal asked me what I wanted to do with the text, where I wanted to take it. I explained that beyond making it into a book as part of my hand-in, I hadn't thought any further. She asked me if I would change anything for the book. I'd actually been thinking, when I re-read some of the texts before our meeting, that I would get rid of a lot of the detail: the details served a purpose at the time but, in terms of an engaging piece of writing, the interest was in the more subjective overview.

Teal offered some very constructive advice about how the texts could be improved: she suggested that I added a paragraph in front of the first level of detail, an introduction that sets up my position and gives a taster of what's to come. She agreed that some of the technical details could disappear. She thought that 'Interior', with its connotations of the domestic interior, was the wrong word to describe the inside of the book and that 'Inside the recipe' or some play on words might be better.

I acknowledged that 'Overview' was not right, coming at the end of the text, 'Conclusion' might be better but sounded too definite. Teal suggested that I preface this section with a short sentence that explained that, after looking at the detail of the book, these were my conclusions and observations, summing up what I'd set out in the opening paragraph.

This was all useful advice and I can see that, with a little tweaking, these texts will be so much more engaging to read - the danger is, at the moment, that you might lose the reader after the first few sentences - you need to let the reader know where you are going.

We then talked a bit more about cook books. I talked about my interest in them and how I'd been been looking at how the graphic language of the books of Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson had changed as the writers had become personalities: there is a shift from books that are almost purely typographic in the early stages of both writers' careers to lavish, visually led productions as they become famous. Teal wondered if there was any mileage doing a close reading of the language found in these books - what was the occurrence of certain words in these books? How does the language inform the typography? Teal thought that it might be interesting to take just one recipe, boiling an egg for example, and look at how language - and, by extension, typography - can explain this in different ways.

We talked further about the work I had done so far and about the problems that I have had with finding an audience. Teal said that the best audience was the one that you knew best - which is true, but in this instance, I think I need to think about another audience to remove me from my design comfort zone and push the project in another direction. I showed Teal the books I have made so far and she agreed that it could - and should - be developed further; she disputed my idea of cooking as a linear activity and suggested that it's perhaps more sequential, I think this could be an interesting way to move forward and ties in with the recent research I have been doing looking at diagrams, flowcharts, manuals etc.

It was interesting to have a different perspective on my work and to be made to think about questions that I had not considered. The conversation raised more questions than answers and, although it's daunting that there is so much to do - thinking, reading, writing and making - I left feeling a bit more on track.


Hungry? is is a new cook book from Innocent, published by 4th Estate. It's aimed at families with children with recipes, by Anna Jones, that are nutritious and easy to make. The design is full of quirky features with the aim of getting everyone, including children, involved and excited about food. The recipes themselves are laid out very simply and clearly and are very user friendly and are placed next to photographs by Clare Shilland that show, in most cases, how the dishes turn out. Elsewhere there are charts, designed in various graphic styles, that reveal how to spot a bad egg; tips on making pesto; how to choose cuts of meat; and when to eat seasonal foods. Other quirks include a '10 Commandments of Washing Up' tea towel that comes with the book, and a pocket at the back for storing recipe cuttings etc (although with typical Innocent faux-naïveté, they suggest storing 'Torn-out recipes, passports and secret documents' because 'burglars never steal recipe books').

Read more.

Studio Cookbook

Studio cookbook is a collection of recipes from åbäke, Alex Bettler, Front yard company, Goodwin Harthorn, Jerome Rigaud, Martino Gamper, Mind Design, Sara de Bondt studio and many more, brought together to inspire social lunches at studios.

Edited and designed by Ken Kirton of Hato Press.

Read more.

