story by Sue Kiyabu
photo by Franco Salmoiraghi
Barbara Pope is considered by many to be the best book designer in Hawai‘i. She crafts her works in a small house in Kalihi Valley, where the floor-to-ceiling shelves are filled with her books—everything from the art-drenched Doris Duke’s Shangri La to the scientific Butterflies in the Bulolo-Wau Valley. Pope is enormously versatile: Her works reflect both ancient and modern Hawai‘i, both its natural and cultural history, and her ideas frame many of the Islands’ most important Hawaiian reference books, from Samuel M. Kamakau’s Tales and Traditions of the People of Old to Mary Kawena Pukui’s ‘olelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings. In fact, ‘olelo No‘eau is the first book Pope designed. She was living in New York at the time, but a pregnancy drew her home; as she worked on the book, Pope sifted through Pukui’s notes—which were scribbled on disparate scraps of paper—and began to establish the pattern of meticulousness that has marked her design in the twenty-plus years since.
Pope immerses herself in her work. For a book on Kaho‘olawe, for example, she traveled with photographers to the island, to see what they saw, so that she could put the images together in context. “I have to do that, gather all the information, or I feel lost,” she says.
And some projects take years to complete. The Queen’s Songbook by Dorothy Kahananui Gillett took twenty years from idea to press. But the time invested yields wonderful results. Pope is not a showy designer—her touch is understated and subtle—but she has a knack for knowing just what’s called for. It may be the metallic ink that brings depth to photographs, or a small inset photo in the corner of a book jacket, or the splash of color on a graphic element. Even Pope’s children’s books demonstrate the use of a delicate hand.
Ultimately, Pope’s work is informed by place. She grew up on O‘ahu and is fascinated by Hawaiian cultural history—and grateful for the chance to make books connected with it. “We have that wonderful opportunity to work closely with people who have extraordinary expertise and depth … People like Eddie Kamae [whose biography Hawaiian Son Pope designed], who came to our office, talking, teaching and showing us family photos. And that is priceless.” HH