Tree Abraham on Designing From the Shadows

Tree Abraham is a book designer, illustrator, writer, & maker of things. Here she takes us through her process for designing Juan José Millás’ From the Shadows.

I designed the cover of Juan José Millás’ From the Shadows knowing little of what the novel contained. I believe the manuscript was still being translated from Spanish and the publisher, Bellevue Literary Press, provided a short extract and invited my interpretation. It worked to my advantage that the text was as much a mystery to me as the protagonist was to the world he inhabited. 

The story centers on Damian, a man with schizophrenic leanings who stows away in a wardrobe at an antiques market. The wardrobe is purchased and transported to a strange home with Damian still inside. He proceeds to live in the wardrobe, observing the family from the shadows and tinkering in household tasks when they are away. Aside from the brief mentioning that Damian murders the wife’s cheating husband with a trash can full of wasps, few other details were given on plot.


I explored imagery and illustrations of antique wardrobes, but was underwhelmed by the visuals. Much of the story is heavily filtered through Damian’s absurdist imagination and psychological alienation from others. Mental illness is principally manifested with Damian constructing a parallel celebrity persona in his mind who is constantly being interviewed on a talk show. Damian would retell the experiences he was living out in ‘reality’ to a fictitious host and reactive audience. The extent of the dissociative dialogues make ‘reality’ indistinguishable from Damian’s inner psyche. 

Who was this ghostlike presence in the house? Who was he to himself? I sought to capture that specific feeling of detachment, fissures becoming voids.


I tried some collage options that warped portraits into cerebral acatalepsy. The first round of comps was well-received, but the team requested a few more options that drew on specifics from the story, maybe with more of a bizarre humanness. Millás is a master of presenting the everyday as surreal and elevating inner narratives to suspenseful plot in the individual’s quest for belonging.


The final cover sections off parts of the self while containing them within the cover’s boundaries, almost like compartments of a wardrobe. A decapitated head, a body becoming a television, an observing eye, a reaching limb—without hierarchy, each is a maverick divorced from a control center, experiencing the world from several vantage points in an attempt to reconfigure life’s puzzle into a meaningful whole.


Final cover


Design Editor, Painter, Designer, Lifelong bibliophile.


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