Reconstitution of the Common
An Interview with Tree Abraham, New York-based book designer, and designer of Milk, Spice & Curry Leaves
Tree Abraham sees the world differently; her upbringing and extensive world travels have influenced her appreciation for small details and the things many of us take for granted. Those who have the opportunity to come across her art will likely be intrigued to look closer, to look a bit longer, and they may quite possibly be reminded of someone they know, or some place they’ve traveled to.
I consider myself fortunate to have had her embrace the design of my cookbook, Milk, Spice & Curry Leaves, and know that Tree’s work almost requires she walk several miles in someone else’s shoes. So, it is only natural that her art conjures feelings of belonging and asks the observer to examine their sense of home and connection to others and the broader community. Recently, I asked her a bit more about herself, her vocation and the process of designing books.
You live in New York now; where did you grow up and what led you to NY?
TA: I spent the first two decades of life in Ottawa, Ontario before leaving to study, travel, and live abroad. As part of my first degree in International Development and Environmental Sustainability, I had the chance to do research and internships in Africa and Asia before moving on to design school in the U.K. Since book design was the dream, I sought opportunities in London publishing houses throughout my degree.
After graduation, I applied for design positions all over Europe and North America and was fortunate to get an internship in New York. I have been here four years now. I work as a senior designer in a publishing house as well as freelance for dozens of other publishers. In my spare time, I mostly write manuscripts and cycle around the boroughs. The city is so malleable to each individual’s predilections. Cultural pockets nestle close together and make for infinite adventures…although my best times are spent at home with my housemates in a Brooklyn brownstone where we host elaborate dinner parties, craft, and play in all sorts of creative and intellectual ways.
What inspires you, and your approach as a designer/ illustrator?
TA: I don’t consider myself exclusively a designer/illustrator. I am more a bricoleur (a person who constructs bricolages using whatever materials are available.) My mind naturally takes in the world like a collector, making connections between disparate things, categorizing and organizing chaos into composite writings and visuals. I am inspired by how solid things can still be broken down further into gemstones—a person, a word into its definitions, an image that can infinitely be zoomed into and transformed. Art is all about reconstitution of the common to provoke wondrous feeling and thought.
"By then I will have developed a distinct sense of what the book should feel like, as if it is braille that I can’t yet see, but know its ridges."
What are the things in life that have most influenced your work as a designer?
TA: Being a designer requires an awareness of the world that goes beyond art trends. Of course, my childhood unconsciously colours my preferences. Canadian food packaging was probably one of the few interactions I had with graphic design. I remember things like Betty Bread, no name ®, and Neilson milk being so simple. There was no need for flash and flourish. A thing was itself and that was enough. The covers I am most proud of do the same—the book’s outside feels like a container for a story inside, not a movie poster or gimmicky ad or screaming show.
I have also been greatly influenced by my travels, by what people wear and make and say, by the layers of time revealed through architecture that has decayed or evolved in response to the rhythms of communities and encroaching globalization. In each place I go, I like to photograph wall murals, textiles, floor tiles, billboards—the visual language of a place. I like to buy local stationary and vintage textbooks and save newspapers, bottle caps, and papers of all sorts. These are starts, but then everyday there are always more outlets to explore.
What is it to be a visual storyteller? What does it mean to you?
TA: Visual storyteller, graphic communicator, designer—these are all fluid terms to describe a professional who focuses on how information is communicated. The world is over saturated in more content than an individual could retain over their lifetime. Design focuses on how best to filter and format content for its intended audience. An aesthetic component is necessary to this approach to make content approachable, digestible, and inspiriting. Working with books, I am attempting to visually capture the heart of a story so that a passerby might be implored to explore a humanity beyond themselves through this small rectangular object.
How do you even begin designing the visual and graphic elements of a book? And then how does it evolve?
TA: The process is usually the same for each project. I start with a brief from the publisher that outlines what the book is about. This direction varies greatly from a vague few sentences and keywords to full manuscripts and suggested imagery. Based on what’s provided, I take notes in my workbook and add-in my own research about the topics of the book, what visual cues might relate, what atmospheric undertones or cultural sensitivities of which to be mindful, etc. By then I will have developed a distinct sense of what the book should feel like, as if it is braille that I can’t yet see, but know its ridges.
Next is scanning my archives and random rabbit holes where I am intuitively clipping mood visuals of color, illustration, photography, type, whatever pings my eyes like braille on fingertips. I often will also have to find some reliable references to places or objects mentioned in the book that might need to be represented accurately in the design. The best of this search gets pasted into my workbook.
Once all of those components have been sorted, I will allow it all to swirl and settle, usually with ideas arriving in the first moments of waking, or as I climb out of the pool, or while cleaning. I will execute several routes that are presented to the decision-makers … the comments come back to me to resolve through further refinements on designs for however many rounds are required to reach consensus.
What materials do you like to work with?
TA: Gouache. Pencil. Words. Scraps of ephemeral paper I have gathered from markets, stoops, and gutters. And then a scanner, a tablet, Adobe.
Can you share any serendipitous moments you have experienced in your work?
TA: I think serendipity is intrinsic to the creative process. To make art one must both hold a rhapsody for minutiae and remain open to the wide world that surrounds. Unexpected connections manifest quite frequently simply by paying attention and leaving space for contemplative-ness. Nonetheless, I still marvel at their arrival—when I am writing and a metaphor collides with my phraseology, or I am collaging an image that suddenly reveals a double entendre to the book's themes.
In design, we call these "happy accidents" and are taught to embrace a process that is unplanned enough for these to occur...most often final work is birthed from serendipity. Funnily, a week before being briefed your cookbook, I learned that the word serendipity originated from an old name for Sri Lanka.
What is your favourite family recipe?
TA: My family spent very little time in the kitchen when I was young (think: things that only require adding water and microwaving), but my father has intensified his healthy lifestyle in the last decade—growing vegetables, mastering sourdough breads, and starting-up a bean-to-bar chocolate company.
He often makes more nutrient dense versions of Lebanese cuisines from his childhood. My recent favourite is a vegetarian kibbeh (traditionally a ground meat and spices croquette) made with pureed pumpkin and bulgur and stuffed with chickpeas, kale, za’atar, pomegranate molasses, and other flavourful ingredients. It is quite laborious, so I like to double the recipe to freeze and enjoy over several months. Fondness for freezing food is a habit I inherited from my father.
What do you wish for people to take away once they have seen your work?
TA: It depends on the medium. I hope an image injects beauty into your day; a book cover helps you hear the author; a cookbook interior facilitates a calm hum as a recipe is followed; and a book that I write and illustrate makes us feel a belonging.
Note from Ruwan: As a first-time author, a remarkable aspect of the publishing process has been to work with Touchwood Editions and see how my hand scribbled notes (complied into a cookbook proposal) has come to fruition, and into being a book. To see the process, evolve and eventually see the pages framed side by side. Scanning through proofs only to be struck in awe by the intuitive placement of a photograph or hand drawn illustration. There are many talented people such as Tree that were involved along the way who had a special hand in making Milk, Spice & Curry Leaves an heirloom.
All images on this page ©Tree Abraham