The Kidd Stays in the Picture

Chip Kidd’s first job after finishing college was designing book jackets for Alfred A. Knopf; 20 years later he’s still there, working with literary virtuosos such as John Updike, Martin Amis, and David Sedaris. You’d think that those who have daily commerce with National Book Award winners and their ilk would themselves be terrifed to write. Not Kidd. He published a critically acclaimed novel called The Cheese Monkeys that may be the only work of fiction ever set in a university’s graphic design department and even sold the film rights. A superhero freak, he has also written, edited, and designed big, colorful books about Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. His most recent title is his most personal: the monograph Chip Kidd: Book One: Work: 1986­2006.

Jonathan Safran Foer is one of the most acclaimed novelists of his generation (Y). His breakout book, Everything Is Illuminated, probes the family history of a young man named Jonathan Safran Foer and was recently made into a movie starring Elijah Wood and Liev Schreiber. His second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, details a 9-year-old boy’s attempt to sort his world after his father was killed in the 9/11 attacks.

J.S.F. To what extent do you try to bring people to a book with your design? Or is that entirely unimportant? (Is it even crass?) Could a good jacket design have nothing to do with the book?

C.K. To start: You are quite right‹bringing a reader to a book is precisely what I’m trying to do, and there is nothing crass about it. It is never, ever unimportant. (As an author myself, I know this in every way possible.) This is to say, it’s not about my creating some sort of “artistic thing” that just happens to be riding on the back of an author’s work. What any good book-jacket designer has to do (and there are many such working today) is to gain an audience for that writer’s book. Period. Which is not an unadmirable goal. I am curious about what you thought when you saw the design of the cover of Everything Is Illuminated for the first time. Was it what you had in mind? And if not, were you tempted to change it? Was there an evolution to it?

J.S.F. The cover was sent as a jpeg, and frankly, when I opened it I didn’t know if the file had been corrupted. Did they send the image twice, one atop the other? Is it upside down? Finally I figured out what was going on, and I had one of those long elliptical moments, as in, “I . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ” It ended, a day or two later, with, “. . . . . . love it!” It was the uncertainty, I think, that made me love it. Beautiful design isn’t worth all that much, is it? The best design, to my mind, is the kind that you’re not sure you don’t hate.

John Ashbery wrote a wonderful essay comparing the avant-garde to religion. Like belief in God, new art depends on an all-or-nothing leap. No one thought Jackson Pollack was a good artist when those drip paintings were first shown. He was either the best painter in America or the worst. It’s like God. God exists or doesn’t. I used to work in a jewelry store and was taught that watch batteries never slowly die. They either work or are dead. If your watch is losing time, it’s the watch’s problem, not the battery’s.

Anyway, I’ve since become very good friends with the designer, John Gray. He did the cover for my second novel, which resonates very strongly with the first, and also the poster for an opera that I worked on, which is also somewhat reminiscent. What do you think about authors having “looks”? Some of my favorite covers are those old Philip Roths, with the goofy porno script. And the Rabbit books, too. Do you like the idea of someone seeing a book from across a bookstore and knowing, without seeing the author’s name, who wrote it?

C.K. You raise a lot of good questions, things which I’ve been considering for the past 20 years and have been forced to contemplate again in concentrated doses over the course of putting together both my book and the accompanying show at Cooper Union. I’ve concluded that anything goes. How’s that for insight? I’ve tried Beautiful, Ugly, Mysterious, Deadpan, Monochromatic, Complex, Simple, Messy, Tidy, Minimal, Busy, Boring, Interesting, Sexy, Dowdy, Glam, Stupid, Smart, Forgettable, Twisted, Straight, Sentimental, Unforgiving, Retro, Neo, Gimmicky, Straightforward, Nostalgic, Fiercely Maverick, and Totally Compromised. I like to think I’m pluralistic. All of these approaches were dictated in some way by the subject matter of the books, as well as other circumstances.

As for authors having “looks,” I’ve done that for several writers (Elmore Leonard, Larry McMurtry) but on the whole I don’t encourage it. I think it’s much better to go for an overall sensibility, which is a different thing (James Ellroy, Haruki Murakami). That’s what I’d say John Gray has done for you.

J.S.F. To change gears a bit, I’ve found that my writing is most influenced by other art forms, especially music and the visual arts. (When I’m feeling really stuck, I almost always put on a CD or go to a museum. Opening a book would just make things worse.) The Rauschenberg combines, for example, changed the way I wrote, freed me up somehow. It’s obvious that you draw a lot of inspiration from photography and painting. But what about other forms? You’ve written a novel, of course. Have you ever worked in the theater? Dance? I suppose it’s different with book design, in that you are explicitly referring to a different art form. You know, this is turning into a pretty dumb question, which you should feel free to ignore. Here’s something I’ve been wondering: Do you ever create a jacket design and then keep it in your desk until the right book comes along? You know, like buying a gift for a loved one that you don’t, at the moment, have? Are there any in your desk right now?

