How Alex Isley Art Directs Illustrations that Bring Yiddish Culture to Life

Posted inDesigner Interviews

Whether it’s a brochure or a catalog, a logo, website, book, package, signage, or exhibition space, the work of Alexander Isley is always charming, witty, colorful, unexpected, and above all, smart. The former art director of SPY Magazine now runs Alexander Isley, Inc., where he and his six-person team have overseen all aspects of identity and communication design for the Yiddish Book Center since 2011. The “postmodern shtetl” on the campus of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts is, as its name suggests, a cultural institution and museum dedicated to the preservation of books in the Yiddish language. It also presents educational programs, films, conferences, talks and performances, live and recorded.

“When we started working with the Yiddish Book Center, we thought it would be smart to commission a series of impressionistic renderings of scenes in and around the facility— exhibit spaces, books, architectural details,” Isley said. “We’ve used this view of the entrance facade by Sarah McMenemy on a number of print- and web-based applications.”

The Center was founded in 1980 by Aaron Lansky, a then-24-year-old graduate student who’d hitchhiked across the United States on a personal mission to save Yiddishkeit. He rescued books from attics and basements and built a network of zamlers, collectors who amassed nearly 1.5 million books. Some were translations of classics written in other languages, and many were editions of the estimated 50,000 original works, written in Yiddish and published between the two World Wars. This included volumes of poetry, social satire, morally instructive texts, romances, folktales, history books, political treatises, children’s stories, and fiction, such as the short stories and novels of Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.

“Design was taken seriously,” Lansky said of the Yiddish-language publishers who were in their heyday between 1918 and 1945. “Jews were discovering the world in every sense, and that included the typographic arts and illustration.” Leading artists of the Russian Constructivist movement designed for the Yiddish presses, including El Lissitzky, an important influence on contemporary graphic design.

Design is taken very seriously at the Yiddish Book Center, from the buildings that evoke an Eastern European village by architect Allen Moore, to the exhibitions and signage, website and publications. The inimitable Isley touch infuses all print and online communications, from fundraising literature to the Center’s magazine, Pakn Treger. Back in the day, Lansky explains, a pakn treger was a wandering peddler who travelled from from shtetl to shtetl bringing books and news of the world. “Today,” Isley added, “Pakn Treger magazine carries on that tradition.”

One of Isley’s first projects for the Center was the logo: a little goat called Ttsigy, perhaps inspired by the protagonist of the Passover song “Chad Gadya,” a lyrical metaphor for Israel’s history of slavery and redemption. Ttsigy was drawn by Australian artist Petra Pinn, with hand lettering based on the work of El Lissitsky.

“Working with the Yiddish Book Center has been one of the most rewarding and fun things I’ve ever done,” Isley said when asked about his connection to this deeply Jewish institution. “I founded my design firm in order to work with cultural, cause-related, and educational organizations, with the goal of helping them to spread their good word. I enjoy ongoing collaborations, where over time, we can help convey what makes our clients unique and vital. I’ve loved every minute of our work with them.”

This is the cover of an e-book anthology,” Isley says. “I’d seen an illustration by Matt Foster that I really liked, and we asked him to create a similar scene with a figure holding a pen. Our concept for the e-book series was that each cover would incorporate a different writing implement.”

Isley describes his initial 2011 work on Pakn Treger as a “top-to-bottom redesign of an existing publication.” Three times a year, the magazine features articles about Jewish culture, new fiction, and book reviews to its 17,000 readers. Its pages include exquisite English and Yiddish typography, as well as the work of illustrators who can only be called “legendary,” such as Istvan Banyai, Barry Blitt, Seymour Chwast, Brian Cronin, Paul Davis, Anita Kunz, Victor Moscoso, Laurie Rosenwald, Anthony Russo, Ward Shumaker, Elwood Smith, and James Steinberg. Other artists— including many featured in this post— are drawing and painting their way into the legendary realm.

“This magazine is an ideal place for editorial illustration,” Isley explained. “In many cases, we’re illustrating passages of literature, so photographs aren’t available or might be too specific.”

Illustration by Daniel Krall

Isley begins the process of art direction by reading the manuscript and noting passages that could lend themselves well to illustration. “There’s a long list of artists whose work I admire,” he said. “Some have been around for a while, and I’ve grown up liking their work, and others are younger, whose work I might have run across in my reading. The big decision is what tone to reflect: lighthearted, serious, specific, enigmatic. I try to match the artist to the feeling we’re looking for. Not necessarily based on what they’ve done on the past, but on what they might do for us that could come from a new or unexpected place.”

“In the first few years, we ran the Yiddish text alongside the English, and it posed challenges for me because I don’t read Yiddish, and it was hard for me to tell whether the line breaks were visually and editorially graceful,” Isley admitted. “Yankl Salant, an art director who is also the owner of the Yiddish Translation Institute, was a great help.”

Illustration by David Cowles

Together, Isley and magazine editor Lisa Newman narrow the choices to one or two potential artists, and Isley reaches out to see if they might be interested in the assignment. “Pakn Treger is not on most people’s radar,” Isley said, so they send links that show how it’s designed, and how each feature opens with a full-page bleed illustration.

The budgets are “not huge, but serviceable,” according to Isley. In addition to the full-page image, the assignment often includes one or two small spots, which are typically a detail of an object mentioned in the piece.

Illustration by Dan Craig

“Some artists beg off, most often if they have a labor-intensive style or technique, but most, I’m happy to say, accept the assignment with enthusiasm,” Isley said. “We offer a good amount of editorial freedom and usually a generous timeline. When an artist accepts, I pass along the scenes I’d like them to consider and always ask for their ideas. I believe in commissioning people for what they know and what I think they can do, not just what they’ve done before. I usually ask for a couple of approaches. More often than not, one of their interpretations is what we go with. The stories are evocative and the readership is invested, so we want to make sure we get all the details right. Many stories take place in the past, so we often provide reference material from the editors, especially for clothing and locations, so we can ensure that the art is historically and culturally accurate.”

When sketches come in from the artist, often three or four per story, Isley chooses his favorites and passes them along to the editors. “After a round, of sketches—or very occasionally, two rounds— we’re good to go to the final,” Isley says. “Then it’s time to start thinking about the next issue.”

Illustration by Kimberley Wiseman

“Illustration has always been central to Pakn Treger,” said Newman. “Working with Alex is really a dream. There are times when others would opt for a photograph, but for us, an illustration often works better. In the history of Yiddish publishing, many books were illustrated by notable artists like Marc Chagall and Diego Rivera, so when Alex redesigned the magazine, we agreed to always commission original art for each of the pieces in translation. We’ve been lucky to work with such great editorial illustrators who bring so much to the work they illustrate.”

Alexander Isley Inc. is currently a key player on the team that’s designing “Yiddish: A Global Culture,” a permanent exhibit that Isley said “will be the centerpiece of the facility.”

Illustration by Owen Smith
Illustration by Istvan Banyi
Illustration by Annita Soble
Illustration by James Steinberg
Illustration by Zohar Lazar
Illustration by Jan Feindt
Bill Russell
Drew Friedman
Annabel Wright