Full Mental Jacket

In the future pantheon of graphic arts, you’ll undoubtedly find an entire hall devoted to nothing but book-jacket design. There will be busts honoring legends such as Paul Rand, Jan Tschichold, Chermayeff & Geismar, Alvin and Elaine Lustig, as well as lesser-knowns such as Richard Chopping, who created jackets stylish enough to suit Ian Fleming’s Bond series, or Cesar Domela, whose De Stijl influence and photomontage technique combined in a strikingly modern way. But I’d gamble that much of the marble in that hall will be in the shape of designers who are alive and active today — prolific and talented art directors such as Chip Kidd, Gabriele Wilson, John Gall, Jesse Reyes, Jamie Keenan and Chris Ware.

Despite an increasingly compromised world of pop-graphic mediums, book-jacket design remains diverse and thriving. Music marketing offers inspired art direction and design, but the miniaturized format of CD packaging, box sets notwithstanding, will never match the appeal of the album cover. Layouts in popular American magazines often tend toward the self-consciously derivative. Editors and art directors lost their covers long ago to tits, PR-pushed faces and circulation-hungry publishers.

Reissues account for many of the better covers in recent design. Take Penguin Books, which, a few years ago, radically overhauled its older titles. Under the guidance of U.K. art director John Hamilton, Camus, Fitzgerald, Kerouac and others got a RayGun-inspired face-lift that in some cases quadrupled sales. Upstart publisher Canongate used the same approach with an even older title, the Bible. Its Pocket Canon line, designed by Angus Hyland of Pentagram, presented various books of the Bible in elegantly modern black-and-white covers that call to mind the understated packaging of ECM Records. But the real measure of a book jacket’s effectiveness is if it can persuade you to pick up a new, untested title (of course, it can help close the deal if the book is well-written).

Top: Clubland: The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture by Frank Owen (St. Martin’s Press), designer Jerry Todd; Good Faith by Jane Smiley (Knopf), designer Gabriele Wilson

To check out the latest jacket designs, I visited local stores to see books in the most competitive environment imaginable. I pulled titles that caught my eye, then held my interest. Powerful graphic design should focus your attention and clear your mind, preparing you for the message. There were numerous books that employed the road-worker method of marketing: loud type, fluorescent colors. While the covers were certainly eye-catching, the designers didn’t seem to realize that we typically employ fluorescent colors to ward people away, not draw them in. Other devices that as a rule seemed to have the opposite effect of the one intended were metallic inks, spot varnishes and raised typography.

The resulting stack of new books was pleasing not only in its aesthetic but also in its variety. In a medium so hyped and competitive I was surprised that styles were not more repetitious. No particular school or look dominated, though American Vernacular and early advertising art seem to have made the leap from faddish nostalgia to a genre as timeless and flexible as even Swiss International Style. Designer Gabriele Wilson (Caramelo and Good Faith) seems particularly adept in this form, though my favorite nostalgic treatment in this group had to be Steven Amsterdam and Jon Valk’s treatment of Her Dream of Dreams — fitting all of the typography on the label of an antique tin. The hidden brilliance of that jacket, though, is the decision to place the yellow tin on a stark white field. Self-aware and modern, the cover literally catches your eye from across the room.

In terms of directing a compelling image, few are as simple and intriguing as Rodrigo Corral’s jacket for A Million Little Pieces. A model’s hand dipped in candy sprinkles, deftly cropped, becomes disease, DNA, cells, pain. It stands in contrast to Jerry Todd’s cover for Clubland, a busy, sexy and (I hope) intentionally dated design that perfectly conveys the subject of the book.

In looking at these covers, my mind wanders to great book jackets nearly half a century old: Chermayeff and Rand’s Fauvist cut-paper creations, Alvin Lustig’s abstract expressions. Their designs seem to me very personal and intrinsically tied to art and culture of the time. Most of the current jackets allow for only fleeting glimpses of the people who created them; the graphic designs are strong, but any number of competent designers could have come up with them (Chris Ware’s covers being a notable exception). Most graphic design has become, essentially, a sales tool, and what was once an eye-to-hand process has been absorbed by the machine. But the distance is also a bit lonely. Fine art, once the source of ideas and social change, is a withering vine. And graphic design is reduced to feeding off of pop culture and itself. At least it’s filling.

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