A Book Designer’s Tour of 2021’s Fall Cookbooks
Look inside some of this fall's stunners.
Howdy cookbook fans!
When I write about cookbooks, so often the discussion centers around a book’s author. And while writers, of course, play a very important role in creating a cookbook, this very visual genre of books owes a great debt to the photographers, stylists, illustrators, and designers who bring the text to life. I am so excited to share with you the following story by Frances Baca, a book designer and creative director. Frances went through this year’s crop of fall titles and pulled these ten to discuss from a design perspective. They’re a colorful, creative, visually stunning bunch, and I can’t wait for you to see them. Frances, take it away!
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A Book Designer’s Tour of 2021’s Fall Cookbooks
The best cookbooks satisfy our desire to nourish ourselves and our loved ones, teaching us new techniques and introducing new flavors along the way. In the hands of talented designers and their creative partners, these same books also capture our imaginations—transporting us to faraway places, weaving complex narratives, and revealing hidden treasures.
The designers who helped bring to life the collection of Fall 2021 cookbooks I’ve been poring over are especially skilled at navigating the complexity of author, editorial, marketing, sales, and publisher needs. They bring together photographers, illustrators, stylists, researchers, and countless others in realizing the creative vision behind each book. Their success as collaborators and visual translators of a collective goal deserves special praise, in particular as demonstrated in these ten beautiful cookbooks whose designs inspire delight not only in their food, but in the stories of the people and places who made them possible.
Bayrut: The Cookbook by Hisham Assaad highlights the cuisine of Lebanon, documenting recipes particular to its capital city of Beirut. The book bursts with color through beautiful location and food photography by Assaad and Liz and Max Haarala Hamilton, respectively. The designer Georgie Hewitt overlaps, paces, and scales the photographs in unexpected ways, making the reader’s visual journey feel fresh and exciting. The colors that demarcate sections (a jewel-like green-blue is particularly striking) and the wonderful use of pattern on the cover and chapter openers (resembling lived-in surfaces in a Lebanese home) further infuse the book with the spirit of Beirut.
Black Food, edited by Bryant Terry, celebrates the cuisine of the African diaspora through stories of migration, spirituality, culture, and politics. Designer George McCalman combines fine art, scholarly essays, recipes, and food photography with a skillful hand, keeping the pacing lively and the content clear and inviting. However, the cover strikes me as one of the most unique visual components of the book. It upends our expectations by lacking both Black people and food, instead featuring colorful custom-designed type by McCalman that captures the vibrant patchwork of global communities reflected within its pages.
Cheese Sex Death by Erika Kubik is a humorous and informative “bible” on cheese. Designer Jen Quinn evokes an air of medieval drama through the use of blackletter typography (the slightly distressed, gothic letterforms on the title and chapter opening pages), a moody color palette, and vintage spot illustrations. Of particular note is the stained glass-like chapter opener art by Martin Hargreaves, that inspires a tongue-in-cheek sense of reverence. Though playful, Cheese Sex Death is a well-researched book in which Kubik’s expertise shines visually in her own carefully styled photographs. You don’t have to be a cheese lover to appreciate the wicked beauty of this book.
The Kitchen Studio from the editors at Phaidon is a collection of recipes—both practical and fanciful—by contemporary artists across the globe. Designer Julia Hasting rises to the challenge of organizing the vastly eclectic content into an approachable, visually cohesive book. The typography, grid, and navigational elements created by Hasting remain somewhat static, providing a strong but neutral framework upon which the recipes unfold. A selective use of color across spreads—touches of red, orange, pink, green, purple, blue, or yellow—add a subtle visual punch to the design. The result is a pleasurably dizzying, but absolutely inviting, reading experience.
Let’s Eat Italy! by François-Régis Gaudry is a design treasure: comprehensive and visually diverse, yet beautifully unified and appealing. The oversized trim and variety of visual content—food photographs, archival photographs, maps, fine art, spot illustrations, portraits, charts, to name just a few—are staggering, but never feel overwhelming. Following the visual cues of its predecessor Let’s Eat France!, the designers at Hic et Nunc studio pace, differentiate, and integrate the broad collection of content through a sensitive use of color, type, and image. This balance between constant and variable—fundamental to successful book design—is masterfully on display here. Let’s Eat Italy! succeeds in feeling as exciting, rich, and complex as Italian cuisine itself.
