In the six nonfiction picturebooks produced from 2012, Didier Cornille, a French designer and teacher of arts, wants to offer children a first look at modern architecture and design. He presents challenges of the past by producing iconotexts that suggest solutions and prepare young readers for building, dwelling and thinking spaces, answering future challenges. In this paper, we will show that architecture is not only an artistic concern but also a geographical one, offering some answers to the question of “dwelling”.
Numerous literary theorists have tried to define nonfiction books, as Penny Colman claimed belonging to literature (Colman, 1997). According to Peggy Heeks, “Information books serve as the tools which can help readers to knowledge” (Heeks, 1996: 428). They structure, organize, interpret facts and data and turn them into information presented so that they can be perceived to be meaningful. Margaret Mallett underlines that the main intention of Information books “is to impact knowledge and ideas” (Mallett, 2004: 622). It is “an art form, designed to give pleasure, and enlightenment, to arouse wonder, and to reveal our capacity for self awareness and understanding” (Kiefer, & Wilson, 2011: 291). Contrary to scholarly books, information books aim to entertain, inspire and, above all, amuse. Among the various actual trends, Nikola von Merveldt assures us that Information books are “the most innovative and groundbreaking books for children” (von Merveldt, 2018: 233). She points out the fact that pictures are more and more essential in Information books because “the visual information is as important as the verbal” (Dresang, 2008: 296). Merveldt specifies that contemporary Information books have benefited from the effect of what William Mitchell named the “pictorial turn” (Mitchell, 1995) and which we prefer to call, according to Boehm, the “iconic turn” (Boehm, 1994).
Information books made by the french illustrator, Didier Cornille, are innovative. They invite the researcher to question the picture status. During the different interviews that I had with Didier Cornille, whether at roundtables or in his studio in Belleville, in the heart of the 20th arrondissement of Paris, I was captivated and awestruck by his career, by the originality of his work and by his fundamental motivations as well. Talented designer, Claude Courtecuisse’s and Roger Talon’s former student, former teacher himself at the School of Arts of Le Mans, he turned to children’s Information books and the book-object.
In this paper, I would first of all like to show that Cornille found in the picturebook a particular medium, able to transmit spatial information to young readers so that they become enlightened citizens and inhabitants of the World. Thus his first aim is to transmit and we will explain, firstly, the reasons, the circumstances and the motivations that led Cornille to write for children. Secondly, we will show that Cornille attaches a significant importance to the image and to its specific deictic ability. Thirdly, we will focus on his picturebooks, considered as designed objects and will demonstrate that his long experience in design has deeply influenced his revisited production of the Children Information book.
Cornille was born in Lille, in the North of France, in 1951. In the 1970’s, he first studied design at the School of Arts of Lille. He took the class from Claude Courtecuisse, a famous designer of furniture, and especially seating, made of synthetic materials. Afterwards, Cornille continued his design training at l’École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs de Paris (National School of Decorative Arts, ENSAD), where a section of design had just opened in 1963 and was still directed by Roger Tallon, the famous designer of the interiors of the Corail and TGV trains. Tallon is known as the father of industrial design in France. Then, Cornille, after several experiences with the Italian designer Ettore Sottsass in Milan, finally graduated. He was able to start his own career in design. His attention focused on small everyday objects like a one-piece thermoformed coffee service.
For his lamps, objects to which he accords a deep interest, he also worked with different materials: plastic, resin, wire and wire mesh. The fruit of his work was very well received in various exhibits and galleries. Soon, he was teaching design in Tunis, Tourcoing, Paris and finally at the School of Arts of Le Mans. In 2008, a major change took place in his professional orientation. Certainly, we can find a strong explanation with his wife’s death. In an interview that he granted to Telerama in 2018, he confided:
I ended up having to raise my two sons alone. We traveled a lot, very simply by car across Europe, and I found it amazing to show them that things that might seem boring, like architecture, could be awesome (Vergely, 2018).
Writing for children became, if we read his words very carefully, like an evidence for him. We see this in 2017, in the blog “Demain-la-ville” titled: “Didier Cornille, l’homme qui murmure l’architecture aux oreilles des enfants” (Didier Cornille : The Architecture Whisperer for Children). In this article, asked about his sudden interest in the children’s world, he responds: “I like dealing with children! And I have a rather childish pencil stroke indeed that worked pretty well!” (www.demainlaville.com, January 5, 2017). Further in the interview, he confides what he likes in the children’s world and what he tries to accomplish in his various productions:
I think that children bring us the eye for detail. They have this mental agility that allows them to focus on details that adults don’t care about. They show us things that we can’t see anymore and they allow us to think in a different way (www.demainlaville.com, January 5, 2017).
