The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Lip Service


The most recent cover of Playboy is, as some have been quick to point out, reminiscent of John Gall’s original cover design for the Vintage edition of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, reissued in 2005. John’s design is more subtle than the Playboy cover and more effective for it (but then Lolita is not Playboy after all):

Were Playboy inspired by the book cover? It seems unlikely. The image in John’s design was actually rotated for the final cover and looks quite different:

If I remember correctly the change was made because original orientation was too suggestive. For Lolita. (Just think about that for a minute.)

Is it also seems unlikely that they were inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe (Black Iris III pictured above) although there are some obvious similarities. Has anyone used O’Keeffe for the cover of Lolita?

Interestingly, the cover for the current Penguin edition of Lolita uses a similar colour palette to the Vintage edition and (to a lesser extent Playboy). The head is upright in this version as well. The vertical line of the nose is broken the horizontal features of the eyes and mouth, as well as by the title. Disconcertingly, the photograph and the round sans-serif font are suggestive of a YA novel. Perhaps that unsettling thought is the desired effect?

John’s design for Vintage replaced an earlier photographic cover by Megan Wilson which took an altogether different approach,  placing the book firmly in a historical context. It’s interesting, however, that John’s unused design echoes the crooked vertical line created by the legs in Wilson’s image:

While maintaining a vertical line, David Gee’s unpublished cover cuts to the chase in a far more clinical fashion…*

Inadvertently referencing spatialist painter Lucio Fontana

And one cannot talk about vertical lines and vaginas without mentioning Barnett Newman and his infamous “zip”. Or at least I can’t. But surely Mr Newman wasn’t thinking smutty thoughts was he?

Somehow I doubt Playboy was influenced by either Fontana or Newman. However, here is a 2003 poster for the Vagina Monologues designed by Chermayeff & Geismar that pre-dates both Playboy and Gall. The message is different, I think, but the photograph is clearly being used in a similar way. I’m sorry I don’t have a better image:

And finally, here is the cover of Nova 1965-1975, which utilizes an original cover from the innovative women’s magazine where Harry Peccinotti was art director. Is this the design that started it all?

*You can see many (many) more Lolita book covers here, and read Print magazine’s article ‘Recovering Lolita’ about John Bertram’s cover competition, here. The mighty Peter Mendelsund also weighs in on covering Nabokov here.

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