The cover of John Derian’s first book is entirely absent of text; an enlarged illustrated eye and its finely pencilled brow fill the space with such outsized scale that the image would catch your eye without much effort. You might interpret this as an invitation into Derian’s world – the charming, curious, vintage sensibility he channels into his signature découpage plates, table top pieces and stationery. But as Derian tells Wallpaper*, eyes have been a point of fascination from when he was young and would spend time drawing them. ‘The eye is iconic,’ he says, noting that it appears in his product range as a large vessel named 'Eye Bowl' (what else?). ‘Eyes resonate with me.’
Leaf through John Derian Picture Book and you will inevitably arrive at images that resonate. Almost all of them date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, feature engraving or hand-painting techniques, and represent a potpourri of flora, fauna, miscellaneous graphics, mysticism, atypical portraiture, allegory and other unclassifiable oddities. In short, they are delightful source material for anyone interested in such 2.0 iterations as steampunk, magical realism, and neo-Victoriana. Where Derian could have grouped them according to any variety of themes, or else shaped a pictorial narrative, he insists he approached their arrangement intuitively and without much deliberation. ‘There are some threads in there – a black and white (sequence) or Adam and Eve with apples – but nothing was intended. I feel if I had to really think about it, it might have taken another year just to do the layout. I feel like it was me – and a natural process,’ he says.
John Derian's studio is a visual smorgasbord
Collectors, in this way, will no doubt enjoy the connection between their pieces and what is likely the first volume of many to come. For the foreword, Derian reached out to someone better known for collecting fashion than artful trays and plates: Anna Wintour. ‘When the world is full of huge emporiums that are impossible to tell apart, he has fashioned an intimate, personal space where we are seduced by his singular sense of style,’ writes the Vogue editor-in-chief and Condé Nast artistic director.
In the absence of explanatory text – leaving aside the requisite bio and an introduction that briefly explains how he fell into this crowd-pleasing craft – the book brims with untold stories. There’s a visual glossary at the back that provides as much detail of the images as possible, yet each one ultimately came from a book or journal that once belonged to someone who may have lived a life either fabulous or ordinary. Behind each image is also the untold story of how Derian came upon it. ‘It is kind of biographical that way,’ he admits. ‘They’re a part of my life and I’m fond of them, so it’s nice seeing them in the book.’
But they can also live outside the book; which is to say, Derian expects that people will cut apart the tome to suit their creative whims, whether as wallpaper or gift wrap. If this seems like committing abuse to such a substantial and personal project, he reasons that the gesture reflects his own impulses. ‘I’m a crafter at heart; I like making things and I want people to feel that it doesn’t have to be that precious.’ The point, however, is not DIY Derian; after all, he has been perfecting his découpage since 1989. For this book, he narrowed down his collection of 1000-plus images to approximately 300 and says nearly all of them have been realised as products.
Ultimately, the back cover, with its throwback illustration of the earth in space, is as revealing as the front – as if to suggest that there remains a whimsical, timeless world out there for Derian to interpret and share.