A small wonder of design, Tamara Shopsin’s What is This? is a thoroughly enchanting pocket-sized book that will set you back all of $10.

The catalog of Los Angeles-based independent publisher, The Ice Plant, is full of smartly designed and solidly printed hardcover art books like photographer Jason Fulford’s Raising Frogs for $ $ $, an ingenious replica of the kind of fire-engine red hardback you might find in a grade school library circa 1965. Fulford is Shopsin’s husband and the couple frequently collaborates—see their aperture book, This Equals That, a children’s introduction to abstract shapes and color in photography. Fulford provided the photographs for that book while Shopsin took on the design duties. What is This? is all Shopsin, however, and takes educational abstraction even further—back to the simplest form of linear art: the squiggle.

It’s the kind of squiggle that might inspire art gallery visitors to remark, well, any child could have done that! Any child in fact could have come up with this squiggle, but Shopsin fills in what not just any artist can: An engaging sequence of 20 line drawings based around that squiggle.

The book’s title-question and signature squiggle is right there on the powder-blue cover. It’s a
childlike question, but its various answers will delight children and adults alike. Shopsin responds to the question with spare drawings of various animate and inanimate objects: it’s a bird’s nest, a shaggy-haired guitarist, an ice cream cone, an ice skater’s cold wake on a rink. She achieves these transformations with a minimum of additional lines, a head and legs, for instance, is all it takes to turn the squiggle into a sheep.

Illustrations are printed on thick leaves of a highly saturated yellow paper, so the bold colors of this unassuming, diminutive volume call out even from a distance, which seems to be part of its lesson. What is This? is exactly the kind of question that good design makes you ask, attractive hues and shapes luring the consumer to a product as surely as it lures an imaginative, inspired person of any age to the siren call of a blank page. Come for the bright colors, and stay for the spare drawings, which more than likely will inspire your own squiggles.

Shopsin is the daughter of eccentric New York restaurateur Kenny Shopsin, and cooks at the family’s Lower East Side shop. In an interview for Entertainment Weekly, old family friend J. J. Abrams told the author that he remembers seeing the senior Shopsin, “throw you kids on the back of his motorcycle and drive away,” and thinking, “This guy is insane.” Shopsin admits that she and her siblings had “a really dreamy, weird, dirty, strange, vulgar childhood.”

It would be mere conjecture to conclude from Shopsin’s spare illustrations and economical writing style that childhood taught her to create order out of a seemingly chaotic life. Was there a spark that transfigured the squiggle of youth to this consistently endearing design aesthetic? Whatever the reason, I’ve never seen anything from the Ice Plant imprint, Jason Fulford or Tamara Shopsin that I haven’t liked. But there’s room and money for only so many books, and this inexpensive book, smaller and more durable than your smartphone, asks a question you’ll gladly answer with your wallet.

  • This Equals That: by Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin

    Everything is part of the same wonderful, mysterious, beautiful universe. …

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