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Years ago, I lived in a charming Harlem walk-up with lots of exposed brick and not much of a decorating budget. Sifting through my own stuff for a low-cost way to fill the void, I found just the thing: a set of fifty vibrant postcards featuring midcentury book covers by legendary graphic designer Alvin Lustig. I placed each one inside a cheap picture frame, affixed them to my living room wall in five rows of ten, and almost immediately began to doubt my decor decision. Some of the postcards featured fresh takes on titles I knew well, like the dollar sign that dominates the cover of Lustig’s The Great Gatsby, its single black S-curve veering from thick to thin and back again on a yellow background, haphazard cutouts arranged to spell the West Egg playboy’s name. Others—many others—were titles I’d never read; some I’d never even heard of. Displaying them for their visual appeal alone felt somewhat superficial at best; at worst, I feared myself a full-on literary poser, that old adage thrumming repeatedly in the back of my mind: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Interestingly, one of the first written records of this saying wasn’t meant to extol the dangers of falling for a book with a particularly alluring look. Rather, it cautioned against buying plain-looking tomes. In George Eliot’s 1860 novel The Mill on the Floss, protagonist Maggie Tulliver’s father laments that she’s reading a book titled History of the Devil. “Why, it’s one o’ the books I bought at Partridge’s sale,” he admits. “They was all bound alike…and I thought they’d be all good books… They’ve all got the same covers, and I thought they were all o’ one sample, as you may say. But it seems one mustn’t judge by th’ outside.” In other words, don’t assume that a simply bound book contains respectable writing within. Though elaborately decorative bookbinding had flourished for centuries prior, it was during the 20th century that book covers began to be used explicitly as a marketing tool, a way of telegraphing what a book is all about before you crack it open.
For Alicia Tatone, a lifelong reader and senior designer at HarperCollins, creating book covers to accompany new releases combines her interests seamlessly. “This is essentially my dream job,” she says. As an undergraduate majoring in graphic design, she was initially unsure what kind of work she’d pursue after graduation—until she found some of Peter Mendelsund’s book cover designs online. Tatone immediately knew how she wanted to put her creativity to use.
Each new assignment comes with a unique set of raw material to draw from, she explains: “I’ll get sent a cover memo from the publisher: a brief description of the book, all the copy that should be on the cover, a manuscript if it’s available, and usually there’ll be comp titles,” that is, already-published books that are similar in subject matter to the one she’s working on. “Sometimes there are notes from the author and/or editor, like the author loves this particular painter, or they have these family photos that they want you to try using on the cover, or sometimes it’ll just be a phrase that they pulled out of the book. It can be really anything,” she says. From there, the delicate work of designing a cover that’s commercially appealing yet visually distinct begins in earnest.
While Tatone tends to shop for books in person, her designs also must account for a large market share of readers looking to buy new titles online. “Going for the big literary book look is the biggest thing in cover design right now,” she says. “Big, white, usually centered text, over probably a very abstracted, colorful background image.” There’s an entire Instagram account, @whythesebookcovers, dedicated to the phenomenon. “The big text part is mostly catering to Amazon,” Tatone explains. “Whenever I’m designing something now, I have to zoom out and look at it really small on my computer to make sure that it’s readable at thumbnail size.”
Once a cover design makes its way to market, readers tend to form strong attachments to them. Tatone speaks fondly of a childhood copy of Harriet the Spy that she lost but later re-purchased. I’m partial to the early ’90s paperback 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 Library—an online magazine dedicated to the reading lives of women—has warm memories of Phyllis McGinley’s Lucy McLockett and the collaged 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 re-reading can have on a book. “People tend to want to paint the classics, or very specific titles from childhood that often aren’t in print anymore,” Payton says. “It’s a nice way of preserving something you might not necessarily have anymore, but meant a lot to you.”
Turner has done some contemporary book cover design as well, creating the cover of Sofija Stefanovic’s 2018 memoir Miss Ex-Yugoslavia. But her book portraiture has steeped her in the literary design trends of decades past. “There are so many ways in which typography—especially for vintage books from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s—really speaks to a certain era. And the general age group that I’m painting for has strong connections to those vintage copies.” Tatone concurs: “I love the covers of Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig, the old New Directions covers that were kind of abstract and have their loopy, small cursive and a lot of negative space,” she says. “That’s harder to get away with in general now. I always try it, and then I usually get told to make the text bigger.”
As for my own affinity for Lustig’s work, it grew steadier over time, even as the adhesive behind each frame began to loosen its grip. After a year, most of the postcards had fallen down, but I felt more secure in my appreciation for the pure artistry each cover represented, my familiarity with each book’s actual content notwithstanding. Doubling down on my original interior design inclination, I reached out to Turner in 2017 to paint a portrait of Eve Babitz’s Sex and Rage—you know the one, bright yellow with that deliciously broad serif font in crimson, cornflower blue, and powdery pink. A year later, I asked her to paint the first edition cover of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, text in shades of pink and purple, encapsulated by a sandy circle and dotted with daisies. While I’d enjoyed reading both, I wouldn’t say I have a particularly profound connection to either one. I liked the books, but, frankly, I loved their look—and that was as good a reason as any to make it a focal point in my home.
Alicia’s Five Book Cover Designers Worth Checking Out
“There are so many talented people working in the field right now,” Tatone says. Her recommendations:
- Peter Mendelsund
- Tree Abraham
- “Rachel Willey is really great.”
- Oliver Munday
- “Na Kim, for sure. She’s constantly putting out amazing work.”
Payton’s Five Book Covers Worth Checking Out
“The amount of time you can spend researching visual language is just unbelievable,” she says.
- Howards End by E. M. Forster, designed by Edward McKnight Kauffer. “One of my absolute favorites. It belonged to my mom, and I actually think it belonged to my grandmother first.”
- Lucy McLockett by Phyllis McGinley, designed by Helen Stone. “I’ve searched extensively for another copy—what happens if something happens to my copy of it?”
- We Keep The Dead Close by Becky Cooper, designed by Alex Merto. “There’s something vintage-feeling about it, that closely-stacked typeface and brightness.”
- Luster by Raven Leilani, designed by Na Kim. “It’s nice to see a book jacket using a play between matte and shiny printing techniques. And raised type—anything that plays with texture, because you’re holding a tactile object, is really special.”
- H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, designed by Christopher Wormell. “Arresting and quite graphic.”
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