Helen Yentus

 
“I like to start with a blank
slate,” Helen Yentus explains over coffee at a bustling Brooklyn
café filled with fellow twentysomethings. “I enjoy the
feeling of not knowing what I’m doing.”

Perhaps this
penchant for unfamiliar territory stems from her dramatic arrival in New
York. When she was nine, her family was forced to flee Moscow amid the
social upheaval that led to communism’s collapse; they settled in
the largely Russian community of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. “In the
fourth grade, on my first day of school, I didn’t know any
English,” she says. But she quickly adjusted to a new country, a
new culture, and a new language; and because her father worked as an
exhibition designer, she picked up the language of design at an early
age, too. “There was a specific type-specimen book of his,”
she explains. “I remember sitting and tracing it for hours upon
hours.”

After graduating from the School of Visual Arts in 2002,
Yentus landed a position designing book jackets at Penguin. Although she
has worked in various genres, she’s especially fond of repackaging
classics, calling them “the ultimate design project.” For
the Penguin Deluxe Classics series, she and creative director Paul
Buckley assembled a dream team of comic-book artists—Chris Ware,
Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Roz Chast—and gave them full
creative control to reinterpret such standards as Candide, The
Jungle
, and Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy. Most
recently, she redesigned the complete works of Camus, whom she cites as
a personal inspiration. The covers’ stark, utilitarian type
treatment contrasts with the optical illusions triggered by the
interplay of the black and white, giving the reader a slight sense of
vertigo that Camus himself might well have appreciated.

Repackaging
such masterpieces requires a delicate balance. “They have a voice
in their own time period, their own culture,” she says. “You
have to find a way to give them a contemporary voice in our culture
while respecting the past.”

Because she tackles a variety of
projects, Yentus doesn’t feel the need to be recognized as having
a consistent style. Instead, she describes her role as that of a problem
solver. Her cover for Penelope Lively’s memoir Making It Up
uses found objects pieced together; for Jill Ciment’s novel The
Tattoo Artist
, she asked a colleague, Joel Holland, to illustrate
the ornate hand lettering after her initial sketches didn’t
satisfy her. Her keen eye and insistence on a job well done seems to
trump the itch for fame.

“There’s no fine artist in me
trying to get out through the work,” she says. “Often, I
find when my ideas get killed, it’s because I get carried away
into doing my own thing.”

In 2005, art director John Gall
brought Yentus on board the Vintage/Anchor division of Random House,
where she works alongside the likes of Chip Kidd, Carol Devine Carson,
and Peter Mendelsund. Gall says she fits in well with the group
there—not that she would ever brag about it. “She has a good
proportion of modesty for her talent,” he says. Now that’s
an understatement.


COMMENT