Ellen Knudson – American Breeding Standards


American Breeding Standards is a substantial volume housed in a colorful slipcase. The cloth is printed, and a line drawing of a horse wraps around the paste paper sides of the case. A window features prominently in the front, displaying a human mouth printed on the matching chemise. Removing the chemise, another window appears, opening to reveal an intricately folded popup of a human mouth in stunning color. Opening the book, the title page announces the sources of the text: American Horses and Horse Breeding, 1895, and Canine breeding standards of the German Shepherd, 2012. This text intermingles with Knudson’s original text and illustrations.


On the subject of illustrations, American Breeding Standards is full of beautiful, clean, vibrant illustrations.
These are letterpress printed from photopolymer, although many feel like linoleum cuts. The vividness of the color and the quality of ink coverage is remarkable, to say nothing of the quality of line. The playful and charismatic images, combined with the friendly typographical style and design throughout, give the book an affable, lighthearted personality that contrasts with the overarching commentary on standards.


Proceeding through the book one encounters lists of word association. These begin innocently enough, (e.g.
spray/tan, hair/extension), but soon turn into lists of euphemisms and their connotations: (honest/rude, intense/bossy, intelligent/nerdy). The word association lists accomplish a great deal of conceptual work in equating standards to a mental framework, or even a mental illness. Something engrained in us as consumerists; something to be diagnosed. Other pages contain paragraph excerpts from the previously mentioned Breeding Standards books, often with their subject blanked out. This recontextualizes texts such as “The Architecture of Perfection”, referring them to humans. “The Architecture of Perfection” is an excerpt describing the ideal legs and feet of horses. In its blanked out state the excerpt acts in the book as a commentary on gender issues. The suggestion that women are treated like animals has an interesting relationship to the word association lists of horrible, unnatural things humans do to be beautiful: (nose/job, stomach/staple, anorexia/nervosa, high/heels). The excerpts work brilliantly with Knudson’s original text and images, and by blanking out the subjects she has made the appropriated text almost indistinguishable from her additions. The matter-of-fact tone and assumed dominance and casual discussion of breeding stock exhibited in these excerpts from animal breeding standards carries over as a primary attribute of sexism.


The first foldout in the book, “Human Female Standard”, depicts the standard of beauty in our culture, defining the standard for each anatomical part. The next foldout depicts a normal stomach, a gastrectomy, a gastric sleeve, and a gastric by-pass— helpful suggestions on how to attain the physical standard. The section of the book on real love features a foldout of the “Human Heart Standard”, listing positives, (tea in the afternoons, holding hands), under the title, “Diastolic”, and negatives, (Envy, The future and the past), under “Systolic”. These foldouts function beautifully, making good use of the additional space and highlighting the book’s design.


American Breeding Standards is several books in one. It is so rich with detail and so carefully designed and
printed that each pass through the book reveals something new. Hand-set lead type in translucent colors is
hiding in the corners, like the words “So silently”, which nearly eluded me on the spread dealing with Disposition. This book is as creative and full of personality as it is critical. Unlike many books that deal with such heavy subject matter, American Breeding Standards is easily accessible and intimate, and avoids preaching or feeling aggressively opinionated. It feels like sitting down with Ellen Knudson and engaging in a lively, well-spirited conversation; her sense of humor and personality are presented here in spades, and her opinions are clear and well-spoken. Each choice in the book feels careful and intentional, from the materials used to the placement of each illustration, line of text, foldout, and addition, and of course the style of the binding, which reveals the normally hidden workings of the spine of the structure.

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Ellen Knudson – American Breeding Standards

by Charlie Westerink time to read: 3 min