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Finding a look for Vega Maria

Norvik’s designer Essi Viitanen gives us a guided tour through the process of designing a cover for Chitambo. 

The process of designing a cover for Chitambo began with reading the book and discussing the material with Sarah Death, the translator of the novel. Sometimes Norvik Press book covers have original illustrations but for Chitambo’s cover we thought it best to look for an existing image. The basic requirements for the image are high resolution (at least 300dpi for printing) and suitable space for the typography: book title and names of the author and translator. If possible, it is also preferable the image is public domain and free to use.

I began by looking for photographs that might work thematically or capture a significant detail of the novel. Whilst reading the book one paragraph had caught my eye: ‘If I close my eyes, I see a blue horizon and dazzling white sails, always the same vision, and I do not know where it comes from.’ With this in mind I headed to Unsplash, an excellent source for free public domain photographs, in search of images.

It became apparent these images had a distinctly contemporary feel and did not speak to the era the book was written in. Carbon fibre masts did not quite capture the 1930s seafaring romanticism! Images of Fridtjof Nansen’s expedition ship Fram also came to mind as a possible cover image, but I feared this might misguide potential readers. Meanwhile Sarah had spotted paintings by Finnish painter and sculptor Wäinö Aaltonen, Olsson’s contemporary. Aaltonen was best known as a sculptor but also produced a range of paintings and illustrated the covers of some of Olsson’s books.

These captivating images would have been wonderful for the cover. The hope of finding a portrait of a young woman, similar to the novel’s protagonist Vega Maria, began to form. Unfortunately, many of Aaltonen’s paintings are privately owned and it proved difficult to find the rights holders for the paintings. We therefore shifted the image search to paintings or sketches from the 1930s in hopes of finding other similar artworks. Many museums have made material from their online collections available as free public domain material:

Art Institute of Chicago

Biodiversity Heritage Library

The Cleveland Museum of Art 

J. Paul Getty Museum

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

National Gallery of Art

Paris Musée

Wellcome Library

There is a wealth of material available, but finding an image quite right can be difficult. A few options emerged along with a photograph of Hagar Olsson.

Though none of these were quite the portrait of a young woman we had wanted, I began the process of sketching to see if these images could fit in with the other elements that go on the cover.

Playing around with the images included cropping, photoshopping in more background and adding graphic elements. None of these options quite did justice to the book or captured its spirit.

London art gallery scheduling then intervened. Sarah writes:

At Norvik Press we had long been fans of the paintings of Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck and had used them on our covers in the past: A Century of Swedish Narrative: Essays in Honour of Karin Petherick in 1994 and Ellen Rees’s On the Margins: Nordic Women Modernists of the 1930s in 2005.

I was very pleased to learn that a major Schjerfbeck retrospective would be coming to the Royal Academy in London from the Finnish National Gallery in the summer of 2019.  The exhibition created a little stir in the print media, with various appreciative comments like ‘Why haven’t we heard of Helene Schjerfbeck before?’ Observer art critic Laura Cumming was one of those to review it. Interviewed by Christian House, co-curator Anna-Maria Bonsdorff offered the interesting characterisation of Schjerfbeck as sitting ‘somewhere between Cézanne and Francis Bacon’ and also touched on her interest in fashion, particularly in the 1920s, something that seems evident to me in our eventual cover choice.

On my own visit to the exhibition in September 2019, I was on the lookout for portraits of roughly the same period as Chitambo, in case any of them would make good cover material, and was very taken with a number of her portraits done in the late 1920s and early-to-mid 30s. It was actually the first time I ever used my own mobile phone to take pictures in an art gallery; it felt acceptable for research purposes, and when I discovered in the shop afterwards that there were no postcards on sale because the colour printing had somehow gone wrong, I was very glad that I had. I took seven photographs of individual paintings, two of which I decided were my favourite candidates for the cover: Girl from Eydtkuhnen II (1927) and Girl in a Beret (1935). Both seemed to me to convey the novel’s blend of bold, emerging young womanhood with a sense of strangeness that seemed appropriate for a modernist novel. Girl from Eydtkuhnen II, in particular, combined an almost alien angularity with the look of a fashion plate of the era, and the background greenery from which she seems to be emerging conveniently represents both the suffocating domesticity of dusty houseplants and the jungles of Africa, metaphorical and literal, though which our protagonist Vega Maria and her childhood hero Livingstone hack their way.

Well aware that Essi puts a lot of research into her cover designs and that she had already been working on ideas for Chitambo for some time, I nervously sent her the particulars of these two portraits and suggested we might explore the Schjerfbeck route. I received an enthusiastic response, and we took it from there. But I am very pleased that we can now enjoy these fascinating insights into the preliminary work she did on other options.

So with Sarah having proposed Helene Schjerfbeck’s Girl from Eydtkuhnen II (1927), I embarked on a different route that led us to our final cover.

Helene Schjerfbeck, Girl from Eydtkuhnen II

The Finnish National Gallery granted us the rights to use the image for a small rights fee. The shape of the image and the Finnish National Gallery request that typography overlaps with the figure as little as possible limited design options for the cover. I set about designing the other cover elements to fit around the painting with font choices that complement the painting.

All three fonts are relatively new, the oldest being Iowan Old Style released in 1991, but draw inspiration from older typefaces. In the case of Iowan Old Style the inspiration comes from serif typefaces from Renaissance Italy. Minotaur perhaps is most similar to the popular bulky fonts of the 1930s.

The Norvik Press board of directors reviewed these options and decided unanimously on the teal colour and Iowan Old Style font.

Vega Maria had found her way onto the Chitambo cover.

Extracts from Chitambo can be read here, and if you would like to display this beautiful cover face-out on your shelves at home, copies of the book can be ordered at all good bookstores.