The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Peter Mendelsund and the Art of Metamorphosis


I posted about Peter Mendelsund’s reinterpretations of Kafka for Schocken Books rather breathlessly earlier this week, and I wanted to revisit them now I’ve had some time for greater reflection.

The covers are exceptional designs and surprising reinterpretations of Kafka. What particularly interested me, however, is that they are also a surprising direction for Mendelsund to go in.

As Peter himself notes in his original post, the natural impulse when designing Kafka is to draw on the avant-garde art movements of the early 20th Century. These movements — which smashed together fine art, design, typography, photography, montage, and film — burgeoned in Central and Eastern Europe in aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the First World War, a period when Kafka himself was writing (he died in Vienna in 1924).

Unsurprisingly, recent reinterpretations of Kafka (at least the ones that have eschewed the non-design of an author photograph) have incorporated elements taken from Surrealist photography, modernist posters, and silent film.

The influence of the avant-garde is often apparent in Mendelsund’s work. Covers such as The Idiot, Crime and Punishment and The Double and The Gambler by Fydor Dostoevsky, House of Meetings by Martin Amis, and K. by Roberto Calasso all incorporate elements of Suprematism, Constructivism, DADA and other stark European art movements of the early 20th Century. The new covers, however, which focus on the humour in Kafka’s writing, move in a new direction and incorporate elements from the optimistic age of American mid-century modern design.

Mendelsund’s use simple geometric shapes, flat colour backgrounds, and stripe patterns are typical of work by Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig.

Hand-written lettering of the type we see in Mendelsund’s Kafkas is used to great effect in Lustig’s design for Kafka’s Amerika and is characteristic of several of Rand’s book covers.

As others have noted, the eye motif used by Mendelsund is also similar to Rand’s iconic IBM poster (and his unused logo for the AIGA). But in this instance at least, Rand is clearly not the only influence. His contemporary Rudolph de Harak used the same motif in his cover design for T.E. Lawrence By His Friends published by McGraw-Hill in 1963.

There are echoes too of an exhibition poster by American expatriate designer E. McKnight Kauffer who designed the cover for the Random House edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses published in 1949 (and who was reputedly an influence on Lustig), and a George Salter cover for a Robert Bloch novel, The Scarf, published by The Dial Press in 1947.

The eye motif also recalls Bill Golden’s CBS logo designed in 1951 (repeated in the British Associated Televison ATC logo), which was itself inspired by a Shaker ‘All Seeing Eye’ symbol Golden had seen. And it is perhaps no coincidence that Mendelsund’s design for The Castle (and McKnight Kauffer’s poster) is reminiscent of the masonic Eye of Providence (also known as the “all-seeing eye of God”) familiar from the US one dollar bill.

Of course, not all of these elements and influences are new to Mendelsund’s work (see his designs for The Millennium Trilogy boxed set), and the new covers draw on some of his more familiar inspirations such as Jean Arp, a founding member of the DADA movement (and likely an influence on Lustig), and post-war European design (see Germano Facetti’s design for George Orwell’s 1984 designed in the early 1960’s).

But compare the Kafka covers to Mendelsund’s recent designs for The Snowman by Jo Nesbø  or C by Tom McCarthy, and the difference is striking. To look at these macabre designs for Knopf — which seem to owe more to the cut-and-paste of DADA, the punk aesthetic of Barney Bubbles or, perhaps, the anti-design of David Carson’s Ray Gun —  is like looking at the work of a wholly different designer.

That Mendelsund is capable of reinterpreting and subverting mid-century modern and making it his own not only demonstrates his creative flexibility, but serves to reminds us that one of his greatest strengths as a designer is his ability to surprise and delight us.

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  1. Wonderful post. You need a TV show.

  2. Thanks David. I’m waiting for HBO to get back to me about a show I pitched them last year called “Watching Paint Dry”… I don’t know why they’re not returning my calls… ;-)

  3. yes, great reflections on this recent string of covers from Peter. I always assumed that Dorfsman designed the CBS logo. WTF do I know. But yes, with these covers you have pointed out there is a definitive tip of the hat to the past masters and what strong design is made of. I’m reading C right now and boy is that cover spot on in every sense of the word. The Snowman better be a dye-cut cover or I’ll cry.

  4. I love these new designs too. I’m not sure though on the “F. Kafka” on each. Font/placement feel great, but would love to hear why the first name was shortened to an initial. Kafka’s name is so big that the “F.” feels slightly redundant, and I think too that would make a “Franz” on the cover similarly redundant, just more comfortable considering it’s the norm. I like being shaken up in order to think of the weight of bits and pieces of a name on a book cover, but can’t nut it out exactly. Did anyone else notice it? Hopefully alongside an impassioned defence?!

  5. Hi Nicholas. I don’t have a definitive answer for you. I’m fairly certain that I’ve seen Kafka’s name in this way previously, but I can’t seem to find any specific evidence of it. I just assumed it was a convention at Schocken, but again, having looked, I can’t find anything to support that either.

    It is possibly just stylistic. It does give the name a sort of stiff formality that seems appropriate for author, and it’s a nice juxtaposition with the more colourful imagery…

  6. Pingback: Kafka’s never looked so modern |

  7. Great post, and great critique. I discovered your blog while trying to track down some info on Peter’s covers. I’ve now done a mini post on my own blog, and have linked to your article here

    I’ll certainly come back to The Casual Optimist from now on.

  8. Thanks Jonathan. Your post is great and thanks for linking back here. Did you see my Q & A with Peter Mendelsund and author Tom McCarthy about the cover of “C”? You might find it interesting if you missed it — it shows another side of Peter’s work.

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