INTERVIEW: 'We wanted to show the crazy universe that Rihanna occupies!'
Jonathan Barnbrook and Marwan Kaabour tell us how (and why) they came up with the distinctive look and feel of the incredible new visual biography
Our new book, Rihanna, is a stunning visual autobiography, revealing, via intimate photographs, the star’s life as an artist, performer, designer, and entrepreneur.
That life might be lived on private jets, stadium stages and the front rows of Fashion Weeks around the world, but the book itself was designed and laid out in the unassuming London studios of Barnbrook, one of the world’s leading independent creative design studios.
It was there that senior designer Marwan Kaabour had the huge but highly enviable task of turning these candid images into a compelling, revelatory narrative. In this interview, Marwan and the studio’s founder Jonathan Barnbrook, explain why they wanted to show the global superstar’s more vulnerable moments - as well as the starry ones.
“If you look at the book you will see that her beginnings were anything but glitz and glamour. Looking at it you really do recognise and appreciate the amount of hard work she has put in, from very early on,” says Marwan. “To see where she has arrived really is astonishing.”
Impeccably produced, the sumptuous 504-page book contains 11 special inserts, including a removable poster, and 7 gatefolds. The cover features a stunning color photograph and wrap-around cloth binding and comes in a printed black carrying case.
Barnbrook (founded by Jonathan Barnbrook) designed the interiors, typography, and cover for the large-format Rihanna which measures: 12-5/8 x 16-1/2 inches, and includes more than 1,000 photographs, many published for the first time. The studio’s contribution to design was recognized with a retrospective at the Design Museum in London in 2007 and a Grammy Award in 2016 for David Bowie’s Blackstar record cover artwork.
Here is the first part of our three part interview with Jonathan and Marwan. Look out for parts two and three this week.
The energy of the book is high throughout, but particularly so in the opening pages which really drop you headlong into the hurricane of Rihanna world.
J: “The pacing of the book was dictated by Rihanna’s life. She is right in the middle of this crazy universe and she is this incredible energy attractor so the book and the design had to reflect where she is at.”
M: “We were definitely not interested in a cold, clean, quiet book where there’s one image per page. We wanted to signify the insanity of the universe she occupies. We did toy with the idea of having chapter openers and having the book in sections but I think Rihanna was more excited about the idea of having something that flowed from beginning to end, without stopping. And the text comes in at certain points to annotate the story. So it doesn’t work like an ordinary book. It enters when it needs to say something, or to be a comment, or a note or a caption, or even a location locator.”
J: “But, then again, there is a micro and a macro way of navigating the book. You can just casually flick through it but you can also sit and inspect every image. So it’s also about the viewer and the speed they choose to go through the book.”
Barnbrook Studio is known for its innovative use of typography. How did you eventually settle on the dramatic strike through typeface?
M: “As you can imagine we went through a lot of different options throughout the process. In the end we settled on this particular one for a number of reasons. One of the main reasons is that it evokes Rihanna’s very energetic attitude and her presence in popular culture. In one way, the line evokes a censorship bar, or the striking out of something. The idea of strike through text is us playing on the idea of what’s being said versus what is not being said. So it has a conceptual depth to it.
“Meanwhile, from a graphic point of view, what the studio has developed is a flexible system. So you have the letters of a word or a phrase that are aligned throughout this line that can be compressed and can occupy different spaces. The consistency of that typography goes from the beginning to the end. It plays on this idea of what’s been crossed out and what’s not crossed out. And then ideas of legibility are also used to play with what we’re trying to say. So a lot of components went into the making of something that looks quite simple but is, hopefully, quite effective.”
In addition to the large-format edition of Rihanna ($150 USD), Phaidon and Rihanna have collaborated with The Haas Brothers on two limited editions. Twin brothers, Nikolai and Simon, founded the Haas Brothers in Austin, Texas. Their work explores aesthetic themes related to nature, science fiction, sexuality, and psychedelia. Their first solo museum exhibition was held at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami, Florida and their pieces are held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, LACMA, and RISD Museum.
The Rihanna: Fenty x Phaidon edition featuring "This Sh*t Is Heavy" ($175 USD) version includes a copy of the book with a unique cover by Barnbrook that features two black and white photographs and a cloth binding, as well as a Haas Brothers designed, steel tabletop bookstand inspired by Rihanna’s hands and finished in matte, powder-coated green and mirrored silver chrome. It's available here.
A third and very limited edition of the book, Rihanna: Luxury Supreme featuring "Drippy + The Brain" edition ($5,500) is signed and numbered by Rihanna and The Haas Brothers. The book for this edition is bound in a custom-made black fabric with an inset, matte black, laser-cut steel logo inset into the front cover and completed with a cast-resin tabletop bookstand covered with a bespoke black vermiculated fabric. The book and stand together weigh 126 pounds. It's available here.
Check back on Wednesday for part two of our interview with Jonathan and Marwan of Barnbrook.