August 6, 2014
photograph by George Baier IV
On the blog of designer and art director Henry Sene Yee there is a fake poll question: “Who is your favourite book cover designer?” Three of poll’s four possible answers are “Chip Kidd.” The fourth is “none of the above.” The joke is, of course, that Kidd is the only book cover designer most people can name (if they can name one at all).
After this week, however, Henry might have to add a second designer to his list — Chip Kidd’s colleague at Knopf, Peter Mendelsund.
Already a well-known figure in book design circles, the publication of Peter’s two new books this week—Cover and What We See When Read—has apparently made everyone else sit up and take notice. Already interviewed by Alexandra Alter for the New York Times last week, Peter is suddenly everywhere.
At the New Republic, he discusses his work with Amy Weiss-Meyer:
I think the most import thing about being a cover designer is being a decent reader. If you haven’t read a book well, [and] you just throw an image on it, chances are you’re going to fail at representing it. On the other hand, if you do use imagery that’s broad enough, then you want something that’ll serve as a universal emblem to the book rather than one particular reading of it.
At the Los Angeles Times, he is interviewed by writer and Stop Smiling founder J.C. Gabel:
The truth is when you go to school to learn something, you’re on a dedicated trajectory. So that puts a certain kind of burden on you to succeed in that particular trajectory. One of the wonderful things about having sidestepped into design is that there was never any pressure for me to succeed. … It’s not something I spent money to learn how to do. So I still kind of feel like I’m dabbling, and I think what’s great about that is you can maintain a certain kind of beginner’s mind when you’re working, which obviously, I think, makes for better work. You’re just fresher because you don’t have the anxiety of influence. There’s nothing really at stake.
And at The New Yorker, Peter talks to his friend Peter Terzian about his work and the genesis of What We See When We Read:
Reading with a mind to designing a jacket is very different from just reading. When I’m reading for work, I’m looking for something described in the book that will be reproducible visually and that will serve as an emblem for the entire book—a character, or an object, or a scene, or a setting. That’s not the way one reads when one is simply immersed in a book.
Let’s say I’m reading something and I come across a scene that I think is particularly pregnant with significance and that could really work as that emblematic something to go on the jacket. It’s not like I picture it completely and then render it on the screen. I have the idea that this scene and its structural components could work well as a jacket, and then I start making things. And when something is made, I compare it back to the reading experience and ask, Is this dissonant with the way I’m reading this, or consonant with it? Does it in fact represent the author’s project? But it’s not like I’m rendering something that I saw. When I start to make it, that’s when I start to look at it for the first time—that’s when it develops visual coherence. That moment is very satisfying, professionally, but also disappointing as a reader.
Dwight Garner reviewed What We See When We Read for the New York Times. While at the Washington Post, visual editor David Griffin reviews both Peter’s new books (one less favourably than the other).
And if that weren’t enough, Pablo Delcán and Brian Rea have also made this trailer, apparently the first in a series, for What We See When We Read:
And this is surely just the beginning. Congratulations Peter, it’s well-deserved.