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.”