Redesigning George Orwell: a conversation with Máquina Estúdio
9 Feb 2021, 3:12 pm
Internationally acclaimed, the English author George Orwell entered the annals of history writing about political repression and states of control. Two of his most important works, 1984 and Animal Farm arrive in Brazil by the publishing house Companhia das Letras in a special graphic project designed by designers Felipe Sabatini and Kiko Farkas, from Máquina Estúdio. In these new editions, the graphic project is built around essays by artists Vânia Mignone and Regina Silveira.
BARBARA MASTROBUONO: Recently, Máquina Estúdio created the graphic design for two seminal works of the 20th century, 1984 (1949) and Animal Farm (1945), both by George Orwell, published in Brazil by Companhia das Letras. Orwell presents us with scenarios of omniscient and oppressive structures of power in different scales, and with uprisings — successful or not — led against them. Although they were written around the Second World War, we can draw several parallels with the crises of power and information that we are experiencing in the 21st century. What was it like to think of a graphic design for both titles taking into account our current situation?
ME: Many publishers were preparing to launch editions — with varied approaches — of the author’s works. Retainer of the rights to Orwell’s titles for the last decades, Companhia das Letras publishing house called on Máquina Estúdio to think about a project that would think of these two main publications in light of our current reality. In addition to being a new edition of the works, the two publications have a commemorative character: in 2019, 1984 celebrated seventy years of launch and, in 2020, Animal Farm celebrated 75 years.
In the initial briefing they were proposing an edition with several supporting texts that encompassed the reception of the titles through each decade. This led us to ask ourselves what would be a possible commentary to me made on the current Brazilian situation. We ended up opting for a visual commentary: each edition is opened with a visual essay signed by two Brazilian artists — Regina Silveira and Vânia Mignone.
From the beginning of the project, we were impressed by the timelessness of Orwell’s narrative. It is incredible — and heartbreaking — how pertinent his text remains and how urgent the issues raised are today. This thematic urgency was one of the pillars for the design of the covers of the editions. The cover, a high-contrast silk screen print, has the author’s last name and the title of each edition in large, bold letters. His work is so widely known and relevant that we gave up the author’s name on the front cover — a rare opportunity. The typographic construction, inspired by the 1984 posters (Big Brother Is Watching You), guarantees a powerful readability regardless of where the cover is seen.
The editions also feature a two-color print on the cut. This is a new printing technology in Brazil that we were privileged to try out on this project. In 1984, a large eye cuts through the side of the book and defragments when the reader is handling the object. In Animal Farm, the side of the book is printed with animal teeth that make up a rabid bite.
BM: The new special edition of the books has a timeline of the covers featured in their previous editions. How did past projects influence the new design? And what were the main graphic references that inspired you?
ME: The previous graphic design of the Orwell editions at Companhia das Letras was also done by Máquina. It was a pleasant surprise to return to the author after fifteen years. For this special edition, we thought of a much more mature book, for another audience. We made a parallel with the critical fortune and also inserted a timeline of past covers. Each publication has fourteen covers from different countries and different historical moments. It is very interesting to see how the covers are changing and adapting to each cultural context. Here, the timelessness and universality of Orwell’s work is apparent.
BM: Although the denunciation of totalitarianism presented in both titles is adopted around the world as a hymn against oppression, each country and continent has particularities of the oppressive regimes they have had to face. What was it like to think of a project that brings the themes worked by Orwell closer to the Latin American context, situated within the memories of our own military dictatorship?
ME: During the design of the project, we realized that 1984 was the main project for establishing this connection. The choice of this series of works by Regina Silveira is based on this decision. In them, the oppression of state and corporate power is explicit. We also understand that the works narrate, above all, oppression as a force of human nature, regardless of regional political contexts. In this sense, it was very important to emphasize a universal virtue of the narrative. We are interested in talking about us as a whole. That is why the cover timeline — and the critical fortune itself — establish connections to the outside, to the production of other countries, thus building a multifaceted vision of the works.
BM: Can you talk a little about the choice of inviting the artist Vânia Mignone to create a never before published visual essay for the book Animal Farm? How was the process of working together? I ask the same about the essay by Regina Silveira.
ME: From the beginning, Regina Silveira was our first choice for 1984. In the first sketches, the visual essay was structured through photographs from the series Plugged (2011). Later, in a visit to the artist’s studio, we got to see the serigraphs of the series Desestruturas Executivas (1975) and Armadilha para Executivos (1975). The two sets fit like a glove for this edition. They transport the atmosphere of the narrative and introduce the reader to Orwell’s dystopian universe. In addition to these works, each chapter opening is accompanied by a labyrinth from the series 15 Laberintos (1971).
We are great admirers of Vânia Mignone’s work. Her images have a very intense poetic charge and there is a strong relationship with animals. The universe of her works relates to our interpretation of Animal Farm today. Our work together was developed during social isolation, so the process was slightly different. Mignone was very enthusiastic about the project from the beginning. We sent her a copy of the 1984 edition and she saw the care with which we treated Regina’s work. Our initial idea was to use ready-made material, but soon she suggested doing an original work. The starting point was to think of the paintings as visual comments on the works and not as illustrations. Eight paintings are part of this essay. The sceneries created by Vânia expand Orwell’s literature and crown this edition.
BM: Finally, did you already like the books before starting their graphic design projects?
FELIPE: My first contact with Orwell was at school. I read the classic Companhia das Letras editions of 1984 and Animal Farm. I have an affective memory with the publications, they were a gateway to a whole new literary segment. It was revealing to reread the author after so long, I was even more impressed by the power of these stories.
KIKO: I had already read both books and enjoyed reading them at that time. I didn’t reread 1984 because I remembered the essentials. I reread Animal Farm to be able to talk to Vânia, but it was not fundamental because she understood straight what was at stake.