Back in 2014, there were signs that book cover design was maybe, just maybe, having a moment. Suzanne Dean was on the BBC. Peter Mendelsund was on… well, everything. But if 2015 has felt a little quiet by comparison, there were still plenty of reasons to be cheerful. This year’s list includes over 120 covers by 60 designers, and there is little doubt in my mind that this really is a golden time for book design.
Thank you to all the art directors, designers, and publicists who have supported the blog this year, and who make posts like this possible. Thanks too, to my local bookstore TYPE for letting me browse their shelves.
It has been an undeniably grim few days, but if you’re looking for a moment of light-relief, take 15 minutes and watch the brilliant (and joyously silly) ‘Super Science Friends’pilot episode. Successfully kickstarted November 2014, ‘Super Science Friends’ was created by Brett Jubinville, and animated by Toronto-based Tinman Creative. It features a team of time-travelling super scientists led by Winston Churchill who travel through time to fight Nazis, Soviet zombie cosmonauts, and all manner of evil science villains:
Rauschenberg’s references to other media aren’t just tricks. They’re an integral part of the way he connects the language of his images to that of a wider world. Collagists had always done this, ever since the invention of collage. Braque and Picasso brought newspaper clippings and headlines into their images, though these had to be scaled to the actual size of the printed page—you couldn’t effectively do a cubist collage six feet high, it would need too many elements.
The same was true of Kurt Schwitters, with his bus tickets and cigarette wrappers and bits of wood or rusty iron. But around 1962, Rauschenberg began to use not things but the images of things. He gathered photos and enlarged them into silk screens, so that they could be printed directly on the canvas. This had two main effects. First, it enormously increased his image bank, because just about everything in the world, from mountains to beetles, from spermatozoa to Thor-Agena rockets, has been photographed. And second, by reusing silk-screened images from one painting to the next, it let him use repetition and counterpoint across a series of works in a way that wasn’t possible, or not easily possible, if he had been using things themselves. In doing this, he was adapting to the great central fact of American communication, its takeover by the imagery of television.
Originally founded in 1995 as a publishing house for sophisticated hardcovers and reprint paperbacks, Picador USA is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this month with a set of four small limited edition modern classics with covers designed by Kelly Blair. Printed on pearlized cream stock, with rounded corners and colourful full-bleed imagery, the books look like exquisite pocket-sized treats.
According to creative director (and long-time friend of the blog) Henry Sene Yee, the books were the brainchild of Stefan von Holtzbrinck, head of Macmillan Publishing. “With Picador’s 20th Anniversary approaching, Stefan wanted us to celebrate it with some special printings. There were these tiny volumes in Europe that caught his eye, and he wanted us to do something like that.”
While still deciding which titles to include, and on the exact format and size, Henry worked out some early ideas in a notebook-sized format, using lines and shapes to represent the theme or narrative of each book. Facing a tight deadline however, Henry didn’t have time to finish the project by himself. He had a difficult decision to make. “Giving away a dream project is the hardest thing to do, but you have to be selfless and match up the best talent with the books.”
Henry, who has been at Picador from the very beginning, was determined to acknowledge the art department’s contribution to the publisher’s history. “One of my very first assistants was Kelly Blair. She is a brilliant designer and illustrator, and is now herself an Art Director at Pantheon / Knopf. If this project was going to celebrate the history of Picador and I couldn’t design it myself, I thought it should be someone who was there with me at the very beginning. Kelly made poetic sense, and made it feel better about letting go. A little.”
Kelly’s initial ideas included illustrations and some all-type solutions. “All were great,” says Henry, “but Kelly wanted to send me one more last-minute idea even though she wasn’t sure she liked it as much as her first ones. Of course that was the one we all loved and printed! Sometimes when a solution seems simple, we doubt its value.”
In addition to the new covers, Steven Seighman redesigned and re-typeset each book making them easy and inviting to read, even at the smaller size. “Even though they look great online,” says Henry, “it’s not until you have the actual wrapped and bound book in your hands that you appreciate its power and the beauty of print in the small format size.”
The Twentieth Anniversary Picador Modern Classics — Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse, and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides — were published last week in the US. Thanks to art director Henry Sene Yee for talking to me about the project.
(I previously included Devin’s cover in my November 2014 post before discovering that publication had been postponed until 2015. It’s so good that I figure it deserved a second shot now the book is finally coming out this month.)