The cover and publication metadata for Henry Eliot’s Follow This Thread lists only Eliot, the co-author of the delightful alternative London A-Z Curiocity, as the book’s creator. It probably ought to credit French illustrator Quibe, whose single-line drawings fleck the narrative, and Jim Stoddart, Penguin’s art director and designer of this remarkable collection, as co-creators.
The book is ostensibly about mazes and it lives up to the billing of its subtitle: A Maze Book to Get Lost In. Its text explores the history of mazes—there are a record number globally, with more being constructed every year—through the tales of labyrinths real and fictional, and the role they have played in literature, art and film. Pac-Man rubs shoulders with Picasso.
The narrative constructed by Eliot, creative editor of the Penguin Classics list, is absorbing. He says he’s been "fascinated by mazes for a long time, especially the ways in which we incorporate them into the stories we tell... Writing a book seemed like a natural way to discuss those ideas." Joyfully for the reader, the execution of that book mirrors its subject’s complexity—and pursuant satisfaction.
"I knew early on that I wanted the reading experience to replicate the experience of walking a maze," Eliot says; he also wanted it to centre around the thread that Ariadne, goddess of the labyrinth, gave to Theseus, the object of her affection. Sent sacrificially into a labyrinth with the Minotaur at its heart, he used the thread to re-trace his steps after slaying the beast with the sword Ariadne also equipped him with.
And so, Ariadne’s single trailing thread that guided Theseus to the heart of the maze became the illustrative brief for Follow This Thread. Enter Quibe, a French illustrator whose "work immediately struck me as special", Eliot says. "He has an extraordinary ability to distil an evocative image and express it with a minimum of detail... [He] iterates his artworks, crafting and refining the perfect line for each image." (Join one of his 75,000 Instagram followers and you will see his aesthetic has found favour among fans of minimal tattoos.) The draughtsman was largely given "a free hand", says Eliot. "He followed some of my suggestions, adapted others and added some of his own."
The standalone drawings were then "brilliantly incorporated into the layout" by Stoddart, the author says, "joining them together with a continuous line and setting the text around them". And with the text—set in elegant serifs Garamond and Baskerville—begins the real labyrinthine fun.
"The book starts in quite a traditional typeset grid, representing how ‘normal’ you might feel when you first enter a maze," Stoddart says: by which he means, the text is in orthodox vertical columns, much as they would be in a regular book. "But soon there are turns and unexpected events which allow the design to evoke the evolving experience of exploring a maze," he adds, referring to what comes next: a rotating and occasionally disorientating typographical adventure.
The text turns: on its side, upside down, at an angle, as the book advances, mirroring the "turns a walker makes in a seven-path classical labyrinth", Eliot says. The whole text moves—page folios, chapter headings— to mirror these movements, with the layout also evolving appropriately: when the text is set at a 90-degree rotation, it is often done so in a two-column grid, because a single column would render the line length too long for comfortable reading.
"There is room for the line-lengths to be longer on the ‘wider’ pages, but this didn’t feel like a comfortable solution," Stoddart explains. "The design of the rotated pages needed flexibility to accommodate different ratios of text and illustration, so sometimes the number of columns varies." This ratio of art to type does vary, and I ask if it was an intentional attempt to stagger or dictate the pace of the publication, much as a magazine editor would look to orchestrate their content to keep readers engaged. "Henry paced the text very carefully," Stoddart answers, "The first half of the book represents the journey into the maze. The red double-page is the centre [the duo credit the book’s editor, Cecilia Stein, with the idea of the red line dissolving into a full-bleed red spread], and the second half of the book is the way back out. The halves of the book mirror each other, so each page is specifically placed: we discussed how and when the book would rotate, and exactly where the illustrations would fall."
Reading between the lines
The art director says the content informs its form, too, citing a passage describing Icarus falling which is, correspondingly, typeset appearing to fall down the page. Stoddart says that while it was "such a pleasure to design" and that he is aware of "no other book like it", he accepts that the format might be "challenging", especially as "the coherence of the design intentionally unravels through the book, as the reader gets deeper and deeper". But, he says, "this is part of the joy of exploring a maze"—presumably a straightforward one would not give its navigator much satisfaction.
Gladly the edition’s Ariadne thread runs throughout its entirety, including the covers and endpapers. The line continues uninterrupted and infinitely throughout the book, and informed the cover design, executed by designer David Pearson. "It’s always great to work with him," says Stoddart, who gave Pearson his first break in a cover design role, offering him a junior designer role when his remit in the publisher’s text design arm was curtailed after just six months.
"[David] always brings an exciting and unexpected approach to typographic solutions," Stoddart continues. "In this case, rendering ‘Follow the Thread’ as a series
of holes was a lateral leap from two-dimensional mazes and echoed the approach to maze books that one of the book’s protagonists, Greg Bright, used.
"It’s a simple yet surreal ‘maze-green’ book cover," Stoddart concludes—and it’s also the starting point—or end point, or central point, or any point of the binding thread—of a remarkable feat of creativity.