Cornille found out and discovered a special issue of the magazine Le Mook, dedicated to artists who create for children. He knows and admires Bruno Munari’s work about object-books and Enzo Mari’s work about toys-books, like Animali, pubished in Milan by Danese, in 1957. At a children’s book fair, he met, by chance, Elisabeth Lortic, a former librarian who founded with two other colleagues the association “Les Trois Ours”, that promotes artists’ books designed for children.
Cornille showed her the model of an alphabet book he made. This little wordbook plays with oppositions and word-games, forms which after some tweaking would become Bon Voyage! Elisabeth Lortic then advised Cornille to go meet Gerard Lo Monaco, undisputed master of pop-ups in France at the time, paper engineer, and artistic director at Naïve Publishing House. He finally showed great interest in Cornille’s work.
Lo Monaco is a graphic artist who expresses his art in different domains: from puppets and stage sets, records covers to children’s object-books design and to drawing. Although Naïve owns a Small Children section, this is mainly a music publishing house. Lo Monaco, who was instrumental in creating the future publishing house for children, suggested that Cornille wait and come back in a few months to see Sophie Giraud, Publisher at Naive’s, and who would be the director of this new publishing house, Hélium. This is how the first Cornille picturebook was published at Helium’s in 2009, the publishing house founded by Sophie Giraud and where Gérard Lo Monaco was the artistic director.
Between Lo Monaco, inventive designer; Sophie Giraud, influenced by American and Italian designers; and Cornille, designer who appreciates Munari and Mari’s work, a positive alchemy was created. It seems that it gave birth to a new type of Information book in France: Information Picturebook. And now comes the real difficulty to more precisely define Cornille’s books.
They are non-fiction. They don’t, strictly speaking, tell a story, and they don’t set up a scene where a character would encounter a series of misadventures. In this, they correspond to the vast category of Information books, a definition of which is provided by Nicole Robine in 1982:
We could define Information publications as publications which are apt to provide information from reality and able to be integrated with already acquired knowledge, for the purpose of either forming with them a cultural knowledge, or arousing or satisfying a scientific curiosity (Robine, 1982: 545).
From these elements of definition, we could establish three axes with which production of Information books seem to play: an iconic axis, a textual axis and a scientific axis. The iconic axis would link the Information book with pictures, and different visual materials; the textual axis with texts and the scientific axis with informations. The following diagram is a synthesis between these main axes and the Colman visual model for analyzing fiction and nonfiction texts (Colman, 1997).
Figure 1 – Information picturebook diagram (Ch. Meunier)
The themes that Cornille chooses are always something to do with dwelling, and I take here this verb in the Heideggerian sense (Heidegger, 2009). According to the German philosopher, dwelling is a human being’s attribute. It corresponds with the way Man decides to be on Earth. Cornille conceives his Information Picturebooks as real lessons to be on Earth. He confides to Demain-la-ville:
It is finally right that Children know the place where they live and those where they’re going to live. It is important to make them aware of the modernity. Children have potentially the right to provide solutions, to participate and to contribute to architecture (www.demainlaville.com, January 5, 2017).
Architecture is the first degree of dwelling. According to Heidegger, houses, skyscrapers, bridges, station halls are constructions that enter into the domain of our dwelling: “For building, says the philosopher, is not merely a means and a way toward dwelling – to build is in itself already to dwell” (Heidegger, 2009 (1953): 63). This question of dwelling is fundamental in Cornille’s work: thinking of building for dwelling but also dwelling for thinking to build. We know very well that for Heidegger these three verbs are linked together.
In La Ville quoi de neuf? (What’s new in the City?), published in 2018, Cornille decided to change his narration. He is no longer in a formative and analytic narrative but much more in reporting mode. The author has chosen for himself an avatar that he has saunter around the world, looking for original urban experiences. Cornille doesn’t want to be prescriptive facing a galloping urbanization but he wants to create a power of suggestion. The introduction sets the tone and offers the reflexion about how to better live in Town:
Half of the world’s population lives nowadays in cities and in 2050 four people out of five will live there. How do we solve the numerous problems that this already poses ? How can we better live together in an environment that can become infernal if we are not careful? Various cities attempt new experiences that offer very good surprises. Then, why not take inspiration from it to imagine cities of tomorrow? (Cornille, 2018: 5)
From many examples that the designer-reporter explains, analyzes, weighs the pros or the cons, the child, as a present and future performer, can make choices.
[Children] are the first concerned by global warming. New solutions exist, the children must be made aware. We must show them other ways to act, tell them that it is possible! When we loose on one side, we win on the other side: for example, we stop using the car, but we discover landscapes by bike! I want to give them some paths (Vergely, 2018).
