'One step before designing the Bible'
Typographic artist Oded Ezer faced a challenge when asked to design the 'New American Haggadah': how to be mainstream without being kitschy or boring.
One day, just over a year ago, a message landed in the e-mail inbox of graphic designer and typographer Oded Ezer: "Hello Oded. My name is Jonathan Safran Foer. I don't know if you know me but I wrote the books ... I'm in Tel Aviv and I wanted to meet with you to interest you in a project that I want to do."
"Of course I knew who this was," Ezer says now, "but I hadn't read his books at that time. The first thing I did was go downstairs and buy all of his books that had been translated into Hebrew. I read 'Everything Is Illuminated' in a few days; it's simply an incredible book. A few days later Jonathan came over to my house. We sat on the faded living room sofa in Givatayim and talked about the Hebrew language, about design, about letters, and then he told me that he wanted to put out a Haggadah for Passover.
"The amazing thing is that about a year earlier, I was also thinking of bringing out a Haggadah, alone. I was waiting for a moment when I would have the time. He simply burst through an open door. When he met with me, it was like one of those moments when you think of someone and the next moment he appears in the middle of the street."
How did he wind up coming to you?
"I have no idea. I was embarrassed to ask."
A few days after that encounter, Foer returned to New York. From that moment on the communication between him and Ezer, and writer Nathan Englander - who translated the Haggadah text - took place via Skype and e-mail.
Ezer, 39, divides his time between several occupations, all related to typography: He designs type and custom logos, on his own and in collaboration with design firms; is a senior lecturer at the Holon Institute of Technology; and he also maintains seven blogs and Internet sites dealing with typography, and with various aspects of his work.
Over the years Ezer has won many awards and has published in international journals, and his works have been shown here and abroad at museums and art shows, and are part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Israel Museum.
"Jonathan said that he wanted mainstream," he says, "so people would buy it - that it's not meant to be an 'alternative' product. I had to use all of my experimental abilities but also speak to the entire Jewish people. From an artistic standpoint, we are talking about a clash: You can't be completely experimental when your aunt has to understand it. Nevertheless, the challenge excited me. I wanted to see if I was even capable of this, dealing with mainstream in a manner that wouldn't be kitschy, boring or banal.
"Until then I had never in my life designed an entire book; I had designed only book covers. And now, the first time I was going to do a book, it was going to be the Passover Haggadah. Wow. That's one step before designing the Bible!"
But in the past you did major things that appealed to the general public.
"Jonathan saw some of my work and said, 'That's what I want, but for a broad audience.' I'll give you an example: The first sketches I offered were in black and white, and he said he was afraid the general public would think it's too harsh. 'Let's put a little color in,' he suggested. I tried to get to a place where I would also be satisfied. It wasn't easy. In some areas I succeeded, and in others less so. There isn't total uniformity in the materials.
"The work on the Haggadah lasted about a year, and I evolved in the process. And since I worked according to the order of the seder, you can also see the evolution of the design process."
One of the first decisions Ezer made was to use a different technique for each double spread: "There are some 70 double spreads, each of which was created using a different material and a different technique. I got up in the morning and didn't know what I would be doing that day, and by the end of the day I had to come up with a double spread. We're talking about an exhausting challenge - something that is very difficult but ultimately very exciting. Even though ... nobody had asked me to do each double spread by a different technique."
How did you work?
"I looked around the studio and if my eyes encountered ink, I used ink. There was a creme brulee burner, so I worked with that. I used Plasteline, oil pastels, pieces of wood I found in the yard, correction fluid, bits of glass, pencil, felt-tipped pen and more. Most of the work was done by hand - I created a model and photographed it - but there are also two or three double spreads that were done on the computer."
Another challenge was to stick to the timeline that appears at the top of each spread, and to design the pages accordingly. For example, the year that appears over the spread dealing with the Four Sons is 75 C.E., and in this case, Ezer used the sort of ancient Hebrew letters that were engraved on Jewish graves during that period: "I gave them a contemporary interpretation in terms of the materials I used. The visual interpretation was free, but the letters were from that year."
How did Foer and Englander take your suggestions?
"I was pleasantly surprised, and the work was truly teamwork. I was given free rein, which is unusual, and I appreciated it. My feeling was that Jonathan was a full partner to design decisions. I joked that he is no less a designer than I; he was extraordinarily open. Nathan too was involved in most aspects. It really was a great feeling of teamwork, and that's not a cliche. There wasn't the sense that you are being forced to bend, but rather that everything is being done through discussion, and it all suited Jonathan's and Nathan's character: a bit like hevruta [partners in studying Jewish texts], as if we were learning together."
Were you occupied by the question of what relevancy this text, the Passover Haggadah, has today in 2012?
"I think that we know this text so well that, at least for me - as someone who in any case zigzags between the past and futurism - the boundaries sometimes become blurred. Even though this text is more a parable than anything else, as such, every year, it makes me compare the old methods of enslavement with the modern ones: the plight of the Palestinians, the inequality in the military burden between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis, the income gaps in the country, and so on. My real interest in this Haggadah, at least as far as the design goes, was the exciting opportunity to produce a kind of retrospective of the changes in and development of Hebrew typography over more than 3,000 years."
What's next? Do you think you might really design a Bible?
"I am unworthy. But I wish! Who knows? Right now I would like to rest."