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Designing a book cover is a huge responsibility: Gunjan Ahlawat

Designer and artist Gunjan Ahlawat on his bonds with the books whose covers he designs, and why he continues to seek internships and collaborations

Designer Gunjan Ahlawat
Designer Gunjan Ahlawat (Photograph by Gaurav Gupta; courtesy )

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A fair share of beautifully produced, visual-rich books came out in 2022. Early in the year HarperCollins published author Amitava Kumar’s The Blue Book: A Writer’s Journal, which was a selection of his sketches and journal entries through the pandemic. As the year closed, Bloomsbury brought out A Book of Days, a curated collection of 366 photographs with captions, from artist, poet, and singer-songwriter Patti Smith. In this league, but carving a definitive niche for itself is painter, book-cover designer, and design educator Gunjan Ahlawat’s December release, Slow is Beautiful: The Ultimate Art Journal for Mindful Living Through Nature.

Ahlawat is the head of design at Penguin Random House India. His work at the publishing house has been widely recognised — in 2021, he won the Oxford Bookstore cover design prize for Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island. Less than a fortnight ago, in December 2022, the same prize long listed his work, again. This time, for the cover of Invisible Empire, by Pranay Lal. Earlier, in 2020, he also won the the Atta Galatta Bangalore Literature Festival for Rising Heat, originally a Tamil novel by Perumal Murugan, translated into English by Janani Kannan.

Some pages from Ahlawat's new book, as seen on his Instagram grid.
Some pages from Ahlawat's new book, as seen on his Instagram grid. (ahlawat.gunjan on Instagram)

Trained at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad and The Glasgow School of Art, UK, Ahlawat’s career has spanned publishing houses like Lars Mullers Switzerland, Penguin, Faber & Faber, and Knopf Doubleday among others. With his latest book, published by Penguin Random House India, the Delhi-based artist tries to make it possible for anyone to look at life through an artistic lens, observing and reflecting on things we see by noticing colour, composition, and form. With and through artistic practises he’s developed over the years, Ahlawat’s book offers yet another inspired way into mindfulness and slow living.

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In this interview, the Delhi-based artist talks about how a book designer relates to a writer’s work, artists and colleagues who’ve led the way for him over the years, and how he continues to learn and be inspired by people. Edited excerpts.

As a book designer, talk about the sort of pressure you feel in being responsible for the face of someone else’s work.

While I may haveall the fun and pleasure designing a book cover, it’s also a huge responsibility on my shoulders — simply because I'm going to assign a visual personality to years of an author’s work. Additionally, this will go into print and will be out there for years to come.Therefore, I needto understand the book empathetically, and passionately to deliver a visually compelling and meaningful cover.

Can you talk about how this binds you to someone else’s work and therefore the relationship you share with it?

Writing is a beautiful craft…I have always been attracted to the art of writing, but couldn't do it before. Words paint an image for me and these images stay in my head and heart. For example, I’d designed the cover of Neel Mukherjee's 2017 book A State of Freedom and the story has stayed with me, even today.When I read Ruskin Bond’s (1956 book) The Room on the Roof, I rushed to spend a few days with him in Landour (where he lives) as I could feel the strength of friendship, love and loneliness in his words.

I see this as a good sign because if as a human and a designer, I can't feel for someone's work, how am I going to justify it? It’s almost like actors getting into the skin of the characters they will play in a film.

Ahlawat's pre-pandemic desk at the Penguin Random House India office.
Ahlawat's pre-pandemic desk at the Penguin Random House India office. (Courtesy Gunjan Ahlawat)

Who is the first artist whose work you followed closely or imitated? What about them appealed to you?

I don't have a very clear memory of this, as I got introduced to design back in 2002.I was naive and design as a profession was very new to me. It took several years even to understand what it means to feel inspired or imitate someone's work. But if I have to give one name, it will be the Swiss poster artist Niklaus Troxler — he’d offered me an internship in his studio in Willisau in 2005.

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

It hasn't evolved at all. I used to be and continue to be terrible at Photoshop. It's embarrassingthat nothing has changed, but it's the truth.

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Describe your current workspace to us.

Due to the pandemic, I haven’t been able to sit at my office desk for a while now. We’ve moved to a hybrid model since, so, I'm working a lot from my desk at home now. It's a beautiful antique table in colonial style made of Burma teak. I have an upright pianoon the right and a lot of art in collage-form hanging on the wall in front of me.

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

Lots of art, in the form of illustrations, paintings, photographs, handwrittennotes and messages and, of course, tea in a beautiful cup (and not a mug). I have a huge collection of ceramic cups fromall over theworld — I’d collected them over the years from different sorts of places, including one from a charity shop and another from the design house Marimecco. Both of them comfort me so much… I cannot function to my fullest without them.

Ahlawat's home office, with a colonial style desk made of Burma teak.
Ahlawat's home office, with a colonial style desk made of Burma teak. (Courtesy Gunjan Ahlawat)

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

I have been fortunate to work in publishing for most of my career so far — from Faber to Penguin. We work in well-designed and beautiful offices.It was partly that these companies offered aesthetic workspaces, but I also always had it in me (to make my workspaces reflect a certain aesthetic)!

How would you define your daily relationship with this space?

I ideate, plan, and execute ideas here. So I’d say it is my design attic.

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

Not sure of the eureka moment because for me learning is a journey and not a destination. I still seek internships and collaborations with people I admire since I just don'twant to stop learning. I feel inspired about how people think about their work, about the planet and much more. I have been fortunate to be in the company of the best possible art directors like Bena Sareen, Peter Mendelsund, publishers like Sonny Mehta, Meru Gokhale, and a whole host of extraordinaryfellow designers.

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

I’d be a commercial airline pilot or an interior stylist.

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

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