I was first introduced to the work of Miroslav Šašek in 2006 during a trip to Ottawa. In the bookstore of the National Art Gallery was a copy of “This is the Way to the Moon”. The fact that it was about space travel was enough to get me to pick it up. At the time, illustration and lettering weren’t even on my radar, so back on the shelf it went.
Fast forward a few years, and now I’m diving into this whole lettering/illustration thing. I knew I was skewing into a neo-retro style, and had been building a library of styles I liked. The one illustrator that kept popping up was Sasek.
Born in Prague in 1916, Šašek trained as an architect, but his real love was in painting. While studying at the l’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, he effectively became stateless after the Communist takeover in 1948. He eventually emigrated to Munich, West Germany, where he worked for Radio Free Europe from 1951-1957. It was after he left RFE that he turned his attention back to his long-delayed children’s book about Paris. This began the This is … book series. By the time of his last book in 1974, This is Historic Britain, the series had grown to eighteen books.
Today, international travel is almost taken for granted, and we can virtually travel anywhere via the internet. For kids at the time, however, his books were one of the few windows into another world. You could almost call it the National Geographic of whimsy.
So what is it about his work that’s so appealing?
For me, it’s his attention to detail while still maintaining that whimsical look. Just look at the detail of the machines (below) from This is New York. Even in pen and gouache, that’s pretty darned accurate. This was the result of his research. Šašek spent months in each of the locales, immersing himself in the local culture.
While I admire his technique, I really read his books for fun. Although they’re classified as children’s books, they’re just as enjoyable for adults— a wonderful mix of detailed work and jaunty angles.
They’re also unabashedly optimistic—a throwback to a time when men wore hats, bus drivers smiled and everyone was on their best behaviour. Heck, even people on strike are cheerful and happy. Everything seems big and beautiful, and anything was achievable. It all seems so idealistic. I’m not sure if its Šašek’s approach, or our desire for the “simpler times”. Probably a bit of both.
It’s also these little vignettes (below) that I find so fascinating. In fact, it’s things like this that inspired me to create my retro food sign series.
Šašek died in 1980 while on a trip to Switzerland. He had been living in Paris at the time.
Universe Publishing began reissuing the This is … books in 2003. Seventeen of the original eighteen have been published as of 2018. I had four books in my Šašek library when I came across This is the World (below) at Ben McNally Books in Toronto. This volume contains sixteen of Sasek’s This is … books, albeit in abridged form.