Paul Bacon dies at 91; he revolutionized the design of book covers

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Paul Bacon’s name may not be familiar, but anyone who has browsed the best-selling shelves over the past 60 years knows his work.

If a book cover is a canvas, Bacon was its Matisse or Dali, who used minimal imagery and bold lettering to sell iconic novels such as Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” Flight Over a Nest cuckoo clock” by Ken Kesey and “Portnoy’s Complaint.

“He made a career out of dressing the most popular books of a particular age and you know those books in your mind because of those jackets,” said New York-based illustration historian Steven Heller.

Heller, for many years art director of the New York Times Book Review, described Bacon as perhaps the inventor of the best-selling jacket and the style that became known as the “Big Book Look”.

Bacon, who designed more than 6,000 book jackets and was also a jazz singer, musician and famous designer of album covers for Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz masters, died on June 8 after a stroke in Fishkill, NY, said his son, Preton. He was 91 years old.

In the mid-twentieth century, book covers were dominated by realistic illustrations and tame typography, but Bacon’s striking and dramatic work for “Compulsion,” a non-fiction novel based on the Leopold-murder case Loeb, upset the dominant aesthetic.

The only pictorial element Bacon drew for “Compulsion” was two small red figures running around the edge of a block of blank space towards the title, which he rendered in large, crudely drawn black letters on the top of the cover . “A novel by Meyer Levin” appeared in small letters at the bottom. There was no other embellishment.

“Compulsion” was a blockbuster and its surprising cover became a model for a changing industry.

His cover for 1961’s “Catch-22” was similar in style to “Compulsion,” but with a more antique air provided by the cutout of protagonist John Yossarian in his aviator cap dancing to the author’s bold name. Bacon tossed around a dozen sketches, he said in a 2002 interview for Print magazine, before coming up with “the little guy I tore out of a piece of paper, depicting Yossarian in full run away from everything”.

The novelist, for whom Bacon designed five jackets, including the one for the “Catch-22” sequel “Closing Time,” once called his work “original, surprising and wonderful.”

His signature style – the prominent lettering and smaller abstract image that captured the essence of a book – caught on.

“Paul Bacon figured out how to make a sales jacket, he knew how to… direct your gaze to the crucial information,” said Peter Mendelsund, Knopf’s art director and author of “What We See When We Read.” “But he still made his jackets personal, inviting and with that beautiful handmade quality.”

Bacon was born in Ossining, NY on Christmas Day 1923 and spent the Depression years moving to the East Coast with his family. He began drawing as a child and graduated from Arts High School in Newark, NJ, in 1940. He served in the Marine Corps during World War II.

He married Maxine Shirey in 1951; she died in 2004. Besides his son, he is survived by a sister, a brother and two grandchildren.

After the war, he returned to New York and found a job in a design studio. In his spare time, he indulges in his other passion, jazz.

He played a kazoo-like instrument made from a cellophane-wrapped comb. He also wrote reviews for the Record Changer, a magazine founded by Bill Grauer and Orrin Keepnews, which would later launch the jazz label Riverside. Bacon became Riverside’s chief designer in its early years.

He went on to create hundreds of album covers for Blue Note Records and was friends with many of the label’s artists, especially Monk. “The High Priest of Be-bop,” Bacon’s 1949 essay on the iconoclastic pianist-composer, is still cited for its ideas.

Still, as Bacon said in the Print interview, “If I was born to do anything, it’s to design book jackets.”

His first cover came about by accident after a friend’s father asked him to illustrate a 1950 book about chimpanzee research in Africa called “Chimp on My Shoulder.” The editor, EP Dutton, was impressed enough that Bacon also designed the jacket.

During the following decades he worked for all the major publishing houses. Sometimes he opted for all types, which he found to be the perfect solution for the salacious “Portnoy’s Complaint”. This approach was also key to the covers of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five”, William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice” and EJ Kahn’s “The Big Drink: The Story of Coca-Cola”, which featured the title and author’s name in black, green and red letters pressed into the shape of a Coke bottle.

Her jacket for “Flight Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was one of her favorites, a pastiche of hand-torn letters in shades of pink, red and yellow.

Bacon “read every book he designed covers for,” said publisher Bruce McPherson, who met the artist on a New York bus 36 years ago. Bacon was reading a manuscript. “Not all designers do this, but he wanted to understand what kind of book it was and how to sell it.”

The designer rarely had contact with the authors, whose suggestions were usually not helpful. Among the few people he spoke to was Norman Mailer, who had an idea for the cover of his 1965 novel “An American Dream.”

As Bacon recalled in a 2012 interview for the Out of Print website, the pugnacious writer complimented his work, then said, “How about adding something to it?” It was a photo of his girlfriend, and Mailer said he didn’t care that Bacon made it as small as a postage stamp.

This is exactly how Bacon treated it and, he acknowledged, “it didn’t hurt”.

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