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A Survey of Cookbooks

I love to study the typography in cookbooks. Whenever I pick one up I immediately start poring over the type, analyzing the typefaces used; their relationships to one another; the varying levels of hierarchy created with different weights, widths and styles. Designer Charles Eames is quoted as saying: “The details are not the details. They make the design”. Well I love those typographic details, right down to the placement of page numbers. 

Of course with a cookbook, the photography and overall design are important too. Readers want to experience what it’s like to be in the space, country or city where the food originated. This is part of the designer’s job, to combine type and image to create an immersive experience that tells a story about the food. 

When it comes to high quality, well-designed cookbooks, Phaidon sets the standard. Phaidon is a premier publisher for art, architecture, design, and food. Their cookbooks are gorgeous. With few exceptions, Phaidon cookbooks are hardbound and the design of each one really showcases the recipes and food genre. From the overall book size (usually thick, several hundred pages), to the design of the cover and interior spreads, the photography and illustrations, the meticulous typography, the paper stock, print quality and the final binding, their cookbooks are a complete and impressive package. I own several Phaidon cookbooks and to date most remain safely tucked away on my shelves away from greasy hands. 

Chronicle Books and Ten Speed Press also produce high quality cookbooks. Ten Speed Press has published The Nomad Cookbook and the Food52 series among others. Their books are mostly hard bound, impeccably designed publications that, in my opinion, should be handled with care in the presence of liquids or sticky substances. Chronicle puts out a steady stream of cookbooks that appeal to a wide audience. While final bound sizes vary, many of their cookbooks are paperback and more intimate in size (around 8 x 9 inches). These can be easily stored on a shelf. They tend to lie flat when opened and, with coated paper stock, are more durable in the kitchen. In most of Chronicle’s cookbooks, food photography plays a central role, making each recipe look appetizing and accessible.

It is a bit of a conundrum that a cookbook might be too nice to function in the kitchen. Am I doing these books a disservice by not taking them into the space in which they are meant to be used? Time will tell as I start cooking my way through my collection.

As I start to critique the design of cookbooks it’s worth noting that publishing a cookbook, or any kind of book for retail, is an expensive proposition. Having designed several books, I know that there are always multiple decision makers involved during the creative process. The author/s, publishing company, the editorial team, the designer, photographer, food stylist, production team and any number of people from marketing all have a say in the final product. At every phase of a book’s development there have almost certainly been compromises. Most of these are invisible to the reader. The audience doesn’t know (and probably doesn’t care) if the designer received a challenging creative brief, had to work with a tight budget or a compressed timeline, or if he/she had any oversight in the final production of the book. Ultimately a bound book goes to market, and that’s what I’m reacting to here on PaperPlates.

Below are my current top ten favorite (design) cookbooks. It’s safe to say the typography is a big part of why I bought each one of these.

A Day at elBulli with Ferran Adria (my copy has a different cover…)

A Modern Way to Eat: 200+ Satisfying Vegetarian Recipes Anna Jones

Crossroads: Extraordinary Recipes from the Restaurant That Is Reinventing Vegan Cuisine Tal Ronnen

New York Cult Recipes Marc Grossman

NOMA: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine René Redzepi

The Nomad Cookbook Daniel Humm, Will Guidara, Leo Robitschek

The Book of Tapas Simone and Inés Ortega

Breakfast Lunch Tea Rose Carrarini

Food 52: Genius Recipes Kristen Miglore

The Love & Lemons Cookbook Jeanine Donofrio

A detail from Love & Lemons (sensitive elegant typography throughout)

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