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A workspace that looks like the inside of her head

Editor and designer Sunandini Banerjee talks about feeling at home around colour and her love for book cover design

Sunandini Banerjee at her workplace.
Sunandini Banerjee at her workplace. (Rush Mukherjee)

Sunandini Banerjee wears many hats. She is, officially, the Senior Editor and Graphic Designer at the Kolkata-based Seagull Books, set up by Naveen Kishore in 1982. But she is also a translator and an instructor in Seagull’s School of Publishing. She started out there in 2000 as an editorial assistant straight out of university, helping out wherever she could, and slowly began to develop an interest in book cover design. Her offer to dive in was accepted, and as her design sense developed further and she grew more adept at using the digital tools that were fast becoming the norm, she took over entirely.

So it has remained until now. At Seagull, Banerjee designs book covers, calendars, notebooks and more. Her artwork is vibrant, marked by collage-like layers and repeating patterns, bright colours and busy foregrounds. She gains inspiration from many fronts, but firmly credits her professors at Jadavpur University for teaching her to read a text in such a way – deconstructing it at the beginning of a class and putting it back together by the end – that she can now encapsulate its essence in imagery.

Also read: Dry flowers and skulls: The eccentric workspace of photographer Arka Patra

Lounge caught up with Banerjee at the Seagull office in Kolkata. Edited excerpts:

Describe your current workspace to us.

My current workspace, in the Seagull office, looks a bit like the inside of my head. I got very lucky with my colleagues here – we have similar or at least complementary sensibilities. It leads to a space that holds a collective outpouring of enthusiasm, curiosity and joy. There are a many little objects on the desk and the wall, collected from lots of different places – some were gifted by friends or students, some I collected from places as diverse as Jaipur during the Literature Festival, and the poush mela (Spring Fair) at Santiniketan. There are collages and photographs. I’m constantly building it.

Has it always been this way? Or has it evolved over the years?

It has definitely evolved over the years – we’ve changed locations; desk arrangements have changed, and even the technology I use to design the covers with has changed.

How would you define your daily relationship with this space?

We own our current office building, so there’s a sense of being settled. We all feel more at peace now that we know we won’t be uprooted. We all love coming in to work here every day, even in our most difficult times. It’s got so much creative energy and there’s a sense of coming home.

Sunandini Banerjee's love for colour reflects in her workplace.
Sunandini Banerjee's love for colour reflects in her workplace. (Rush Mukherjee)

Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had and major works that you have done from here.

Every day I have a eureka moment here, whether I’m working on book designs or editing or translations. Inspiration can strike from an object around the desk, just mulling over the work at hand, or even an aimless, unrelated Google search during which an image catches my fancy.

If you were to trade in this place for another, what would it be?

I think, if I absolutely had to – I would like a greenhouse in the South Park Street Cemetery! I’d really appreciate the peace and quiet. If any ghosts appear, I’ll just hand them a stack of manuscripts to proof-read!

What's the one thing that has always been at your workspace over the years. Why?

Colour! I like the minimal Scandinavian aesthetic, but in my heart, colour is what brings me joy, creative excitement, and inspiration. The flashes of colour in a vegetable market, things sold on wheeled stalls, sweet shops, people on buses – all of this is bursting with colour. And in India, we co-exist with so much colour and pattern in our everyday lives – from sari designs to folk art to kolam, rangoli and alpanas. I am at home in colour and rejuvenated by it.

The first artist whose work you followed closely/sometimes imitated. What about them appealed to you?

The first artist whose work I was aware of, as something to be admired, was Max Ernst. I also love the work of William Kentridge and K G Subramanyan. In book cover design, there are so many artists doing wonderful work – Chip Kidd, Peter Mendelsund, and David Carson abroad, and in India, Gunjan Ahlawat at Penguin, Maithili Doshi at Speaking Tiger, Bonita Vaz-Shimray at HarperCollins, Sukruti Anah Stanley of Zubaan, Paramita Brahmachari and Amit Dixit.

But I think it is the Surrealists that made the greatest impression on me – from Picasso, to Magritte to Dali and even some of Tagore’s works which seem to me to be surrealistic in nature, such as his animal forms. I was lucky enough to visit the Louvre when I was six, and I think that’s where it started. Life is full of contradictions and juxtapositions, and I feel that surrealism portrays them the best. It turns our preconceived notions upside down and adds an element of fun to it that I love. After all, why can’t a lobster be a telephone?

Also read: Dr Anunaya Chaubey’s workspace is a place for both the arts and letters

What was the first medium/tool you used in the early years of practice? How has that evolved now?

The incredible thing is – I don’t actually know how to draw freehand! I was never taught, and I never learnt. Most of my works are collages. I have a sense of design and arrangement, and I always read a text closely to find an eye-catching image that already exists in the text – and then I draw inspiration from that for the cover design. I hunt for images that capture my fancy, get in touch with photographers to get their permission to use them, and then use Photoshop and Quark Express to clean up the designs and arrange them how I want. The process took a long time to develop, as when I started out, I only had interest, enthusiasm and an eagerness to learn, rather than any sort of formal training. I’m very lucky that Naveen (Kishore) allowed me to first start learning on the job, and then to slowly take over.

Rush Mukherjee is a writer based in Kolkata.

Creative Corner is a series about writers, artists, musicians, founders and other creative individuals and their relationships with their workspaces.


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