A Tale of 12 Kitchens – Jake Tilson

A Tale of 12 Kitchens:
Family Cooking in Four Countries
Jake Tilson

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2006 (Paperback)
Design and layout Jake Tilson Studio
Photographs Jake Tilson

Jake Tilson is an artist, graphic designer, typographer, photographer, cook and author; he has researched, written, photographed and designed this very unique cook book. The design of the book articulates Tilson’s vision of how food evokes memories of time and place and the importance of food as a kind of ‘social adhesive’. The design is multilayered, with connotations of scrapbooks, and is crammed with many details that are not revealed until the second or third reading; densely layered photography plays a large part in creating this sense of collage, and the general feel of the book is of an assemblage of memories and associations. The book is a distillation of Jake Tilson’s particular experiences: of growing up as the son of a pop artist in 1960s West London; of living in the country and learning to cook aged 15; of travelling, as a young man, to Paris and New York; of living in Scotland; exploring the USA with his young family; and finally settling in multi-cultural Peckham. The book presents the signifiers that define these places and experiences in a singular idiosyncratic design language that is particular to Tilson and which, on first glance, is somewhat overwhelming, but that, nevertheless, is so rich with visual inventions that the reader is won over and is happy to enter his world.

Of all the books I have recently analysed, this one is the most transparent about its genesis: Tilson has supplied a huge amount of information, about the tyepfaces, papers, photography and the structure of recipes, that is not usually presented in cook books. This information is both incredibly useful and endlessly fascinating: it serves not only to reveal the author’s passion for cooking, travel and graphic design, but, intentionally or not, it also positions the book in a very different space from the more commercially orientated books that I have looked at. In the book, Tilson says that ‘I suspect that I’ve written this book for our daughter, Hannah, as a guide to the significance of cooking, sharing and eating in our lives.’ It is hard to imagine the concept for this book coming from a marketing department: the book was in a highly completed state when Tilson sold it to the publisher. I’m interested in how a book finds its market; in this case, this book feels like a labour of love that, like most art, is created for the creator, not an audience but, if it does find one, as this obviously has, it can only be a bonus for everyone.

Front cover
The cover features a full bleed photograph that shows a small frying pan or skillet containing three plums, sliced in half, and a chunk of cake, possibly Pandoro, resting on what appears to be a windowsill or doorstep. The dominant colours in the photographs are muted, greyish pinks, purples and greens coming from the surfaces that the pan is resting on: earthenware tiles and different types of grey stone. The bright orange-red plums, the golden yellow cake and the shiny, light reflecting oil draw the eye to the frying pan which is black and well-used and forms the dominant central element of the composition. The different surfaces that the pan rest on divide the cover into three horizontal bands of unequal size; they suggest collage which is a major feature of the book. Compared to the exuberance of some of the interior spreads, the front cover is surprisingly restrained and only gives a taster of the content.

The title of the book is the second dominant element on the cover: it is reversed out, in white, from the terracotta tiles that form the band of colour closest to the top of the page. The terracotta tiles form the darkest band of colour on the cover and offer the best contrast to the white of the title. Below the title, placed on the right and set at a third of the size, is the author’s name. The title and author’s name are set in uppercase Nizioleto, a stencil typeface, which, according to the helpful credits at the back of the book was ‘Developed by Jake Tilson in 2003. The font is taken from Venetian street name signs.’ Other elements include a sub-title and a quote from Claudia Roden, both set in different weights of Meta, designed by Erik Spiekermann, reversed out, in white, except for Claudia Roden’s name which is printed in a warm brown. Finally, a decorative band of bright colours, arranged in a grid, runs along the top of the cover giving connotations of Mexican fabrics and hinting at the stronger, brighter colours that appear on the pages of the book. The credits tell us that the cover is printed on Zanders Zeta Hammer, a paper that has a tactile quality, emphasised here with a matt plastic coating.

Inside Pages
The book is 20 cm by 25 cm, printed full colour on 140 gsm Tauro, a white, matt uncoated paper. The layout, which is designed in the spirit of collage, initially looks unstructured but a closer inspection reveals that most of the layout is designed around a simple one column grid with slightly wider inside margins, a deep top margin and narrower bottom margin. To add variation and introduce an air of spontaneity, titles, photographs, illustrations and some body text are occasionally aligned to a narrower outside margin. In general, the design appears relaxed and informal with layers of images and text giving connotations of a scrapbook.

Several different typefaces have been used throughout the book. Initially this is a little overwhelming - but there is order within the chaos: the body text and recipes are set in Century Expanded, in one weight but in different colours; chapter openings are set uppercase in the previously mentioned Nizioleto; the appendix, index, captions, introductory and ending paragraphs are set in Meta. In addition, each chapter uses a special font to evoke the era or country featured in that chapter - Pioneer in chapter one, Pomodori in chapter two, Empire in chapter three, Skirlie in chapter four, Gotham in chapter five and Johnston Underground in chapter six. Many of these typefaces have been developed by Jake Tilson and have been treated in various ways - rubber stamped, for example - to make the connotations of the typefaces even more explicit.

