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A TALE OF THREE CITIES

From the mind, to paper and screen – with moves across Europe influencing his practice, we delve into the influences and process of Latvian graphic designer, Zigmunds Lapsa.

ALL FEATURED DESIGNS ZIGMUNDS LAPSA

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Marble print

They say don’t judge a book by its cover – but you’ll be hard pressed not to if it’s been designed by Zigmunds Lapsa. Originally hailing from Riga, the Amsterdam-based creative has produced a body of work that would make any bookshelf look like a small exhibition space.

His eye-catching covers blur the boundaries between illustration and typography, crafting the front door to novels, poetry collections and everything in between. Having followed his work over the past few years, we’ve been excited to see new elements spring into his practice recently. We spoke with him to discuss his flourishing practice of graphic design and printmaking, and how the threads of his past are converging into the future.
 

The aesthetic of your work can vary from project to project, but how would you try to best summarise your graphic style, and what you try to achieve with it?

I think it’s really quite graphic and revolves very much around the basic elements of shape, colour, and composition. I shouldn’t forget typography which always plays a role – sometimes the main, sometimes just the supporting act. 

Often it’s about distilling ideas into a rather simple image. The journey to that outcome can be messier and more complex though, I’d start to work with shapes by piling them up, overlaying, multiplying, rotating, stretching, and punching them until new meanings start to occur.

One of my goals would be to involve the viewer in a bit of a visual game – often it’s about showing enough to intrigue the viewer, but not too much to make it complete and too obvious. I work out how to make a space where one can decode the image in several ways and there’s the possibility of a few different interpretations. 

For example, on the collected poetry book by Latvian writer Inese Zandere, the cover is divided in half, alluding to horizon that a white shape emerges from. This design was formed with several keywords in mind, including a flowing river, setting sun, a hand reaching over, but also a hand reaching over a fence – so it can be seen as blending several concepts in one shape.

I have learned that the viewer will have their own version of what they see, and my proposed description might seem ‘made up’ and is not always going to be the only interpretation. As I often discuss my works in progress with friends and fellow designers, we end up discussing what the read of the images could be, and these exchanges have become part of the process.

Coming back to aesthetics and style – elements of surprise, visual puns and playfulness can always find a home in my work. It does seem to shift stylistically over the years. I have been trying to work on adding some more approaches to my existing arsenal – like working with photography, found image, drawing and texture.

Inese Zandere – ‘No Mazā'

You grew up in Riga, before spending time in London to study at CSM, and then moving to your current home in Amsterdam. How would you describe the creative energies between these cities, and the different types of inspiration they provide?

London had more of an educational role for me, but was also bit of a “school of life” – it was quite challenging to balance the time and resources to fund my studies, and live in this huge city, and find time to actually study – I think it’s where I also got my first early grey hair. 

Nevertheless, I managed to find my way to school often enough to make some great friends, learn a bit about art history (which had skipped me in my life in Riga) and learn how to be passionate about music from my flatmates who had 3 jobs each to support their tiny rooms. The passion for music in London is on another level - it’s really contagious.

To me, Amsterdam seemed almost the polar opposite. It’s very hard to get into an accident with bicycle there, whereas in London it took me a while to figure out how to cycle through the intense traffic and make it to my destination in one piece – it’s felt like a video game with three hearts pulsing in the corner of the screen. 

In Amsterdam I was also very fortunate with finding my first two internships in small independent graphic design studios (Studio Laucke Sieben and Lesley Moore) which seemed to have the most efficient and transparent work ethic and approach to design – there is almost no hierarchy between the designers in the studio – with very educated and trusting clients. It’s really a pleasure to work and learn in such an environment.

Later, I also discovered that Amsterdam is secretly a perfect city for cinephiles – it’s network of little independent student run cinemas and monthly festivals is something I now can’t imagine my life without. The possibilities to experience film here ranges from underground free cinema screenings in unusual spaces (like inside the bunker of a bridge, or a church) to well established places like Eye Filmmuseum (although they can be very strict with people who are late for screenings – that’s the only downside).

