INTERVIEW: 'The sheer scale of this book and the number of images allowed us to tell a very detailed and intimate story'
Jonathan Barnbrook and Marwan Kabour on how the photos in the new Rihanna book take the viewer on a journey
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 second part of our three part interview with Jonathan and Marwan. Look out for the final part later this week.
A lot of the commentary around Rihanna often refers to the very real connection she has with her fans. How did you convey that?
M: “That’s very true and connected to that is the fact that a lot of the text was extracted from phrases or words or hashtags that she uses when she communicates with her fans. During the process we were going through instagram and trying to find those words that are very much her voice and that her fans would connect to. And that has very much made its way into the fabric of the book.”
J: “Whether it’s a record cover or a book you have to be into the artist and when somebody isn’t, then it does show. And it’s the same with this book. I think what the design shows is that Marwan LOVES Rihanna! He went through all the instagram stuff because he loves the artist. That connection is really important.”
M: “It just happened that I was a huge fan. She’s my age and I’ve been following her music since she came out. So this ended up as a really lovely coincidence for me.”
Did the fact that you were a fan make the project more daunting in any way?
M: “At the beginning obviously it’s a little bit daunting working on something of such scale and cultural impact, but then you soon find out that the most rewarding thing you can do as a designer is tap into your interest, the thing that intrigues you about the subject matter. And I don’t know if it shows in the book design, but it was those details that I was looking at from a very personal perspective that kind of weave together the graphic language of the book.”
J: “I think it’s more the interest spurs the desire to do a really good job. And what’s amazing about the book is the editorial focus. All the photos work together to make one big long journey. But there’s enough to make you stop along the way. And I think that’s what Marwan has brought to it, not just visual mark making, but a selection of visual images, and pacing and contrast which comes from a love of the artist and also comes from being a good designer.”
It’s a visual autobiography not a conventional autobiography – how did that affect your design approach?
M: “Good question! You can tell a story in a variety of ways. And the sheer scale of this book, and the number of images, allowed us to tell a very detailed, and very intimate story. The words are there to kind of tap into one memory, or one location or one event. And, in addition to that, there are all these inserts that provide an anecdote here and there, so there is a lot to go through. So yes you can admire it for lovely images, but if you choose to engage with it as a sort of narrative there is also a lovely story there.”
The ‘disruptor’ pages are a smart idea, what inspired them?
M: “Phaidon and Rihanna’s team weren’t very excited by the idea of repeating the fact that she went to say the Grammys in 2015, and 2016 and also in 2017. So we came up with the idea of putting these repeated events in her life together and using them to break up the book so that they became organic separators, disruptors as you say.
“We explored different options for this. But eventually I kind of went back to something that I would do when I was a kid when I had scrapbooks and I would cut out pictures of singers from magazines and paste them up. And even though I wasn’t really thinking about it at the time, when I was doing the collages it was really like making a fan’s scrapbook. That’s where the inspiration came from to keep things more interesting and provide different visual moments as you’re going through the book.”
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 later this week for the final part of our interview with Jonathan and Marwan of Barnbrook.