In this profile of Peter Mendelsund in the June issue of Rhapsody Magazine, there is a lovely bit about the designer’s architect-artist father:
In the living room of Knopf associate art director Peter Mendelsund’s Upper Manhattan apartment, inspiration is everywhere: a battered, sea-green first edition of Ulysses; a toy version of the rocket Tintin takes to the moon; the vertebra of a blue whale; and, on top of his baby grand piano, a wooden model of a convention center made by his father, in the mid-’70s, when he worked for a New York architecture firm. It was never built, because the firm didn’t win the competition (Renzo Piano did), nor were any of his other models, because, in his late 30s, Benjamin Mendelsund was diagnosed with a brain tumor and devoted the rest of his life—he died at 48—to sculpture and painting. “He cut out all the bureaucracy of architecture,” Mendelsund says, “and turned to this.” He points to a small canvas painted entirely black except for two rectangles—two faded photos of a barn’s loft, its window open to the bright of day.
That image of a window onto a window is central to the signature style that’s made Mendelsund one of our preeminent book jacket designers: geometric, fascinated with negative space, striving to capture infinity through simplicity. You see the painting echoed in his cover for Martin Amis’s 2006 novel, House of Meetings, for which he photographed a tiny simulacrum of a room, its perspective slanting toward a miniature door. You see it in his many book jackets with drop-cuts—holes carved out of an image—like the diamond torn from a woman’s face on an early cover for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, back in 2005 when it was called The Man Who Hated Women. And you see it in his May 11, 2015, New Yorker cover, which features an American flag smashed like a storefront window, a single star-shaped hole evoking the myriad emotions of last year’s civil unrest in Baltimore.
His father’s second act as an artist also helps explain how, at 33, Mendelsund had the confidence to abandon his career as a classical pianist (“Eventually, I realized that I’d never truly be world class”) and reinvent himself. His wife suggested he try something visual—he was always drawing; he had designed their wedding invitation. “Sometimes the obvious things take a long time to see.”