Little hidden second-hand book stalls, cycling and the size of the city make it at times feel almost unreal and fairy tale-like. Also, compared to London, the way you navigate the city is more active – you sort of need to bring your energy to the city and it can take couple of years before one finds that favourite little bar or hidden record store, it’s sort of waiting there for you to be discovered.

How has your upbringing in Latvia given you a different perspective as a designer?

Riga for me a had a very different role – in fact I got into visual arts quite late in my life – only in my very late teen years. My interest in design started completely by accident when a friend of my mom gave me a pirated CD with Corel Draw software (I can’t remember now why she would do that, but I’m eternally thankful to her), which I found mind blowing and was using it to make text wrap around circles with drop shadows and shiny 3D effects.

That was end of 90’s and beginning of 2000’s – at the time you could count the number of graphic design studios in the country on one hand, and even advertising agencies were quite a new thing. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it took some time to implement these structures in Latvia.

Most of the studios and agencies were employing very young people – if you had some Photoshop and Illustrator skills and an interest in design, that could be enough to become an art-director in couple of years’ time. A lot of young people of my generation would take that path of finding a first a job in an advertising agency and basically learning the craft on the go. 

After some years working in advertising I found out that there was a field of graphic design where you could work on projects for culture – in the shape of beautiful Polish posters for theatre, captivating book covers containing even more beautiful novels, and cool record covers for even cooler bands. Somehow, I didn’t make that connection in my head at that age – that it could possibly be an actual job and isn’t just made by a mysterious artist in a mysterious basement in some magical way.

In Latvia the possibility of learning graphic design was very limited, and that’s when the idea of going to London for short courses at CSM emerged, and around 2006 that’s what I did with two other friends who shared the same aspirations.

Later on, with same group of friends, we decided to quit our jobs in the agency and set up our very small (but very own) graphic design studio in Riga called ‘Hungry Lab’ – which looking back had a short, but impactful and eventful life. There we made our first book cover, first film poster and had an event of silkscreen printed limited edition calendar with contributions by other designers for each month – which was great. It felt like being in the band, and it means at that time there were at least 12 graphic designers in Riga.

"Designing starts already in the mind and only then slips on to paper or into a screen."

Could you talk us through your typical approach / creative process when you receive a brief from a client?

If it’s a book cover – where possibile I try to read the book (or at least large part of it) and make a little word document where I copy some extracts and make some notes. It can feel like a strange thing to do – to “take time off” to read a book, but in fact that’s when the work starts. The great thing is that most of the books I would read even if I wasn’t getting paid to design the cover, and I’ve stumbled upon authors’ works which are now very dear to me – so this is quite special part of my job, and I still sometimes can’t believe I get to do this.

While reading the book I find it important to pay attention to several things besides the story – for example: the tone, language, structure, atmosphere, underlying themes etc. all of these can be taken later in consideration when making the cover. There’s also details or some seemingly minor elements which actually can play an important role in the book that would never be mentioned in a summary of the book. For example, the cover designs for Dylan Thomas book series were based on him often wearing a polka dot bow.

So once “the book is in my head” I start the visual thinking process. I’ve noticed that I sort of carry the book in the back of my head for a while and then it can be some little pattern in a grocery shop or small flattened paper on the street that suddenly can resonate with what I think the image could possibly be, or it can just activate a train of thoughts which lead to some ideas. In a way the designing starts already in the mind and only then slips on to paper or into a screen, starting taking shape through actual sketching. But that preparation process of first shaping it and moulding it in my head is important and valuable.

On a more practical side – I’ve recently started quite actively using the digital archives of Rijksmuseum, Met Museum, National Museum of Norway and others – they have beautiful high-res image collections of open-source artworks – which both can be used as a reference material, but also as actual elements – some amazingly crafted historic images of a mosquito or a bamboo tree could just be that one special thing that triggers the right imagery.