This picturebook questions various domains: the place of the nature in the City, the use of recycled energies, soft mobilities, smart and connected cities, new modes of co-working, waste treatment, the place of the children in the cities. Urbanism, City, trains, stations, houses fascinate Children. Cornille observed that there is a kind of game with these objects, comparable to the game around models:
We pretend to play, while having a power relationship with all these small elements, these small cars, these train switches. The scale does a lot to trigger a softening, something very intimate and personal. And the house is the first thing that we draw when we are a kid! (Vergely, 2018)
Drawing for children
The things which enter by the ear affect the mind more languidly, than such as are submitted to the faithful eyes, and what a spectator presents to himself (Horace, 2003: v.180-181).
This quotation borrowed from Latin poet Horace reminds us of the importance of image, and its fabulous power. In response to the “linguistic turn supported” by Richard Rorty, in 1970, defending that philosophy had to liberate itself from the imprisonment of the pictures by concentrating on language (Rorty, 1970: 39); facing of omnipresence of images; William Mitchell in America and Gottfried Boehm in Europe, in the early 1990s, claimed a pictorial or iconic turn. For Boehm, image is a logos, a language, a founding act of meaning (Boehm, 2010: 29). Boehm insists on the deictic ability of images, its capacity to show without any apparent interpretation. Cornille uses this functionality of the image by deploying on the same double-spread various “iconographic materials” (Kerper, 2003: 45).
In Who Built That? Modern Houses, Cornille resorts the whole length of the strip formed by the double-spread to unroll the different steps of the construction of extraordinary houses that he chooses, and he accompanies them with sketches explaining the principle and the rules of the construction. For instance, for the Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier, built in Poissy, near Paris, in 1931, the same architectural structure is repeated seven times on three double-spreads. This basic structure, that Le Corbusier calls “Dom-ino”, is introduced once to indicate the elementary principles (Three slabs supported between each other by columns). Then Cornille gives us the secrets of this villa built for Pierre and Eugenie Savoye by enunciating successively the 5 principles of the Modern Movement: stilt construction, free plan, free facade, wide horizontal windows and roof-garden.
Figure 2 – Didier Cornile, Toutes les maisons sont dans la nature (2012), p.18-19.
Cornille’s drawings are extremely careful and precise. The artist uses ink pens with a very fine tip and offering a wide range of colors. He comments on his work:
I begin to draw with a pen, with a very fine tip to trace the finest possible features. Then, I color with felt pen: I make a lot of little spots; I often feel I have to because the felt doesn’t spread evenly. It takes me a crazy amount of time (Vergely, 2018).
In the interview I had with Didier Cornille, he explained to me: “I love taking time to draw so that the text comes”. This comment speaks to me. The text wouldn’t be the most important in this sort of Information Picturebook. His books require, indeed, at first, a long and hard work of documentation, extremely precise and plentiful. He confides by the way:
My obsession is about making mistakes. It is important to give children the right information, because they’re going to remember it. I must say that I am afraid of architects. So, I always do a huge work of documentation, by redoing sketches done by architects (Vergely, 2018).
His documentary research is guided by the search for simple answers to detailed questions, those that a curious child could have asked and could understand. Once he obtains simple answers to his questions, he can explain through sketches that will allow the transmission to understand the architectural principles. He then undertakes each project as a narrative, an adventure with technical problems to solve. It is exactly this kind of narration of accounts in which pictures are preponderant that drive us to consider Cornille’s Information Pictureooks as iconotextual picturebooks.
His Information Picturebooks, about architecture and design, allow Children to sharpen their view on what surrounds them. Cornille emphasizes:
I worked a lot on the details of my drawings so that Children look very close and, afterwards, they pay attention to their direct environment. I want them to look up and, for it to become a source of pleasure. I very much like watching people in the street, how they live, how they behave… I would like that, with my books. Children learn to look at the City and to sharpen their curiosity (Vergely, 2018).
Thus, for Cornille, Picture performs two principal functions. On one hand, it offers to explain, to exhibit etymologically, to hold out so that we can hold and understand. This is the deictic function of the image. On the other hand, Pictures are made to cause a reaction in Children: sharpen their curiosity, empower future citizens on urban and environmental issues. This second function refers directly to what Horst Bredekamp calls the “Image Act” (Bredekamp, 2018). The problematic? Image Act, writes Bredekamp, is to determine the power of image that allows it to pass from the exhibition to the thought and the action (Bredekamp, 2018: 44).
Designing picturebooks for children
What struck me coming into Cornille’s studio in Belleville was the extreme purity of the lines and the sobriety of the materials: a grey floor in waxed concrete, white walls and some design objects that give some splashes of color and light. The ambiance in which Cornille works is entirely the same as the ambiance created for his Information Picturebooks for Children.
All the books he designs are firstly thought as objects. Munari, in the forward of Prebooks, reminds us of the importance of the object and defines the book this way:
– A book, what is it?
