Reading Under the Covers

Book buying is an odd habit. You plunk down money for a book that, if you’re like most people, you probably won’t have time to read; that you could just as easily obtain for free at a library; and that may very well prove boring, difficult, predictable, poorly written, trite, or otherwise unsatisfying. But still us bookish types keep doing it, subject to a variety of forces: friends’ recommendations, advertisements, book reviews, the attractiveness of the author, Oprah—and, crucially, the cover. Books are, after all, material objects; you want to hold them, look at them on your shelf, slide them into your briefcase or purse. A good cover turns a sheaf of paper into an object of desire.

Nevertheless, the average reader doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about who designs book covers, and the profession is not generally prone to celebrity. But if there is one acknowledged star in the world of book cover design, it is Chip Kidd. (He was, in fact, characterized as a “superstar” in a 2002 episode of Jeopardy!) Even if you’re not familiar with Kidd’s name, chances are good that you’ve spent time with one of his designs in your lap. In his twenty years at the esteemed publishing house Alfred A. Knopf, Kidd has designed some of the most memorable book covers of, well, the last twenty years. The dinosaur skeleton on Jurassic Park. The frantic yellow and orange pattern on Dean Koontz’s Intensity. The brown plastic torso on David Sedaris’s Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

Now, Rizzoli has released Chip Kidd: Book One (Work: 1986-2006), an oversized monograph containing over 800 examples of Kidd’s covers, as well as drafts, rejections, source materials, and comments from Kidd and the books’ authors. “The sheer logistical challenge of figuring out how to organize all this stuff was really tough,” Kidd said in a recent conversation. “The book starts out chronologically and then it kind of takes on a life of its own.” Coinciding with the release of the book is an exhibition at New York’s Cooper Union, on view at the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography until February 4. In both the book and the exhibition, the wealth and diversity of Kidd’s designs is striking. There is no trademark look or repeated trope, but rather an unerring eye and visual intelligence that is fascinating to see applied to repeated design problems.

Often these are problems not just of design, but of the many inevitable complications of working in the book publishing industry. In fact, much of the fun of the book and exhibition comes from behind-the-scenes information on an author or cover. John Updike, who also wrote the introduction to Chip Kidd: Book One, is revealed to be particularly choosy about his cover designs, often supplying Kidd with detailed sketches and notes requesting certain illustrations and typefaces. But for Memories of the Ford Administration, Kidd disregarded Updike’s genteel sketch and created his own version: the faces of Presidents Ford and Buchanan combined in a grotesque split portrait. Updike calls the cover “monstrously ugly”—but nevertheless assented to its publication. Other covers were not so lucky. Kidd’s design for Anthony Lane’s Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker, which was intended to look as if a mistake at the bindery shifted all of the jackets four inches to the right, did not win anyone’s approval. “I guess it was too Mad Magazine for them,” Kidd says.

These glimpses of the book design process—of the back and forth between designer, author, editor, and publisher—are something that the exhibition’s curator, Mike Essl, hoped to emphasize. “I would like people to see that graphic design isn’t easy,” Essl says. “That it is a process of making and remaking and talking to the author and showing sketches—you know, that it’s not just picking fonts from Microsoft Word.” Kidd himself confirms the complexity of the process. When asked how long it takes him to design a cover, Kidd replies: “Anywhere from ten minutes to six months. It’s very, very hard to articulate. Sometimes it goes really quickly, sometimes it drags on and on.”

Jurassic Park is a good example of the latter case. Michael Crichton describes his frustration with the early cover drafts—featuring pebbly brown dinosaur skin, a footprint, reptilian eyes—and his skepticism about the new direction Kidd had hit on, a dinosaur skeleton. And to see the small, unassuming skeletal drawing in The Anatomy and Relationships of Dinosaurs—from which Kidd adapted the iconic cover image, later used for the movie poster and endless subsequent merchandising tie-ins—you get a glimpse not so much of how good covers come together, but why it is so remarkable when they do. That Chip Kidd has been able to repeat this process throughout the last twenty years is even more remarkable. And he has no plans of slowing down now. Asked if he is already looking ahead to a “Book Two,” spanning the next twenty years of his career, Kidd sounds mildly exasperated. “I’m much more interested in getting on with my work.” Book buyers beware—Kidd’s covers promise to spur impulse purchases for years to come.

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