The Best Book Art of 2012

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By: Claire Lui | December 10, 2012

Plus one cover that was absolutely inescapable

One can hardly talk about book covers in 2012 without mentioning this year’s surprise megabestseller,

Fifty Shades of Grey (Vintage)—not as an example of good design but as proof that covers can be less important than word-of-mouth and other intangibles. As everyone knows by now, the book began as a piece of Twilight erotic fan-fiction and progressed from a website to an e-book and, eventually, to an Australian print-on-demand company. Though the designs of the American editions of Fifty Shades and its sequels are credited to the well-known book designer John Gall (now the creative director of Abrams), he says that he barely did anything to the original covers; the Vintage art department just tweaked the type, otherwise leaving things alone. The results are not going to win any design awards, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t effective. Based just on how many people I saw reading the book nonfurtively, Fifty Shades seems to have triumphed over the potential shame of carrying erotic novels in public—and the gauzy, nondescript (and nonexplicit) imagery probably helped with its widespread acceptance.

Covers that are more noteworthy for their design quality include Knopf’s Simone de Beauvoir rereleases, Adieux, The Woman Destroyed, and A Very Easy Death. Beauvoir is best known for the feminist philosophy of The Second Sex; many of her other books are, frankly, downers, with desperate women’s lives rendered in stark language. Peter Mendelsund’s new covers for three of Beauvoir’s most depressing books are a departure from past editions, which tended to rely on a photo of the author. Instead, Mendelsund draws from the Paris student-protest posters of 1968, with their blocky revolutionary graphics and hand-written text, for three striking illustrations. “I wanted a style that had a certain directness—and I liked the idea of co-opting the visual language of revolution for a writer who was nothing if not (philosophically, politically) revolutionary,” Mendelsund wrote on his blog, Jacket Mechanical. He added that he “did not want to use any of the tropes normally given to ‘woman writers.’ . . . I’ve certainly made ugly covers before; and I hope that I’ve made pretty ones. But it’s the coexistence of both attributes that makes me happy here.”

Grace Coddington, the creative director of Vogue, wrote and illustrated one of the most anticipated autobiographies of the year, Grace: A Memoir (Random House). The cover, created by Coddington herself, reflects her legendary style with an orange background and two hand-drawn red frames to match her own titian tresses. Memoirs often feature a portrait of the author as a youth, and this one obliges. But the drawn frame, with Coddington’s own handwriting, gives the cover a particularly personal touch, while the tropical flower behind one ear and sarong-style dress evoke the paintings of Gauguin, an appropriate reference for the art-obsessed Coddington. Quirky, stylish, and quite different from the slick glossiness of Vogue, this is a fashion book that stands out with for its unusual looks.

Penguin U.K. is always producing elegant and memorable covers, and its design for Grimm Tales is both. The release of this collection of retellings coincides with the 200th anniversary of the first publication of the fairy tales. The cover was art directed by Jim Stoddart and features a paper illustration by Cheong-ah Hwang. In the almost all-white composition, one’s eye is immediately drawn to the fleeing red hood and the red of the wolf’s extended tongue. Although white is normally used as a calming color, here it creates a downright menacing atmosphere.

In a less dour vein, Gabriele Wilson has been designing the Poetry Society of America’s Chapbooks since the series’ inception in 2003. The covers have always featured an abstract pattern; in recent years, Wilson has been developing the designs through collaborations with artists, including Leanne Shapton, Tamara Shopsin, and, for this year’s covers, Laura Louise Greaves. Just as poetry tends to favor the lyrical over the literal, Wilson’s covers evoke a mood rather than any specific reference to the poems themselves. As she says, “My aim is to find abstract patterns that strike the tone of the writing.” Small and delicate, the books can be seen as a reference to the small worlds of poetry. Alas, the project’s financial arrangments are also all too typical for the poetry world. The featured poets are not paid for their work (in fact, they must pay a fee to submit), nor are the artists whose designs adorn the covers.

And that, unfortunately, is an appropriate note on which to end this roundup of book covers—a design discipline that seems increasingly fragile as Kindles, iPads, and other e-readers continue to gain ground with the reading public. But not to worry: As long as Fifty Shades paperbacks keep flying off the shelves, we can all count on at least another year of print books and cover art.

This story is from Print‘s 2012 Regional Design Annual. Purchase the issue, or download a digital version, at