The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with John Gall


John Gall is Vice President and Art Director for Vintage/Anchor Books, an instructor at the School of Visual Arts, and the author Sayonara Home Run! The Art of the Japanese Baseball Card.

Previously Art Director at Grove/Atlantic, Gall has been interviewed about his work by Step Inside Design, Design Bureau, and Barnes & Noble (video). He garnered even wider attention in 2009 when he commissioned a roster of high-profile designers — including Rodrigo Corral, Carin Goldberg, Chip Kidd, Paul Sahre, Megan Wilson and Duncan Hannah —  to redesign twenty-one Vladimir Nabokov book covers within the confines of specimen boxes (read more about the designs at Print Magazine).

I have wanted to interview John for a long time, but as he talked about book design extensively elsewhere and regular readers are more than likely familiar with his work already, I was waiting for the right subject. It was his colleague Peter Mendelsund, who suggested that rather than discuss his book covers, I should ask  John about his collages. John Gall makes collages? Yes, indeed he does. And, needless to say, they are very good.

I met John in Toronto in December last year, and we corresponded by email.

When did you first start making collages?

It’s something that I’ve been doing sporadically since forever. And when I say sporadic I mean, years or decades between doing anything.

Do you create them digitally or by hand?

All hand done. One of the reasons I do this is to get away from the computer, drop the design think and work with the hands. Its kind of liberating to not have the ability to resize things on the fly. I sometimes use a digital camera to keep track of the permutations since my brain no longer can.

Can you give me a sense of their size?

8 x 10 on up to 18 x 24

How do you chose your titles?

The titles come from things I may be thinking about, or reading, or songs I may be listening to at the time I am making them. Then I make an anagram. It now takes me a lot of time to decipher the original source and many times I cannot. Strangely, when I posted “Hot Elves,” I got a ton of hits, which made me briefly consider naming everything after comic-nerd fetishes.

Who are your artistic influences and where do you look for inspiration?

I like the same old dead people as everyone else: Kurt Schwitters, Marianne Brandt, Georges Hugnet, Rauschenberg, John Chamberlain (not dead yet!), etc. People working today who make me incredibly jealous: Fred Free, Mark Lazenby, John Stezaker, James Gallagher, Lou Beach and family, Wangechi Mutu, Clara Mata, Robert Pollard, Nicole Natri, Paul Butler, Charles Wilkin and a bunch of people I’ve met on Flickr who’s real names I do not know.

Not sure how influential any of these folks are but they do inspire me to get off my ass and get to work.

Is creating a collage a similar process to designing a cover?

Yes and no. In both cases you are moving things around on a page until they look “right”. For me, when I am doing the collage work I am eliminating the concept (and most of the time the typography) so it is reduced to forms on a page.

Graphic design is a total left brain/right brain thing. A combination of logical carefully considered thinking and intuitive personal expression. For the collage work I try to put the logical aside and exercise the intuitive muscle.

Has making collages informed your designs?

When I am stuck, I sometimes find myself thinking “What can’t I do on a book cover”? Its chance to make the wrong path and see where that leads. Force myself to make the wrong decisions. Trying to leave thoughts of what looks “good” out of the equation. Nearly impossible, but that is the goal. The hope was that these notebooks could fuel design ideas. Not so sure if that is still the case. They’ve become a thing unto their own.

Have you ever used one of your pieces in a cover?

I used them on a poster once. Attempted to use them on a skateboard design. A couple of people have tried to use them on book covers, to no avail.

Was creating a series of collages from recombined book covers cathartic?

Not really. More like, “hmmm…its 12:30 AM, I’ve spent all day working on book covers and now I’m tearing apart old covers to make new covers. Lo-ser”.

That said I’ve since started up this series again and will be posting them shortly. But I can only do these when I am away from work for a spell. Generally its like, “enough with the book covers already, is Food Jammers on yet?”.

Where do you gather your source materials from?

Most of what I work with comes in the daily mail: catalogs, magazines, etc. I intentionally try not to work with anything that is too vintage or too inherently beautiful—though I do break this rule all the time. My thinking is that all the great collage artists of the past used source material that was lying around in the trash or purchased at the local five and dime. Today we look at a Cornell piece or a Schwitters piece and marvel at the incredible printed material they had to work with. They were working with the Foodtown circulars and Bass Pro Shop catalogs of their day except, well, OK, more beautiful.

Do you still collect Japanese baseball cards?

The collecting has tapered of quite a bit since the book was published. I’m much more selective now. but if I see something particularly beautiful up for auction I’ll probably go for it. I’m not a super smart collector though. I tend to buy what I like and not what will be valuable.

Do you collect anything else?

I’m trying not to acquire to much stuff anymore and am getting ready to purge. I collect old snapshots, the occasional flashlight and I’ve recently acquired a hankering for old high school yearbooks. I’ve also been trading and collecting collage work.

Your collages are included in the recently released Graphic: Inside the Sketchbooks of the World’s Great Graphic Designers. How did that come about?

The author Steven Heller, asked me if I had anything that I’d want to contribute. I told him I keep two kinds of notebooks, one that is basically a to do list and idea book. The others are the collage notebooks. They were much more interested in those. By the way, its a beautiful book.

Untitled, James Gall (2008); Untitled, Owen Gall (2008)

You’ve collaborated with your kids on some collages. Can you tell me about ‘Dad’s Drawing Class’?

Kids are the best. The great thing about collage is that anybody can do it, but its hard to do well. Kids are naturals. They have no preconceived notions as to what looks good, just do what they like. So they are free to do whatever they want—that is, until they get old enough to become self conscious..

Dad’s Drawing Class is something I like to do with my kids while we are hanging out on vacation without cellphones and video games. We’ve done collage, some drawing exercises. I even had them drawing typographic forms one morning. My wife is also very creative and influential in this regard. She teaches a nature drawing program for children.

Where can we see your work next?

I had a couple pieces in a group show last year and some of my work will be in a book coming out next spring called “Cutters”. Showing this work is not something that I am actively pursuing. I’m not so convinced of its worthiness. I have a flickr stream, a typepad blog and if you find yourself wandering around in my attic any time soon, you will probably see some work.

Thanks John!


  1. The Eye by Vladimir Nabokov, designed by John Gall
  2. The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov, designed by Megan Wilson and Duncan Hannah
  3. The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov, designed by Rodrigo Corral
  4. Paper Souls, John Gall (2008)
  5. Less Bravos, John Gall (2008)
  6. Shack Wine, John Gall (2010)
  7. Yeast Grippe, John Gall (2009)
  8. Limeade Fans, John Gall (2009)
  9. Cover Combine #13, John Gall (2011)
  10. Cover Combine #8, John Gall (2011)
  11. Cover Combine #4, John Gall (2009)
  12. Amendable Boy, John Gall (2010)
  13. Spray Degree, John Gall (2010)
  14. Untitled, James Gall (2008)
  15. Untitled, Owen Gall (2008)
  16. Gas Diode Zoom, John Gall (2008)

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  1. beautiful. It’s a great to see what designers do to keep the juices flowing besides staring at a screen or creating commercial work. I really love some of the negative space pieces like “has fill” and “age ten”—that stuff really stood out for me. I enjoy the effect something has on me where things are missing and there is a void there…

  2. Pingback: Cover design feature: John Gall [Part 2] | Tasseled Book Blog

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