Aside from the recipes which are presented as scrapbook pages, the bulk of the recipes are surprisingly traditional and restrained in their layout: they are generally printed in two colours - a red-brown for the commentary and method and blue for the ingredients which are spilt into two columns across the width of the wider column. Titles are set in the appropriate typeface for each section in a palette of vibrant colours, and additional information is set on a narrow inset column in uppercase Meta printed in black.

The book is divided into sections, each dealing with the cuisine of a particular place or era. As previously mentioned, each section uses a special typeface, often developed specially by Jake Tilson that has connotations of that particular country or of the era that the section is set in: the author has written illuminating notes about each typeface and the reasons for its use. In addition to these typefaces, other decorative elements such as fleurons and border patterns contribute to building the atmosphere in each section. Patterns in photographs are used throughout the book to create a sense of place for each chapter: ceramic tile designs; fabrics; carpets; and street markings. Colour, too, is hugely important in the book: Jake Tilson is an artist with a particular eye for colour that he has developed in previous projects such as Atlas magazine: the colour is rich, bold and saturates the uncoated paper; rusty browns, ochre reds and blue-greens dominate. Pages of full bleed flat colour announce each section; terracotta red; mustard yellow; Cerulean blue; and deep purple; these colours echo the strip of colours that appear at the top of the front cover, linking it to the content.

Photography is used extensively throughout the book to illustrate the finished dishes and to illustrate the ephemera - shopping bags, food packaging etc - that Tilson has collected on his travels. Equally important are photographs of recipes in scrapbooks; photographs taken in different locations; and photographs taken of family occasions. The majority of the photographs are presented as collages, in layers with smaller images placed above larger images in more and more inventive ways. Almost all of the photographs are presented as full-bleed and, in many cases, a larger full-bleed image serves as a background for several smaller images or, occasionally for one large image. The effect is that the images are never read in isolation: they are always juxtaposed with other images, adding resonance to their meaning. The layers of images combine with the multilayered typography to create multiple readings and meanings: a feast for the eyes.

Importantly, as noted in the book by Tilson himself, ‘All photographs are 100% natural. There is no styling of food photographs in this book. Every plateful was eaten seconds after being photographed - sometimes before. All crockery was used as-is and as-found, lighting was used as available.’ Pans, utensils, glasses, crockery and cutlery, although taken from disparate sources: the domestic and the diner; different countries; and from a timescale spanning 45 years or so, are unified by Jake Tilson’s eye - the book is a distillation of his taste. Many of the photographs are low resolution and quality, occasionally sourced from video or mobile phone and sometimes shot in poor light - under yellow tungsten light, for example - all of these details add to the immediacy of the book, carrying connotations of honesty and ‘realness’.

After the six sections dealing with particular times and places, the closing section of the book offers a wealth of useful (and unexpected in a cook book) information. In this section, Tilson reveals his love for ‘seductive’ food packaging, illustrating his thoughts with images of unusual and lovely packaging collected around the world. He also talks about recipe design: the history of recipe design; the typographical conventions of recipe designs; and the difference between annotating a recipe for a friend and for a cook book. There are some copyright-free posters to photocopy and distribute; a well-designed and easy to navigate index; a list of suppliers; a ‘bedtime reading’ list of books consulted during the writing of the book; an extensive ‘closing credits’ where Tilson reveals the design process, the typefaces, paper and photography used; and finally, acknowledgements.

There is a wealth of other detail presented throughout the book, too much to mention here, but some details that stand out are: the photographs of a well-stocked fridge and bowls of washing up that are hidden behind the cover flaps; the ‘may contain nuts’, ‘do not refrigerate’ and ‘keep in a cool dry place’ messages on the cover; and the use of small, almost missable motifs such as illustrations of tomatoes, scattered through the book. All of these elements work as signifiers and visual clues that contribute to the idiosyncratic feel of the book, established through design, that is a visual manifestation of Jake Tilson’s world.




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