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Reviving a Classic With Matt Steel: Part I

Megan Hill
The New Walden against a forest green background

Many moons ago, a philosopher named Henry David Thoreau made himself at home in a self-built cabin on the banks of Walden Pond. Thoreau documented his experience in a part-memoir, part-manual aptly titled 'Walden'—today regarded as a classic in transcendentalist writing.

Though once written in isolation, Thoreau's wisdom has since influenced many—offering a communal escape route from a life of "quiet desperation". Matt Steel is amongst those impacted by his teachings.

Matt Steel is a designer, writer and creative director of Steel Brothers—a creative branding agency for those who think "blending in is overrated".

Matt first read Walden on the screen of an iPad. Although the content stirred him, he couldn't shake the feeling that reading on a screen, as opposed to a page, meant he was "doing it wrong". Matt searched for a more fitting, "attractive, archival" edition of Walden. Ultimately unsatisfied with his findings, Matt set about creating his own instead.

His efforts produced The New Walden—a rendition that seeks to satisfy bibliophiles, design-lovers and Walden lovers alike. He has successfully created a book that visually reflects the story within, and pays homage to the very essence of the original author.

Ironically, growing digital reliance and declining attention spans have rendered Walden, and many other literary classics, endangered—at a time when society would benefit from them the most. Matt's mindful reintroduction of Walden to a modern audience could act as a blueprint for the preservation of these great works for generations to come.

The New Walden—a revival of Thoreau's classic, designed by Matt Steel.

Ever the admirer of a beautiful binding and elegant typeface, the revised Walden first caught the attention of Cherie, Visualist's founder, for its aesthetics alone. Permissible to judge a book by its cover in this case because of course, beauty was Matt Steel's intent.

However, it was once we learned of the content hidden within, and the meaningful motivation behind every element of design, that admiration became fascination.

Visualist asked Matt to share the story of his journey with The New Walden, from inception to completion. In Part I of our interview, Matt shares his personal awakening to Thoreau's teachings and scratches the surface of his approach to thoughtful, purposeful design.

Part I, as told in Matt Steel's own words.

First encounters

The first time I tried to read Walden was in 2011. I flunked out about halfway through the first chapter. Initially attracted by the concept of Thoreau’s experiment, I found myself quickly entangled in a dense thicket of language. I had expected to hear about the cabin he built in the first chapter; instead, I encountered an essay on economics and societal vice with many twists and turns. As Ken Kifer says, “[Thoreau] can shift from a scientific to a transcendental point of view in mid-sentence.” But even in that first partial reading, I could see the book was full of provocative ideas, enlightened observations and gorgeous sentences. I simply didn’t get far enough to reap the rewards.

The real reason I set the book aside was that my life was heavily unbalanced at the time. I was addicted to work, putting in long hours which eventually led to burnout. I’d made a series of fear-based decisions in my design business that contributed to its eventual demise. Feeling pulled in too many directions at any given time, I simply lacked the energy and patience for such a challenging book.

When the time is right

My second attempt at reading Walden happened in the spring of 2014, and this time things were very different. Through hard lessons and some intense work with a business coach and mentor, I’d found a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle. I had the mental energy to renew my love for reading, and devoured the entire book this time. 

I saw my former self in these famous lines: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. .... A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

So many of us are obsessed with so-called “life hacks,” the next new shiny thing, possessions and money. But none of these things satisfy us in the long run. In fact, our busyness and lust for entertainment are killing us.

Life is about meaningful contribution, not excitement or status.

Thoreau went to the woods because he “wished to live deliberately.” I love how Corinne, my co-editor, comments on that desire. As she says, “His implication was: Don’t you want to live deliberately, too? What other choice would make sense?”

Deciphering Thoreau

Besides Walden and several of his other works, I read dozens of articles and essays on Thoreau, including some that criticise him. I also read Walter Harding’s excellent 1982 biography, which offers a detailed picture of Thoreau’s life – right down to the resonant tone of his voice and the peculiar “burr” in his enunciation of R’s as some of Henry’s friends described it.

An illustration of Thoreau—as seen in The New Walden.

The book gave me a clear sense of Thoreau’s personality, motivations and creative rhythms. He was contemplative, idealistic and observant but also energetic, spending at least 3–4 hours walking the woods around Concord every day – rain, snow or shine. He was complex and conflicted. Intensity and restraint seemed at constant odds within him. At the same time, there was nothing ineffectual or undisciplined about Thoreau. He was a man of deep conviction and moral courage. You see these qualities in his participation in the Underground Railroad and famous sociopolitical essays such as “Civil Disobedience” and “A Plea for John Brown.”

Typeface in tribute

Typography is at the heart of my edition. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to use only one typeface, which meant finding a font family with optical versions for headlines and text. I decided against typefaces based on those from Thoreau’s day. Most felt either too stiff or too ornate for this project. I hoped to find something that was not only effortless to read but also crisp, energetic and timeless.

Thoreau had French Huguenot ancestry on his father’s side. So I looked for a typeface that felt efficient and relatively anonymous, with just a little Gallic flair. Lyon Display and Lyon Text, from Commercial Type, fit the bill. Type designer Kai Bernau created the Lyon Collection as a contemporary rendition of serif typefaces created by the 16th-century French type designer and printer Robert Granjon. Lyon’s optical variations look superb at every size from the front cover to annotations.

Pages in The New Walden illustrating the chosen Lyon typeface

Elements of design

Simplicity was one of Thoreau’s core values, and it’s among Walden’s prevailing messages.

To me, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. In creative projects, it isn’t the pursuit of minimalism per sé but rather recognising when you’ve reached the point of “just enough.”

Simplicity is about finding the balance between creative exuberance and restraint. Knowing what and when to edit. It’s a constant struggle for me! Without deadlines, self-imposed or external, I’d tinker endlessly.

The book’s layout and proportions connect to Thoreau’s subject matter and physical energy as well. A book about living simply in nature deserves organic proportions and a lively tension between the page shape and the text column. After trying out several page shapes and layouts, I settled on a short pentagon – a proportion found in living things from roses to starfish. This makes for a relatively wide page, giving room for body and annotations to coexist comfortably. And an asymmetric layout makes the words feel as if they’re about to walk off the page and around the bend.

A diagram illustrating the short pentagon layout Matt Steel opted for in Walden.

Instead of the typical justified text block, ours is ragged on the right, which is the most natural approach for rightward-reading languages like English. Ragged setting makes it easier to achieve consistent white space in and between words, and reduces eye fatigue. The aesthetic result is a typographic deckle that breathes.

Lastly, Thoreau was an early advocate for conservation, and sustainability is critical to this project. From cloth and thread to paper and ink, all of this edition’s materials are high-quality, archival, durable and responsibly made.

Acknowledging beauty

His encouraging lessons on contentment are unforgettable.

“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.”

For me, discontentment is almost always the result of envy. I’m not much given to envying someone else’s possessions or wealth, but as a creative professional and an artist, I’ve been prone to envying other people’s creative accomplishments my entire life. I take Thoreau’s admonition to “Love your life, poor as it is,” as an invitation to stop comparing, to stop looking outside myself for contentment or validation and instead to appreciate the life I have, right now.

Nothing is missing. Even the most mundane moments can be beautiful if I meet them with my full presence and a grateful heart.

The New Walden is now available to order. Orders placed before 5 August 2022 (midnight EST) will also receive a free print of one of the book's illustrations, signed by Matt himself.

Visit steelbrothers.co to find out more about their work.

In Part II of Visualist's interview with Matt Steel, we discuss building with existing materials, allowing a design the freedom to grow, and the place of print in a digital world. Read on here.