The art of book design in exhibition catalogues

In this blog, we explore the artistry involved in the design of exhibition catalogues - all those details that make catalogues such beautiful and desirable objects.

The book designer rarely gets credited but plays a powerful role in our enjoyment of exhibition catalogues. Working with the exhibition curators and publishers, designers influence everything from the quality, order and pacing of the images within a catalogue to how the book feels in your hands and the way the pages lie flat. They are also responsible for distilling the essence of a book into a striking visual form and creating a design that communicates the major themes of the book at a glance. In short, they are responsible for making our exhibition catalogues such a delight to hold, own and use.

Below, we look in depth at the design of three beautiful exhibition catalogues: the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty and Manus X Machina and the V&A's companion book to their David Bowie show.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

The companion book for the Met's blockbuster 2011 show of British fashion designer, Alexander McQueen, is one of the most beautifully produced catalogues of recent years and is an art object in its own right.

Winner of the Independent Publishers Book Awards Book of the Year: Most Outstanding Design (2012), the book has a show-stopping cover with a holographic image of McQueen's face that dissolves into a molten metal skull. Gwen Roginsky, Associate Publisher and General Manager of Publications, The Metropolitan Museum of Art explains how they chose this cover:

'We came upon an invitation that McQueen himself designed for one of his last runway presentations, featuring a hologram (also called a lenticular image) that shifted from a black-and-white photograph of the designer's face to a metallic skull—one of the designer's most iconic and recognizable designs. This concept perfectly captured McQueen's provocative nature, as well as the theme of shifting duality that persists in his work, so we were confident in this selection as the face of the catalogue.'


For the inside, photographer Sølve Sundsbø was commissioned to shoot McQueen's creations in London, working with four live models. Under Sølve's direction, models were painted white and transformed into 'mannequins' by the use of dramatic lighting and extensive digital retouching. The photographs were shot in three weeks, but it took two months to complete the retouching and produce digital proofs of every page—each of which travelled between London and New York to be reviewed by the photographer, McQueen's studio, The Costume Institute, and the Metropolitan Museum's Editorial Department. The images were meticulously colour-corrected and adjusted to match the original garments on the creamy printing paper ordered for the book.

Manus X Machina

Manus X Machina, the exhibition catalogue to the Met's critically acclaimed summer 2016 show, looks at the complex and often ambiguous relationship between the handcrafted and the machine made in the world of fashion.

'In a similar vein, the design of the book unites pre-industrial papers, archetypical cataloguing principles and handset type with hi-tech printing methods and materials,' say the book designers, OK-RM.

The catalogue is wrapped in a PVC and the cover is perforated, taking inspiration from the hole punched cards that were used to weave jacquard, the earliest programmable loom. Inside high gloss silver, mirroring pages are set off against uncoated papers and the handmade character of the Swiss binding. 

David Bowie is

The graphic design studio, Barnbrook were the designers for the V&A's exhibition catalogue, David Bowie Is which explores the iconography, fashion, and music of pop icon, David Bowie.

The design draws inspiration from the rich visual diversity of Bowie’s life and career and employs a varied layout style, full-bleed images and bold headlines. The book brings together a rich variety of visual material from Bowie’s career including costumes, portraits, lyric sheets, drawings, models and other memorabilia. To anchor this material, the book uses a bright orange accent colour throughout – a colour that reappears throughout Bowie’s career: the hair of Ziggy Stardust, the Aladdin Sane flash, the covers of Low, Heathen and Scary Monsters all feature a shade of orange.

The book uses Albertus as the headline typeface - the typeface used on the street signs in Lambeth, the borough in which Bowie’s birthplace of Brixton is located.


Do you have a favourite exhibition catalogue design? Let us know your thoughts.