April 2006

Michael Antman

nonfiction

Chip Kidd: Book One, Work: 1986 2000

This awkwardly designed, slippery slab of a book, with a half-split cover and the wingspan of a raven, is a physical ordeal to hold and to read.  But it’s a rewarding ordeal. Containing nearly 400 pages of book jacket designs by Chip Kidd, one of the pre-eminent designers of our time, Chip Kidd: Book One is an exhilarating chronicle of how one creative mind can transform a moribund art form merely by taking a slightly sidewise approach to its hidebound conventions.

To be sure, there were great book cover designers before Kidd, and there will be great ones after him. But until recently, too many book covers were either excessively literal illustrations of a book’s theme, or “tombstone covers” -- all-type jackets that didn’t even attempt to illustrate what the book was about. In other words, the choice too often was between designs that didn’t try very hard, and designs that didn’t try at all.

So when Chip Kidd, and a few other designers like him, came along, it seemed a revelation -- and, one can imagine, a godsend for increasingly profit-pressured publishing houses competing with a hundred other amusements for consumer’s eyeballs. Here were allusive, intuitive, poetic designs that at first glance seemed to have little relation to what the casual browser might assume the book would be about on the basis of the title or word of mouth. And that was just the point. Counter-intuitively, Kidd seemed to conclude, browsers might be more likely to turn into buyers if the cover left them puzzled -- artfully puzzled.

Hence, the cover of Elmore Leonard’s Glitz contains a photograph that isn’t the least bit glitzy; rather, it’s the hirsute and sweaty midsection of a middle-aged beachgoer. But for those who have read the book, or any of Leonard’s crime novels, the image makes perfect sense. Ditto the cuttlefish on the cover of Oliver Sacks’s An Anthropologist on Mars; no, the book is not about marine biology, but those who know Sacks’s eye for the esoteric will understand.

In other cases, the cover is more immediately explicable, as in Julia Phillips’s nonfiction account of bad behavior in Hollywood, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, which is illustrated by a formal place setting across which a switchblade has been placed.
And sometimes, the design is just weirdly beautiful, as in the magnificent jacket (featuring a typically intricate Chris Ware illustration) of Haruki Murakami’s great novel Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Kidd doesn’t always get it right. His penchant for upside-images, design elements that cut off or partially obscure facial features, and other forms of gimmickry can grow tiresome, especially over the course of such a meaty volume. But when he does get it right, as in the image of men’s briefs on the cover of David Sedaris’s Naked, or the poetic cover of Peter Ackroyd’s English Music, or the graphic treament for Dean Koontz’ Intensity, which features a glaring op-art design that’s, well, intense, he hits the target dead on. And best of all, design tics aside, his covers rarely resemble each other; rather, they reflect the books they’ve been designed to sell.

Kidd’s secret? One of them, at least, is that, as he relates in the accompanying copy, he actually reads the books he’s assigned, from beginning to end; the reason he’s not irritatingly literal is that he’s gratifyingly literate, as the encomiums from some of “his” authors included in this book would indicate.  Even John Updike himself contributes a fine introductory essay. It’s too bad, then, that the rest of the book is indifferently written (by Kidd himself) and horribly copy-edited -- “loathe” instead of “loath,” “it’s” instead of “its,” “premiere” instead of “premier,” and “who’s” instead of “whose,” to cite just four depressing examples. But if you can look past that and, ironically, this book’s own uncomfortable layout, Book One is a treasury of brilliant book design.

Chip Kidd: Book One Work: 1986 – 2000
Rizzoli International Publications
ISBN 0847827852
400 Pages