Years ago I lived in a lovely Harlem wireless with lots of exposed brickwork and a limited decorating budget. Sifting through my own things for an inexpensive way to fill the void, I found exactly what I needed: a set of fifty vibrant postcards featuring mid-century book covers by the legendary graphic designer Alvin Lustig. I placed each one in an inexpensive picture frame, affixed them to my living room wall in five rows of ten, and almost immediately began to doubt my decorating decision. Some of the postcards featured new versions of titles that I was familiar with, like the dollar sign that dominates the cover of Lustig’s Gatsby the magnificent, its simple black S-curve going from thick to thin and back on a yellow background, random cutouts arranged to spell out the name of the playboy from West Egg. Others, many more, were titles I had never read; some that I had never even heard of. Displaying them purely for their visual appeal seemed somewhat superficial at best; at worst, I was afraid of being a true literary poseur, that old adage that echoed repeatedly in the back of my head: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Interestingly, one of the earliest writings of this saying was not intended to extol the dangers of falling in love with a particularly alluring-looking book. On the contrary, he cautioned against buying seemingly simple tomes. In George Eliot’s 1860 novel The Mill on silk, the father of protagonist Maggie Tulliver laments that she is reading a book called Devil’s story. “Why, this is one of the books I bought from the Partridge sale,” he admits. âThey were all bound the sameâ¦ and I thought they would all be good booksâ¦ They all have the same covers, and I thought they were all from one sample, as you can tell. But it seems that one should not judge from the outside. In other words, don’t assume that a simply bound book has respectable handwriting inside. Although elaborately decorative bookbinding flourished for centuries before, it was during the 20th century that book covers began to be used explicitly as a marketing tool, a means of telegraphing what a book is before being used. open it.
For Alicia Tatone, longtime reader and senior designer at HarperCollins, creating book covers to accompany new releases perfectly combines her interests. âIt’s basically my dream job,â she says. As an undergraduate student specializing in graphic design, she wasn’t sure at first what kind of work she would pursue after graduation, until she found some of the covers online. from Peter Mendelsund’s books. Tatone knew immediately how she wanted to put her creativity to good use.
Each new assignment comes with a unique set of raw materials to draw from, she explains, âI’ll get a cover note from the publisher: a brief description of the book, all the copy that should be on the site. cover, a manuscript if it is available, and generally there will be “composition titles”, ie books already published whose subject matter is similar to the one on which she is working. “Sometimes there are author and / or editor notes, like the author likes that particular painter, or they have those family photos that they want you to try to use on the cover. , or sometimes it’ll just be a sentence they pulled out of the book. It can be really anything, “she says. From there, the delicate work of designing a commercially appealing but visually distinct cover begins in earnest.
While Tatone tends to buy books in person, her designs must also represent a significant market share of readers looking to purchase new titles online. âChoosing the look of a literary great book is the most important thing in designing covers right now,â she says. âA large white text, generally centered, on a background image that is probably very abstract and colorful. There is an entire Instagram account, @whythesebookcovers, dedicated to the phenomenon. âMuch of the text is aimed primarily at Amazon,â Tatone explains. âEvery time I design something now, I have to zoom out and look at it very small on my computer to make sure it’s readable at the size of a thumbnail. “
Once a cover design hits the market, readers tend to get attached to it strongly. Tatone speaks fondly of a childhood copy of Harriet spies on it which she lost but bought back later. I have a soft spot for the early ’90s pocket editions of Nancy Drew’s Capers, which featured the young sleuth in high-waisted denim and sleek turtlenecks.
Payton Turner, artist and editor-in-chief of Girls at the libraryâAn online magazine devoted to reading about women’s lives â has fond memories of Phyllis McGinley Lucy mclockett and the pasted works of Ezra Jack Keats. Over the years, Turner has been commissioned to paint dozens of book portraits, immortalizing favorite titles without the signs of wear and tear that years of reading and proofreading can have on a book. âPeople tend to want to paint classics or very specific childhood titles that are often out of print,â says Payton. âIt’s a great way to preserve something that you might not necessarily need anymore, but that meant a lot to you. ”
Turner also designed contemporary book covers, creating the cover for Sofija Stefanovic’s 2018 memoir. Miss Ex-Yugoslavia. But her book portrait imbued her with literary design trends of decades past. âThere are so many ways that typography, especially for vintage books from the 50s, 60s and 70s, really speaks of a certain era. And the general age group that I paint for has a strong connection to these vintage prints. Tatone agrees: âI love the Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig covers, the old New Directions covers that were pretty abstract and have their little curly cursive and a lot of negative space,â she says. âIt’s more difficult to do in general now. I always try and then I’m usually told to enlarge the text.
As for my own affinity for Lustig’s work, it stabilized over time, even as the adhesive behind each frame began to loosen its grip. After a year most of the postcards had fallen, but I felt more secure in my appreciation of the pure art that each cover represented, despite my familiarity with the actual contents of each book. Doubling down on my original inclination towards interior design, I contacted Turner in 2017 to paint a portrait of Eve Babitz. Sex and rage–You know the one, bright yellow with this delightfully wide serif font in crimson, cornflower blue, and dusty pink. A year later I asked her to paint the cover of the first edition of Mary McCarthy’s The group, text in shades of pink and purple, encapsulated by a circle of sand and dotted with daisies. While I enjoyed reading both, I wouldn’t say I have a particularly deep connection to either. I loved books, but, frankly, I loved the look – and that was a good reason to make them a focal point in my home.
Alicia’s five book cover designers are worth a visit
âThere are so many talented people working in the field right now,â Tatone says. His recommendations:
- Peter Mendelsund
- Abraham tree
- âRachel Willey is really great. “
- Olivier Munday
- âNa Kim, of course. She consistently does an amazing job.
Payton’s five book covers are worth a look
âThe amount of time you can spend on visual language research is just amazing,â she says.
- End Howards by EM Forster, designed by Edward McKnight Kauffer. âOne of my absolute favorites. It belonged to my mother, and I actually think it belonged to my grandmother first.
- Lucy mclockett by Phyllis McGinley, designed by Helen Stone. âI searched for a long time for another copy. What if something happens to my copy? “
- We keep the dead close to us by Becky Cooper, designed by Alex Merto. âThere’s something vintage about it, that tightly stacked typeface and that brightness. “
- Chandelier by Raven Leilani, designed by Na Kim. âIt’s nice to see a book jacket play with matte and glossy printing techniques. And the raised characters, anything that plays with the texture, because you’re holding a tactile object, is really special.
- H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, designed by Christopher Wormell. âOff and quite graphic. “
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