Summer 2006

A character actor in search of an author

Chip Kidd: Book One. Work: 1986-2006

By Chip Kidd.
Design: Chipp Kidd and Mark Melnick
Rizzoli, USD65, USD39.95 (paperback)

The twenty years of Chip Kidd’s career in book design have coincided with big changes in the book industry. As megachains have out-evolved indie bookstores and as publishers have been absorbed by media conglomerates, the marketing of hardcover books has gone hardcore consumerist, tricking out books into luxury objects and personality accessories. A designer fit for the times, Chip Kidd makes books into coveted objects and conversation pieces, seducing consumers and flattering readers.

Having derided the vanity of monographs, Chip Kidd expresses his ambivalence by exposing half of his monograph outside the hardcovers. Hold it by the spine, and the pages loll out like a tongue. Playfully suggesting his ego might be overblown, he enlarges a photo of an extra-small book to fit the cover of his xl tome. Having said that a book’s contents are more important than its cover, Kidd doubts the value of his book whose contents are only covers. He may be uncomfortable with his celebrity but not with his expertise. His book demands a large table and devoted attention, bending readers into the postures of medieval scribes.

Behold the career of Chip Kidd. As faithful to book covers as to his first love, the Knopf Art Department, Kidd reveals in Book One that his professional life is as uncomplicated as his designs are unpredictable. Kidd has no regrets about devoting his life to this narrow form and no regrets about staying at Knopf, which he joined in 1986. He duly credits Sonny Mehta, the head of Knopf since 1987, with supporting the remarkable design team still headed by vice president and art director Carol Devine Carson (Barbara deWilde and Archie Ferguson left the Knopf team in 1999). With a prestigious publisher, encouraging bosses, good budgets and top authors, Kidd is the farthest thing from an underdog designer at a small press. His struggles have been literary and aesthetic, not economic or bureaucratic. Conceived in freedom, his work inspires (though his fortunate work experience will likely frustrate young designers, inspiring little more than career envy). Kidd has, of course, made the most of his luck, enjoying the craftsman’s privilege of attending to what is close at hand. One by one, naked manuscripts appear on his desk. Year after year, he covers them.

Book One is Kidd’s meal of book covers with side dishes of shop talk, wisecracks and authorial blurbs. Strangely, Kidd is more personally forthcoming in interviews than he is here. Rather than revealing himself, defining his relationship to his parents, criticising his career choices, or doing anything that would have been demanded of a writer’s memoir instead of a designer’s retrospective (he is also a novelist, after all), Kidd reprints photographs and ephemera annotated with jokes (‘The problem with Zorro was that it was too easy for my first grade teacher, Miss Kinsel, to figure out who I was. That bitch.’), gushing flattery from authors (‘Wherever I go, I’m asked about Chip in reverential tones,’ writes Donna Tartt, author of The Secret History and The Little Friend), or shallow musings (‘Growing up and going to school in Pennsylvania was great, but I’d outgrown it – as for so many others, New York was it for me. Whether or not I was for it was going to be the most daunting problem yet I would attempt to solve.’). To be fair, every graphic designer is tempted to substitute the image for the word, the thing for the story. The authors whose books Kidd covers know that writers need to reveal their desire, their pain, their fear. Kidd deflects these questions with his work and his humour. He may have taken risks in his covers, but he takes virtually none in Book One.

Only his design work, not his writing, can justify the production of this 400-page oversized monograph. His novel, The Cheese Monkeys, which sold well, is clever, but its main character is hollow, traced with gestures and wisecracks rather than filled in with yearning and soul. Kidd admits he struggles mightily to write and has been procrastinating over his follow-up novel, tentatively titled The Learners. Contrary to Veronique Vienne’s view, expressed in her slim 2003 book, Chip Kidd, that ‘years from now, [Kidd] will probably be too involved with his own writing to design the jackets of his books,’ the evidence suggests the opposite. Kidd’s prolific output of cover designs – an estimated 800 and counting – proves his true vocation: he is a designer.

The variety of his output resists generalisation: Kidd is a professional character actor. He reads the scripts of new books, fills his imagination with someone else’s personality and gets as much out of the role as he can on the stage of a book cover. This approach allows him great flexibility. On rare occasions, he can outshine the writer, shock the audience, defy the director and annoy the producer, but in general Kidd’s professionalism obliges him to please everyone.

Neither publishers nor authors know what sells, and in self-defence, Kidd limits his duty to inspiring browsers to pick up books. The latest book by Michael Crichton, John Updike, John le Carré, Anne Rice, Elmore Leonard, David Sedaris or Howard Stern is not just another title tossed into the marketplace. Each has marketing muscle behind it: publicity, tours, distribution, dedicated displays at Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million.

The critical praise routinely handed out to Kidd is in part due to his success in sustaining an upper-middle-class reader’s self-image as intelligent, educated and hip. His covers charm by paradox, tickle by juxtaposition and reassure by incorporating photographs, museum art and recognisable and familiar things (like dolls, toys, and clothing). Kidd’s love of pop culture, from Batman to Peanuts, and his uncanny sense for the bold photo-graphic image or found art equip him perfectly to legitimise the intellectual and economic value of the product.

From this perspective, it makes sense that Knopf has supported Kidd in his efforts to upgrade the hardcover book with die cuts, acetate covers, belly bands and other packaging technologies, often copied shamelessly by other publishers. It is also easy to see how Kidd occasionally falls victim to the overtly literal, using a pencil for The Pencil, ice for Ice, the moon for Lunar Park, bones for Rule of the Bone and so on. Kidd can also take the found object collage too far, creating frenetic mishmashes in covers for Oliver Sacks, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. His covers for James Ellroy’s novels represent his best work in this much copied style, combining the close-ups and multipanelling of comic books with true-crime photography.

Kidd will likely remain best known for his earnest upscale invigorations of graphic novels and his talent in pairing photographs with book titles to inspire jarring and mysterious narratives. Our brains are built to leap to conclusions, and Kidd exploits this capacity most brilliantly in his covers for The Abomination, The Little Friend, Magical Thinking and the books of Cormac McCarthy, Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane and David Sedaris, as well as select covers for Vertical.

Admired for his bestsellers, Kidd claims he’s most proud of a cover that didn’t sell. His cover for The New Testament features a close-up photo of a dead man’s bloodied eye, taunting readers with the reality of a historical Jesus. It’s a cover that maintains Kidd’s credibility among designers because it so boldly commits a cardinal marketing sin: never shatter the dream of the consumer.

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