James Baldwin – ‘Another Country'

Dylan Thomas – ‘Under Milk Wood'

You produce a lot of work in the publishing field – what changes have you noticed over the past few years in the style of work that publishers are looking for?

I mostly work with small independent publishers which seem to be less concerned with general book cover design trends, giving the freedom to be more adventurous and unorthodox.

Sometimes the publisher comes already wanting one certain aesthetic from what I’ve done before and other times it can be a more process-based outcome, which of course is much more fun because then we don’t start with knowing what it will be. 

Often arriving at the right solution also means spending more time in discussion not only with the publisher, but also with the author or the translator. Which I think again probably is a benefit of a smaller publisher of taking time and considering the people involved.

What do I see from other publishers and the books that catch my eye? There is a tendency of a more illustrative and playful approach, also visually poetic, not necessarily ‘screaming’ covers. From top of my head, publishers like New Directions and Tilted Axis Press have a consistently beautiful output of covers.

"There was something totally dormant for years that spewed out in ways I hadn’t expected out of myself. Drawing, printing, illustrating in an endless flow – it was strange emotional state with the pandemic crisis having its daunting presence at the same time."

Some of the work you've produced has a dynamic energy within the typography (from handwritten forms to warped words) – how do you decide the balance in a project between image and illustration, and the type on a page?

That is a really good question. I usually decide that quite early in process – just to give myself some constraint and limitations to push-off from. Depending on the project, even before sketching I usually try to figure out the most appropriate approach and what will play the main role – if the image comes from type, or the illustration is central and type is more neutral, or they all are intertwined.

Typography as an image for me is quite a dear approach, one benefit of it is minimizing the elements on the cover – so if the title is already performed in an illustrative style, it functions both as information and the image and there is no dilemma of hierarchy between the text and an image. That is an approach I’ve learned more about during my time in Amsterdam based studios.

Another interesting aspect of using type as image is the recognisability of letterforms – people know the shapes and variations of each letter so well, that actually it allows for quite some distortion and easily gets into the game of balancing legibility vs surprising shape of the letter (both for a designer and the viewer). 

Also, I’ve noticed that most designers, including me, often are better at drawing letter A in hundred different ways than drawing a human face or a jumping frog. As for me – I feel I’ve done it often enough for it becoming bit of a trick or a shortcut. Therefore, I’m trying to make myself a bit uncomfortable and getting better at working with more figurative elements instead.

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett – ‘Of Sea’

Khaled Nurul Hakim – ‘The Book of Naseeb'

Have the events of the past 18 months affected how you approach your work? Or have any interesting opportunities come about due to the way the world changed so quickly?

Very much. In first months of the COVID pandemic most of the projects just stopped, like many people I found myself with almost no commissions for months. Fortunately, I could apply for the self-employed support system here in Amsterdam and for the first time in my life I had lots of time on my hands while still being able to pay my bills. 

There was something totally dormant for years that spewed out in ways I hadn’t expected out of myself. Drawing, printing, illustrating in an endless flow – it was strange emotional state with the pandemic crisis having its daunting presence at the same time. It was almost as if it was some sort of a therapy or coping mechanism.

During these months my studio would slowly turn into this crowded hands-on workshop with papers, inks and mixing bowls pushing my laptop more and more into the corner of the space. I’d been wanting to do these experiments and try-outs for years, but the client work would always come first, and I couldn’t fully find the time and space for those impulses. Looking back, this chance of starting a parallel practice has helped me a lot to deal with all the negative aspects of the pandemic and I’m truly grateful for that.

Also, this year I’ve worked on collaborative poetry book project with a London based poet Astrid Alben – which involved relentless shape cutting and pairing it up with Astrid’s poems. We are really looking forward for the book to see the light this autumn, especially as it was quite a headache and a challenge for the printers. Eventually we decided to print it in Riga – I’ve just realized, this is where the three above mentioned cities have come together in a very natural way…

See more of Zigmunds' work  zigmunds.eu
Or follow on Instagram  @zigmunds_lapsa