C.K. It’s not book jackets I design ahead of time so much as ideas for them. The best recent example of this is for a book called Sayonara Gangsters by Genichiro Takahashi, which you did a blurb for (sorry everyone if this sounds like a contrived coincidence, but it really, truly is not), so I know you know what I’m referring to. I had wanted to do a book jacket that functioned as a secret decoder for years. And that novel finally was the perfect candidate for it, because of its surreal ideas. The letters of the title appear through die-cut holes, and when you take the jacket off it reveals a sort of giant word-search puzzle underneath. So the jacket becomes an interpreter, as the main character‹a poet and teacher‹is for his students.

I actually do get most of my inspiration from the particular book I’m working on. The difference between your profession and mine is that when you write you’re creating something from scratch, whereas I’m working from source material. And not only that, I’m trying to do something totally unnatural‹make the writing look like something. That’s really kind of crazy when you think about it. And it’s even more true of album covers now that all of the music’s been reduced to ones and zeroes. It really doesn’t have to look like anything and at this point essentially doesn’t. I have dozens of recent albums on my iPod for which I have no idea what the album covers look like (or the members of the bands, for that matter) and I have to build it all in my head, as opposed to instantly picturing a Roger Dean painting when I hear a Yes song (which does not happen often, thank God). I seemed to have strayed. Sorry.

Re: working on my second novel (which I’m supposed to be doing right now), I find I can’t listen to music while I’m trying to write unless it has no words, which is fairly standard.

I’m a very good dancer, by the way.

J.S.F. I’ve danced only once or twice in my life, and I have a very hard time with it. Psychologically, I mean. The foot movement and hand clapping I can do. It’s just like the backstroke on dry ground, right? A conversation for another day.

Man, that Takahashi book really was great, wasn’t it? I guess I didn’t realize you did the cover. Just as I didn’t realize for quite a long time what the cover actually was. That says something about the cover and something about me. My favorite art‹whether it’s a book jacket, book, painting, song, or photograph‹is the kind that reveals itself. If my first reaction to something is unquestioning enthusiasm, I usually won’t like it in a few days or weeks. And it’s not always complex art that reveals itself. I was just at Dia:Beacon and spent about an hour walking in and out of Serra’s Torqued Ellipses. They’re relatively simple, but they kept revealing themselves, opening up, changing.

Anyway. This interview is only supposed to be 2,000 words. Not so many. And we’re already well over the halfway point, so I thought I’d ask you some short questions, with the hope of getting short answers. The first: What cover are you most proud of having designed?

C.K. The New Testament, translated by Richmond Lattimore.

J.S.F. Do you ever design covers for books already in print?

C.K. Rarely, since I design mostly hardcovers. The best exception to this was a series of Nabokov’s novels I did for a Brazilian publisher. Nabokov is my god.

J.S.F. I once read in an interview with Robert Pollard, the lead singer of Guided By Voices, that before he’d even formed a band he’d designed a dozen album covers, complete with the names of the tracks and lyrics. He made T-shirts for his future band, scheduled imaginary tours, even had bumper stickers printed. Don’t you ever do things like that?

C.K. I’m a really, really pragmatic person, which I am not terribly proud of, but nonetheless, the idea of working on something that won’t actually get made isn’t in my mindset. It runs counter to the concept of graphic design. When I was writing The Cheese Monkeys, which took a good six years, I was often crippled by the fear that it might not get published. My agent refused to shop it around until she had a completed first draft, so the thought that I was putting so much work into something that might get shoved into a drawer and forgotten scared the shit out of me. Did you experience that with Everything Is Illuminated? I read somewhere that Joyce Carol Oates was your writing teacher at Princeton. What was that like? I like her personally, but she seems kind of like a space being.

Incidentally, I actually took ballroom dancing at Penn State for a gym class (we had to have 12 credits of gym‹no one was spared) and totally fell in love with it. The jitterbug is the most amazing thing ever.

J.S.F. You’re already straying from my short format. Focus. Favorite book cover of all time? (Just ignore the impossibility of answering such a question.)

C.K. You Shall Know Them by Vercors. Pocket Books paperback edition, 1955. Designer unknown.

J.S.F. Favorite work of art?

C.K. The adult human male penis.

J.S.F. Rather than the female penis? How about favorite thing?

C.K. See “favorite work of art.”

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