Sukutangan on Designing Rahasia Salinem

Sukutangan is Genta and Ndari, a Bali-based couple who design and illustrate books from front to back. Here they talk us through creating the beautifully intricate cover for Rahasia Salinem.


Rahasia Salinem is a novel inspired by a true story, about the life of a woman called Mbah Salinem, a maid who has helped many families and tended many households throughout her lifetime, including the authors’. Set in the 1940s and modern times, this book also explores the fight for independence by young Indonesian soldiers and the aftermath of war, and poverty.

We explored many concepts for the cover of this book. At one time we were focusing on Salinem herself, illustrating her figure and making her the prominent focus of the cover, but we realized that it would be too easy and predictable, especially because her name is on the title. Salinem passes away quite early on in the novel, so her story is told in flashbacks that explore many sub-plots and time frames through the characters’ memories of her. Although Salinem is the focus, we still felt a sense of unfamiliarity towards the characters that kept us reading, gathering more and more information about who she really is. We wanted the reader to feel that as well.

As we kept reading, we found that a huge part of the book revolves around Salinem’s secret recipe of Sambel Kacang Mede, a traditional concoction for pecel (Indonesian vegetable salad) made from peanuts and cashews. We thought it was an interesting take on the story and decided to illustrate ingredients usually found in pecel, which turned out to be quite a task because vegetables tend to look bland and dull in color.

When we were confident enough with this concept, we went through a few sketches and variations, especially in what visual style to choose. We also wanted to pick the right color palette and to portray the tone of the book. At first we considered using hand-lettering that resembled Javanese script, but then decided that the design would look too busy. Readability would also be an issue because Javanese script tends too look very cursive and decorative, and we thought it would clash with the illustrations of sprouted vegetables.

The first concept shows rough illustrations of cabbages, basil leaves, hummingbird flowers, cucumber and bean sprouts piling up on one another. It was not approved because it turned out to look more like a recipe book than a novel, and we didn’t want the reader to lose the sense of Salinem as a character by focusing too much on the pecel.

 
 

On the second concept we still played around with the vegetables, without overlooking the fact that the story of Salinem is also a story of family history, of kindness towards one another, of strength and the will to survive through the struggle of life. We used soft tan color on the background, and we made the vegetables look as if they were still growing and sprouting from the ground. We took this approach to remind us of the part of Salinem’s life where she used to pick cashews from her garden to make her Sambel Kacang Mede and sell them, when she was too poor to do anything else. She felt that the cashews were a gift from God, a part of God’s plan to get her through life.

 
 

The clients loved the second concept, but decided that blue was not a suitable color for the title. They also wanted to see if some chilli could fit on the picture, and make the title red.

 
 

After several edits, they also wanted to change the colors of some of the vegetables to grey, to emphasize a sense of nostalgia. In the end, we felt happy with the results. This cover keeps reminding us that most of the time, all the answers are in the book. We just have to keep our eyes and minds open.

 
 

Painter, Designer, Lifelong bibliophile.

@PaintbrushMania