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A book unlike any other: The making of An Atlas of Es Devlin

Posted on 22 Nov 2023

'An Atlas of Es Devlin' has sold out in record time and is currently reprinting. Here, Thames & Hudson Production Controller Julie Bosser takes us behind the scenes, showing what it takes to pull off this ‘tour de force of bookmaking’ – and why it's worth every second.

Described in a recent Sunday Times interview as ‘Modern Britain’s answer to Leonardo da Vinci’, Es Devlin is the genre-defying artist and set designer behind the most innovative and original theatrical and artistic events of the past 30 years. The go-to designer for the world’s biggest music stars – think Beyonce, U2, Adele and The Weeknd – and the creator of such award-winning sets for opera and theatre as The Crucible and The Lehman Trilogy, she is also a visionary artist whose sculptural works of art include Tate Modern’s ‘Come Home Again’ and the AI-influenced ‘Please Feed the Lion’ installation in Trafalgar Square. Her first monographic museum exhibition is now open at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.

Es is a voracious reader, with books central to her visionary work and ideas, so it may be surprising that An Atlas of Es Devlin is her first book. However, what is no surprise is that it’s unlike any book you have ever seen – and perhaps ever will.

Andrew Sanigar, the book’s Commissioning Editor called The Atlas, ‘the most complex book production’ he has ever seen in twenty-eight years at Thames & Hudson and ‘a tour de force of bookmaking’. So how did we do it?

In all Es does, the audience is an active participant, so the reader’s experience was central to her vision for the book. She wanted to push boundaries and engage the reader physically and mentally. At my first meeting with Es, I found myself in front of a printed flat plan measuring roughly three metres long. She had myriad ideas about the materials she wanted to use, with colours and bindings inspired by complex book samples – most of which were limited editions printed in Europe. She wanted a book that was alive and playful. A book that no one had seen before.

The biggest challenge was that we were not making a limited edition, but thousands of copies; we were also on a very tight schedule. Although the book was a skeleton at the end of 2022, we needed it in the warehouse nine months later, so we had to be strategic. The layout and materiality of the book were closely linked, so steps that would normally be consecutive were instead run simultaneously. Then printing, binding, quality control and delivery had to be reorganized to meet the deadline and I spent three weeks in China to press pass and ensure that the complex binding system was set up the right way.

The cube, one of the representations of Es’s set designs, was the starting point for Daniel Devlin, the book’s designer, when creating the layout. From that point, we took the reins working alongside Es and her team. The final book incorporates more than 800 pages of text and visuals with an alternation of different papers in varying weights and more unusual materials, like acetate and mirror sheets printed H-UV. The pages are of varying sizes and placement, involving complex folding numerous die-cuts, non-standard threads, a loose leaf inside a polybag placed at a specific position in the book, a bellyband, and a fluorescent box.

The journey from the cubic form to the final book involved improvisation and adaptation to the very end, discussions, prototypes, testing. It was incredibly thrilling to work in such a fluid way among amazing creatives, curious about the book process, respectful of each other’s expertise and open to finding compromises when problems were raised. I truly think the book wouldn’t have seen the light of day if there hadn’t been good synergy and teamwork between Es’s studio team and Thames & Hudson’s production team.

An example of technical issues we faced during production: we had to start printing the interior before we received the final dummy, so we realised quite late on schedule that the book was bowing. We made new tests and added a complex mailing box and a spacer inside the book to hold the block in place, simple elements of protection that became parts of the vision. We printed a poem on the spacer and dyed the box with a special fluorescent red-orange colour made by an ink specialist to match a European sample that Es had found.

On the printer’s side, one of the trickiest steps was the assembly of the interior. We found efficient ways for the binding to work, prioritising wraps and inserts over tip-ins whenever we could, but there was still a lot of handwork in the end, and the assembly of the book block demanded a lot of precision. The images printed on the different transparent substrates, for example, had to align perfectly onto the next page’s images to form original drawings when combined. Same thing for the cut-outs and images behind, starting with the twenty pages at the beginning of the book where overlapped cut-outs form an aperture resembling James Bond’s gun barrel sequence.

Here too, I think that the book wouldn’t have been possible without a good relashionship with the printer. Offset printmaking is a mixture of industrial process and craft. It involves a lot of people with different personalities and expertise. If one element fails, the whole chain can fail, so it’s essential that everyone understand everything clearly.

It has taken passion, precision and a willingness to push boundaries and create An Atlas of Es Devlin, and again, what I will remember most about this extraordinary project is teamwork. It has been the most incredible adventure on which I’ve learned so much, and to hold this beautiful book in my hands, and to know it’s already reprinting, makes all the hard work worthwhile.

Our first print run of An Atlas of Es Devlin has sold out in record time and we are currently reprinting. Further copies will become available in December. If you would like to receive an alert when the book is back in stock, please email: