No stranger to books--he is, after all, art director at HarperInformation--Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich never planned to publish one himself.

"My wife's family has a tradition of making handmade gifts for the holidays," he says in a voice brushed with the lilting cadences of his native Brazil. "It was my daughter Genevieve's first Christmas, and I wanted to make something for her." Bembo's Zoo (Holt), an abecedary of animals created entirely from of the letters of their names, was the result.

"Every night I give my daughter a bath and put her to bed and read to her," de Vicq says. "My mother language is Portuguese--I read to her in Portuguese and English--and the idea in the beginning was for an alphabet book in both languages."

Although the names of most of the animals he chose were somewhat similar in both languages, he ran into trouble with four letters. W and X are rarely used in Portuguese, he explains, and there weren't any animals for N and O that were consistent. "Owl in Portuguese begins with a C, for instance, and octopus begins with a D," he says.

Eventually, he decided to stick with English alone. As for the inspiration to use letters for the illustrations, "since I am a graphic designer, I thought, well, why don't I create the illustrations from an old typeface, something I do all day in my profession!"

Bembo, a classic Italian Renaissance letterform he calls "a workhorse," had the added advantage of looking attractive both small and large. "When you enlarge some typefaces, they aren't as good, but with Bembo the proportions are still beautiful," he says.

De Vicq credits the computer with helping him achieve the final results in his book. "A lot of people bastardize it as a medium, but I respect it," he says. "You wouldn't have been able to do this kind of book a few years ago, because the computer allowed me to be both the designer and the typographer. Before, I would have spent hours at the Xerox machine looking for the perfect size by increasing the typeface a percent at a time! It's much easier to do this kind of thing with the computer."

Pleased with the finished result, he showed his daughter's present to several friends, including Holt publisher John Sterling, a former colleague at Broadway Books. "It was love at first sight," says de Vicq, and a contract quickly followed.

Praising editor Laura Godwin for her guidance ("She's wonderful--it's one thing to do something at home and quite another to do something for a market I don't know"), he also credits her with urging him to develop a Web site (

Genevieve, now two and a half, loves the book, but "I think she prefers the Web site!" he says with a laugh. That may be because the Web site includes a game, based on the book. "She always wants to play Bembo's Zoo at night now."

Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, de Vicq has a B.A. in graphic design from Pontifícia Universidade Católica, "but I wanted to be a painter," he says. Or so he thought. After attending New York's Pratt Institute, where he received his MFA in 1984, "I got it out of my system," he observes wryly. "I decided that I really liked graphic design, so I went back into it."

He worked for several years at such magazines as Vogue, Traveler and House & Garden, then opened his own design studio in the late 1980s, where he designed book jackets. He found he enjoyed book publishing, and has worked at Basic Books, Broadway Books and now HarperCollins. "A lot of times in graphic design, when you work for a big corporation, by the time your work is printed, it's completely different from the original idea that you had," he explains. "Because of the nature of book publishing, it's easier to have a personal vision."

Among those who inspire him the most are graphic designers such as Fabian Baron. "He did beautiful work," he says of the former art director of such magazines as Harper's Bazaar, Interview and Vogue Italia. "And Jonathan H fler is a wonderful typographer; he g s to book fairs and finds old printers' samples, then recreates new typefaces from them."

De Vicq has two new book projects in the works--a companion to Bembo's Zoo coming out next year from Holt ("It's the same thing but totally different, a counting book with insects made of numbers"), and a book for Running Press.

"I'm doing portraits of writers exactly the same way I did my own," he says, referring to the witty self-portrait on the back jacket flap of Bembo's Zoo made from the letters of his own name. "It's going to be fun."