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The Fairest Book in All the Land

L.A. graphic designer nabs world's 'most beautiful' award for an Austrian idioms dictionary.

April 01, 2001|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hidden inside a designer's studio along a gritty strip of Atwater Village, encased in a special cream-colored slipcase, sits the most beautiful book in all the world. At least that's what the judges at a prestigious German book festival called the 15-pound tome last week.

The book, designed by Los Angeles graphic designer Anne Burdick, is a dictionary of the idioms of an obscure Austrian social critic named Karl Kraus.

Kraus was a Viennese intellectual who produced a series of distinctive red-jacketed journals known as Die Fackel (the Torch) from just before the end of the 19th century until his death in 1936. Die Fackel, a satirical magazine, critiqued the language and political thought of its time. Kraus was an acerbic aphorist, penning such lines as "I and my public understand each other very well: It does not hear what I say, and I don't say what it wants to hear."

The dictionary was compiled by a team of more than 40 scholars, linguists and researchers from the Austrian Academy of Sciences who labored on its contents for nearly a decade. The weighty lexicon has the heft of a Bible; its 1,056 pages are printed on the finest paper.

The book, "Worterbuch der Redensarten zu der von Karl Kraus 1899 bis 1936 herausgegebenen Zeitschrift 'Die Fackel' " ("Dictionary of Idioms From the Journal 'Die Fackel,' Published by Karl Kraus from 1899 to 1936.") The book is not flashy, nor beautiful in the conventional aesthetic sense. Instead its beauty lies in the elegance of its organization and thoughtfulness.

Burdick calls it "a puzzle" that required impeccable logic to create. It requires readers to learn its system and use it the way they would a complex map. (Not that the average English-speaking book lover is going to be able to figure it out; this is, after all, a work aimed at scholars and lovers of the arcane.)

Burdick says her design was inspired by the Internet and digital space, which allow people's minds to move sideways, up, down and back and forth between windows, to order and organize information. In some ways the pages work like a computer screen, with their icons, boxes and codes.

The book's pages are white and tan; in the middle is a vertical stripe of white, which contains the original words of Kraus. On either side are tan columns, where various interpretations, documentation and annotations can be found. Burdick describes the design as a "strip of DNA with things coming out the sides."

Evelyn Breiteneder, managing editor of the project, said she had approached several German and Austrian graphic designers for the project, but their ideas proved boring and traditional. Disheartened, Breiteneder became hopeful after hearing about a young American graphic designer who was to lecture in Vienna on an online publication, Electronicbookreview.com.

Despite the fact that Burdick spoke no German, and Breiteneder and her team are not very adept at English, they teamed up and together created the book design almost entirely through an extensive, yearlong e-mail correspondence.

"From that time on, we do all the production in cooperation," Breiteneder said via e-mail: "Mailing daily and often Vienna-L.A.-Vienna-L.A. Vienna-L.A, and so on."

For Burdick, the Kraus project, with its complexity, codes, legends and logic, was a book designer's dream. "It's just such an insane book. So elaborate. So precise. So arcane," said Burdick, 38, who worked for a year on the design. "For me, this is the pinnacle. I feel like I can retire now."

Since the book first appeared in 1999, Burdick has traveled and lectured on it, creating a buzz in the small intellectual design community that functions as the research fringe of graphic design.

But last weekend, the book rose to greater prominence when a team of German judges at a book fair in Leipzig presented it with one of Europe's most prestigious design awards, the Most Beautiful Book in All the World, 2001. The winner is chosen from a pool of nominees, each of which won "best book design" in its respective country. (Burdick's book won in Austria, where it was published.)

"It is indeed one of the most prestigious awards for book design in Europe," said Max Bruinsma, a design critic and former editor of the London Eye, an international review of graphic design. "The Leipzig award is, so to speak, the 'overarching accolade.' "

Burdick's book has already garnered a number of other design awards. Although the book's natural audience of Kraus scholars might explain its limited print run of 2,000, some designers have also purchased it, for $200, even though they don't read German.

Burdick, 38, who lives in Silver Lake, has the casual hip air you'd expect of a well-traveled designer. Her conversation easily flows from irreverent asides into sophisticated soliloquies about Kraus trivia, the state of graphic design, postmodernism, lexicography, typography, and semantics.

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