The making of an exhibition catalog

As I write these words, a cargo ship is chugging across the Pacific ocean, carrying freshly-printed volumes of In Plain Sight: Discovering The Furniture of Nathaniel Gould  in preparation for PEM’s exhibition opening in November. In my last post for Connected, I shared a behind-the-scenes look of our photo shoot of Gould’s surviving furniture. Now, let’s take a sneak peek at the finished book and some secrets behind its production.


The “first pages,” our first chance to see how the book looks all laid out. Photo by Claire Blechman

The production cycle starts with the book design. Our designer, Daphne Geismar, produced for us an elegant design that uses elements from Gould’s ledgers (recently discovered at the Massachusetts Historical Society) to evoke the world of Gould’s 18th century Salem, while still being an attractive book for a contemporary audience. For example, the main font is DTL Elzevir, an update of a Dutch type from the 1600s.

Gould LEDGE #3_Day2_LEDGE R-03

Detail of Nathaniel Gould’s Account Book showing debit entry for John Gedney King, 1765. Nathan Dane Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston. © 2014 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Dennis Helmar/PEM

A particularly tricky aspect of both the design and the editing of In Plain Sight were the 77 pages of Appendices. The appendices are a treasure trove of information from the Gould ledgers for historians, collectors and genealogists alike.  Kemble Widmer and Joyce King put forth extraordinary research efforts to decipher these ledgers, but how then should we best present the raw data and their findings?

Pages from Gould_5thPages_4-22-14

An excerpt from Appendix A: Furniture Order by Form

Daphne created a clean, numbered table format and we compiled supplemental lists of Exports, Wedding Orders and Childbirth Orders, in addition to the more traditional comprehensive Client List and Furniture Orders by Form. We are excited to see what new research this publication of Gould’s ledgers enables.

Gould Cover Gould Cover

We know that despite people’s best intentions, they will be judging our book by its cover. In Plain Sight’s cover photo is of a bombé chest from the collection of the Marblehead Historical Society. Dennis Helmar photographed the chest in the second floor bedroom of the Jeremiah Lee Mansion, in front of a particularly gorgeous panel of original wallpaper. The wallpaper is English, hand-painted and custom-made.

The Furnitur Nathanial Gould of Salem

Front entry hall, Jeremiah Lee Mansion (ca. 1766–68), 170 Washington Street,
Marblehead, Massachusetts. Photo by Dennis Helmar/PEM

Check out the way the wallpaper design harmonizes with the carving on the grand staircase (discussed in curator Dean Lahikainen’s essay “Grand Houses and Rural Retreats”). Lee bought the imported mahogany used in this staircase from Gould.

We wanted to use period wallpaper for the catalog endpapers, but as impressive as it is, the Lee Mansion paper was far too busy for this element of the book.  Instead, we used Webb House Damask, an English wallpaper from the Joseph Webb House in Wethersfield, Connecticut. It’s rare for wallpaper from the 1700s to survive into the present, and also rare to find a publication-quality file of a fully restored pattern. You can see the wallpaper in situ in the Washington Bedroom of the Joseph Webb House.


The first round of printer proofs, with other production accoutrements. Photo by Claire Blechman

In order to make sure that all of our gorgeous photos and figures printed correctly, the printer sent us proofs of each image, so that we could see exactly how the color separations would look and make adjustments.


It’s important to view printer proofs under a lightbox, so that everyday office lighting doesn’t distort our perception of how the colors look. Photo by Claire Blechman


Because the printer is in Hong Kong, every direction we sent had to be translated into Chinese. The publisher, D Giles Ltd., was our transcontinental liaison. Photo by Claire Blechman

In the catalog we have two images of a fantastic desk-and-bookcase in the collection of the Met.  These two photos were taken by different photographers, with very different lighting. We worked with the printer to match the color of the wood grain to the image in the catalog plate, which best represented the rich mahogany.

cabinet samples

Comparing printer proofs of Cat. 8. Photo by Claire Blechman

When the second round of proofs came back we were surprised to see that the well-meaning printer had Photoshopped out a burn mark on the Met desk’s top left door. Clearly they thought it was an imperfection, but we had them put it back in, for authenticity.

For a casebound (hardcover) book, there are many construction details to choose from, for example, the color of the cloth, the foil stamping and the binding ribbon. It was fun to look through all the colorful sample books.


We chose a light gray cloth with black stamping, so that the book underneath the jacket will look timeless, and complement the colors on the cover. Photo by Claire Blechman


Some of the wackier foil stamps were amazing, but not appropriate for an 18th century furniture book. Photo by Claire Blechman

From the first image pinup to the exciting day the first boxes of advances arrived at my desk, the production of In Plain Sight: Revealing the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould has been a very rewarding project. I hope that you’ll enjoy the exhibition…and the catalog too!


Editor Terry Neff at our Gould pinup meeting. Photo by Claire Blechman


The finished product, photo by Claire Blechman




One Comment

  1. Charlie Woodworth says:

    I am a student of early american furniture and I strive to produce legitimate pieces in the same vein. My wife and I are looking forward to attending the full day on Saturday. We are fascinated by the Gould “discovery”. I am not sure if I navigated the sign up page correctly. I have signed us up for only one event. Please let me know if I need to sign up for the whole day.

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