Modernist Pizza delivers on the promise of the Modernist Cuisine books, taking a 3-volume deep dive into pizza history, techniques, and recipes. The designers on the Modernist Cuisine team conform to the established look and feel of the existing series, down to the impressively weighty stainless steel slipcase. The design presents a wide variety of complex information in a clear and functional manner. Especially remarkable are the photographs that exhaustively detail the size, shape, color, and texture of different pizzas. The flying pies in Volume 3 are particularly memorable.
Slovenian Cuisine by Janez Bratovž features dishes from his acclaimed restaurant JB in Ljubljana, and profiles of his favorite producers across Slovenia. The photographs by Manca Jevšček and Matjaž Tančič range from lush landscapes and sensitive portraits, to strikingly modern plates of food. The designers Žare Kerin and Marjan Božič make generous use of space on each page, giving type and image ample room to breathe on white and light gray fields. Their typography is unique, conforming to a flexible grid that breaks in unexpected places. Especially remarkable is the way Kerin and Božic artfully set type in slender columns or wide blocks, mirroring the photographs on each spread. Quietly gorgeous, this book is an inspiring visual journey through the Slovenian countryside and its culinary gifts.
Soup Club by Caroline Wright is a lovingly produced cookbook, presenting recipes from the Seattle community that nourished the author through brain cancer with bowls of delicious soup. There is a deeply personal feel to this book that comes across in the photographs of Wright’s friends by Joshua Huston, evoking the warmth of the community that huddled around her. However, it is the lovely watercolors of gleaming and colorful bowls of soup that make this book special. Illustrations seldom accompany recipes in most contemporary Trade cookbooks, but artist Willow Heath’s work not only accurately captures the look of the finished soups, it imparts a feeling of homey comfort that a professionally-styled and shot food photograph might otherwise lack.
Take One Fish by Josh Niland is a follow up to his popular The Whole Fish Cookbook, focusing on “scale-to-tail” cooking. The design by Daniel New is clean and simple, with bold typographic chapter openers that complement the book’s organization by fish size. New creates a dialog between the images in the book, highlighting the arresting beauty of Rob Palmer’s photographs. These images are the outstanding feature of the book, depicting fish in the context of butchery, preparation, and beautifully plated finished dishes. From the mighty tuna staring out from the endpapers to the tiny herring that swim across the opening to chapter two, Take One Fish is a sizable visual treat.
Tasting Vietnam by Anne-Solenne Hatte is a tribute to the food of Hatte’s Vietnamese grandmother. The designers at Soins Graphiques created a diary-like book, complemented by family photographs and mementoes that are artfully placed among the recipes. Though the typography on the recipe pages retains a constant stylistic treatment, it jumps around playfully, turning conventional recipe layouts—titles, ingredients, method, and yield all locked in place—into a surprising and delightful reading experience. Elements like the repeating circular “postal” stamp (beautifully executed on the Contents spread) and the teal and peach color palette enhance the notion that we are traveling through time and across borders, honoring Hatte’s grandmother and the dishes of her homeland.
I’ve taken particular joy in these books not only as examples of successful designs, but as reminders of the tastes, colors, and sensations beyond our home kitchens during COVID-19 lockdown. I would be remiss not to call out that this global pandemic introduced a myriad of new complications to designers' work—preventing them from traveling to location photoshoots, from meeting their collaborators face-to-face, or from overseeing the manufacture of the products they’ve labored over intently for months. Despite these challenges, they have beautifully executed each book, and allowed us an especially precious taste of the vibrant flavors, intimate gatherings, and distant destinations that we will all hopefully enjoy again soon.
Frances Baca is principal of Frances Baca Design and Consulting in San Francisco, California. Her studio focuses on editorial design, and creative direction and consulting. She has designed and art directed countless cookbooks, and was the founding Design Director of the much-loved food and culture journal Gastronomica. Her work has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation, the Society of Publication Designers, the Association of American University Presses, Graphic Design USA, the New England Book Show, and Bookbuilders West.