– It is an object made of numerous sheets of paper held together by a binding.
– But what is there inside?
– Usually, there are words that, if they were put end to end, would form a line that would be kilometers long, and, to read it, we would have to work a lot.
– But what do we read in these words?
– We read different stories, stories of nowadays or erstwhile people, some scientific experiences, legends, very complicated philosophical or political thoughts, poems, results, science-fiction stories… (Munari, 1980: 1)
For Cornille, the priority is given the form of the book-object. To talk about houses, in 2012, Cornille chooses a 86-page book presented in landscape format. To talk about skyscrapers, in 2013, he chooses the same size (25x17cm) but in portrait format. To talk about bridges, in 2013, the 86-page book changes size (32x14cm), in “calendar” format. To each subject, its object. With his work about nonfiction book, Kerper shows how size and shape, page layout, front matter, typography can enhance aesthetic pleasure as well as our intellectual understanding (Kerper, 2003).
Figure 3 – Covers and shapes of Information Picturebooks by Didier Cornille
In Who built that? Modern houses, his first Information book, his aim is to represent different houses. The landscape format allows him to insist on the horizontality of these modern individual houses. When it’s about presenting eight projects of skyscrapers and their architecture, the choice of the height becomes obvious. On the title page, the illustrator plays with various elements of the page: title, author’s name and editor’s name. The construction crane, an essential tool to build in height, opens the book.
To treat bridges, the “calendar” format allows Cornille to always have the same space, up and down, in which the slender shape of bridges is inscribed. The game with double-spreads exists again, allowing him to superimpose identical and oblong shapes in order to compare them. For instance, a picture of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge is placed just above a picture of the finished Golden Gate Bridge. Five times the squared shape of the double-spread is used to describe the situation of the bridge. Each time, the bridge is drawn in diagonal and links one angle to another.
Figure 4 – Didier Cornille, Tous les ponts sont dans la nature (2016), p.48-49.
In Who built that? Bridges, it is the page of introduction which is the place where the author plays with the shape of the bridge. Two blocks of text are reunited by a footbridge: “At all times, bridges have allowed us to cross obstacles, to link towns and villages and to better circulate” (Cornille, 2015: 5).
For Asseyez-vous (Sit down), in 2016, it is another format which is offered. The book is oblong (27,5 X 12 cm) and in portrait format, like a tourist guide. Cornille suggests that we travel in seats, a journey while seated like Munari imagined in Fantasia in 1977. The different pictures of the potential reader’s positions in an armchair to read his newspaper are redrawn by Cornille on the cover. They underline the importance of the reader’s spatialization when he reads: finding a comfortable position but which can be changing. As for Munari, for Cornille, reading is a spatial experience.
For him, the shape of the object-book precedes the book. For example, there exists a model of the fourth volume of the “Who built that?” collection which would have been dedicated to urbanism. This would have been a square book with a size very similar to the other books (25×25 cm). The cover recaptures the drawing of a poster that had been ordered from Cornille for an exhibition organized by the Centre André-François of Margny, near Amiens, entitled “Dreaming my house to dwell in the world”.
Cornille’s last Information Picturebook was ordered from Helium to celebrate the ten years of the Publishing House. The book, entitled Bienvenue dans ma maison d’édition (Welcome to my Publishing House), explains the different steps of a book chain. The object, entirely designed by Cornille, represents a house looking like the facade of the 18-Séguier Street where Helium Offices are and containing various small books. Each one describes one step of the chain. The reference to Munari’s Prelibri, published in Danese in 1980, seems very clear.
In conclusion, this rapid presentation of Cornille’s work seemed to reveal four main axes of reflexion. First of all, the question of the definition of Information Picturebook and its relationships with pictures, texts and scientific reality seem to increase the difficulty in finding satisfying conclusions. Then, the relationship between the narration and the non-fiction has been questioned. We have seen that Cornille’s books tell stories, put in narrative architectural projects. La Ville quoi de neuf? for example, is even constructed around a fictional narrative of a character, the author’s avatar, who travels all over the World.
Another question is asked about what is suggested by our author: Scientific Information books or Children Picturebooks? Both? As we could have seen, the importance granted to the iconic narrative invites us to use the term of picturebook to speak about this kind of production. In France, a lot of libraries and bookstores put Cornille’s books with Picturebooks and not with Information books.
At lastly, the question of the object-book seemed to us a very interesting point. Didier Cornille suggests that we consider the book not as an art-object but as a design-object. The distinction is based on a distinction made by Bruno Munari. Picturebook stays a manufactured item, a spatial, spatialized and “spatializator” artefact and finally… a fundamentally geographical object.
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Cornille, D. (2010). Bon voyage! Paris: Hélium.
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