You may not be immediately familiar with the name Paul Bacon, but you will be immediately familiar with his work. The New York born graphic designer was responsible for some of the most iconic book covers of the twentieth century, including covers for Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse Five, Peter Benchley’s Jaws, James Clavell’s Shogun, and William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.
Bacon died of a stroke on Monday in New York. He was ninety-one.
Before coming to books, Bacon had already made a name for himself designing sleeves for jazz albums, a musical genre he was much enamoured with. He designed covers for the Blue Note and Riverside labels, according to The New York Times, which also claims he played “in a New Orleans-style jazz band called Stanley’s Washboard Kings, which for many years had a regular gig at the Cajun, a restaurant in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.”
When he turned his attention to books, he became known for what has commonly been called the “Big Book Look”: a generally minimalist cover design featuring mostly typography along with what Print Magazine’s Steven Heller calls “a small conceptual image.” His first big hit was his design for Meyer Levin’s novel Compulsion, a fictionalized account of the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder case.
Bacon estimates he designed about 6,500 jackets from the late 1940s through the early 2000s for all the major houses – but most consistently for Simon & Schuster for over 40 years. The Bacon-esque approach became pervasive throughout the trade book world, yet his signature style was not always instantly recognizable because Bacon characteristically subordinated ego to function. He explains, “I’d always tell myself, ‘You’re not the star of the show. The author took three-and-a-half years to write the goddamn thing, and the publisher is spending a fortune on it, so just back off.’” Robert Gottlieb, an editor at Simon & Schuster during the 1950s, and later editorial director at Knopf for 21 years, notes, “He has a bestseller look but he came up with other looks as well, some of which helped books become bestsellers.”
The NYT quotes noted designer Chip Kidd as saying that Bacon was a key influence because he demonstrated “just how much you can entice the reader on the content by using minimal form.” The same article quotes Peter Mendulsund, author of What We See When We Read, who has recently designed reprints of novels by Kafka an Calvino that, looked at slant, can be seen as having a Baconesque influence: “He directs your eye and shows you where to look. He shows you what’s important.”
To say that great cover design is an art is anodyne, but it’s also much easier to pay lip service to than to pull off. Lack of attention to good design is one reason so many digital and self-published works are so immediately off-putting, but that’s an argument for another day. Great cover design is not only aesthetically pleasing, it can actually make a person buy a book he or she would otherwise have no interest in.
Case in point: the chances of my picking up a book on the banalities and contradictory attractions and repulsions of bureaucracy are slim at best. Unless the publisher is Melville House, and they are clever enough to package it like this:
That this jacket – by designer Christopher King – is conceptually clever is obvious (especially the box in the bottom right corner, with the heading “THIS SECTION FOR OFFICE USE ONLY” preceding biblio metadata). But it also elegantly solves numerous nagging issues that keep designers awake at night. The subtitle is unwieldy, there is a mandated reminder of the author’s previous book (see below), and a blurb that needs room.
The fake bureaucratic form is a perfect – and perfectly appropriate – solution to these challenges. Only the pinkish shade is questionable, but even that gives the book a kind of faux-officious note, like some throwback to the days of carbon paper documents that were filled out in triplicate, each copy a different colour depending upon what entity was retaining it.
This cover takes a book about what might be considered a boring subject and entices a reader to pick it up and investigate. And that, more often than not, is what helps turn browsers into buyers.
Then again, maybe Graeber’s books simply lend themselves to this kind of treatment. One of my favourite covers of the last five years was for the author’s previous book, on the history of debt (once again, not a subject that easily lends itself to the phrase “runaway bestseller”).
The earlier book, designed by Carol Hayes, employs many of the same principles as the design for The Utopia of Rules, and pulls off quite a feat in an elegant, simple, and ingenious manner:
Two other thoughts about these covers. It helps that both of them display, in addition to their other evident qualities, a cheeky sense of humour. And it appears that Rebecca Solnit is a big fan of Graeber’s work.
Since its publication in 1955, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, one of Western literature’s undisputed masterpieces, has provoked no end of controversy, veneration, outrage, and analysis. On an interpretive level, the novel appears virtually inexhaustible; it is perhaps no wonder that it also serves as a bountiful fount of inspiration for graphic designers. (The image at left is from the 2011 Finnish edition, with cover art by Jenni Noponen.) The online Covering Lolita project gathers together “185 book and media covers from 37 countries and 56 years,” along with information about each edition’s country of origin, publication date, publisher, and translator(s).
After viewing this gallery in 2009, architect and blogger John Bertram, author of the blog Venus Febrisculosa, issued an open challenge to designers to come up with their own covers for the iconic work. Bertram received 155 entries from 105 designers spread out across thirty-four countries. Judging the submissions, Bertram writes, was “an extremely difficult exercise”:
In judging the submissions I tended to avoid lingerie, lollipops, roses, hearts, lipstick prints, butterflies, heart shaped sunglasses, and overtly sexual poses (as well as the unexpected recurring themes of swings and Rorschach blots) which by now have been indelibly linked to the cultural concept “Lolita” if not the novel itself. It’s important to keep in mind that the novel may be considered a love story, but it’s not Lolita who is in love. And, of course, well beyond that one can explore the brutality and humor of the novel, the beauty of the prose and the cleverness of the wordplay. This is a tall order for a book cover, and of necessity draconian choices must be made.
Bertram chose a cover by Bulgarian designer Lyuba Haleva as the winner, and that might have been the end of it, except for the fact that in 2010 Bertram was approached by New Zealand translator and professor Marco Sonzogni about including the contest entries in a book, which would be augmented by essays and other commissioned designs.
An article on the imprint website has more information about the upcoming volume, which is set to appear in June, and will be
coedited by Yuri Leving, with essays on historical cover treatments along with new versions by 60 well-known designers, two-thirds of them women: Barbara deWilde, Jessica Helfand, Peter Mendelsund, and Jennifer Daniel, to name a few. They don’t shy away from frank sexuality, but they add layers of darkness and complication. And like Jamie Keenan’s cover – a claustrophobic room that morphs into a girl in her underwear – they provoke without asking readers to abdicate their responsibility.
One of the participants in the project is David A. Gee, who is in the front rank of Canadian book cover designers. His contribution, pictured at right, is fabulously subtle and provocative. (It’s the dot above the “i” that pushes this over the edge of creepily clever into the realm of scarily brilliant.) In Gee’s own words: “I wanted to pay tribute to the sex (Lolita), the violence (Humbert), and the carefully clinical, yet florid, inner workings of the text itself (Nabokov) all at once.”