Book Cover of the Month deconstructs the design of one of our favorite new book covers—and features an interview with the creative mind behind it.
Na Kim had a problem.
She really loved the book. Well, books—Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy. The Danish master’s masterpiece was originally released in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and the three books (Childhood, Youth and Dependency) form a brilliant portrait of her life, via confessional writing.
When the titles were reissued in English, they were met with universal acclaim. So for the cover design of the U.S. edition, Kim faced no easy task for the trilogy she devoured in a single sitting.
“There’s just a sense of clarity to her writing and her words that sort of cuts through you, which I really love,” Kim says. “There’s something super visceral about her work, and it’s dark and it’s also funny. It feels very tangible to me, and even though this was written all these years ago, there’s something very immediate about it.”
Compounding things: This was the first cover Kim would design in quarantine, away from her desk at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where she works as associate creative director—and away from her colleagues, who she could bounce ideas off of in non-pandemic times.
And perhaps likely exacerbating everything further was the fact that Kim says such a series is a highly desirable assignment—“something we all try to jump on when we see it.”
“It’s just fun to think about it as a set, and the prompt is different,” she says. “The way you’re designing and problem-solving is different from a standalone book. So there is something exciting about that, and also kind of giving new life to an unknown author, or the same way reviving a backlist feels. It’s really exciting to reintroduce this work to a whole new audience.”
She knew she wanted to base the design off of a photograph, and spent a month pondering what form the covers—a comprehensive hardcover edition, and three individual paperbacks—might take.
She began collaging digitally, and turned out the first round in a day or two, as she worked on all four simultaneously.
Her editor felt the initial designs leaned a bit too sci-fi, and the work pivoted some, before taking the final form below:
When they debuted, Kim did what she admits she should never do—she logged onto Twitter, and saw someone interpreting the covers as a statement on Ditlevsen’s mental health … which was a total misread.
“It’s more like there’s a sense of fracturing, and where she is in life and where she wants to be,” Kim says. “That was more of the inspiration for all the covers. Obviously different events take place throughout all the books, but I feel like they’re different forms of fracturing. So I was trying to convey that by different forms of collage with the same image.”
For the type, she found a fitting face in Dinamo’s Prophet, which draws its inspiration from Joseph Churchward’s Georgina. Combined with Kim’s collage work, its quirky calligraphic elements blend cohesively.
“Prophet’s one of those typefaces I’ve been trying to use forever, and it just made sense to have something that feels old and new at the same time,” she says. “It’s super legible, which is good, because she wasn’t known in the U.S. at all. So we wanted to keep her name and the title really legible.”
The end result: a set of covers that are distinct and striking, and bring Ditlevsen’s work brilliantly into the present.
As for the creative behind them—read on for her story of perseverance in the world of art and design, and a medley of her cover work, beginning with some of her experiments for The Copenhagen Trilogy.
Where are you from originally?
I’m from Seoul, South Korea, actually. I was born there and then moved back and forth basically since my childhood through high school.
Growing up, were you drawn to books at all?
I was. I always enjoyed reading. I think I have a really specific memory of it, just because when I first moved to the States I had to take English classes outside of our regular ESL classes, and one of the assignments was every week we would have to read one of those kind of abridged classics for kids. So I’ve always really enjoyed reading.
What were you up to as a kid in terms of your creativity? Were there hints at your visual creative side and what was to come?
Well, actually, the first two things I wanted to be when I grew up were a painter or a doctor, because my dad is a doctor and my aunt is a fine artist, and she was kind of just a person I always looked up to. So she was always feeding into my dream, like, “Oh, you’re going to be a painter like me.”
I’ve always been drawing. I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember. I’m not sure if it was any good, but I was always really encouraged.
Did your parents nurture and notice your talents when you were a kid?
I think they did really early on. I didn’t have, to be honest, the most stable childhood. But like probably from since I can remember till I was maybe 8 or 9 years old—I feel like it’s pretty typical of Korean parents to do this—they really encouraged studying the arts. But they don’t really want you to have a career in it. It’s just so that you’re well-rounded and get into schools and stuff like that. But yeah, they were pretty supportive of it when I was a child, but not so much afterwards.
That was going to be my next question—when you went to MICA … you got your BFA in illustration and art history, right?
Was that a tough sell with your parents?
They got divorced when I was 12, and because of that, that’s why I was moving back between Korea and the States so much. My mom decided to stay in
the U.S.; my dad, he’s always lived in Korea. So financially my mom was always really unstable as long as I can remember since then, and she basically was like, “You shouldn’t even go to college at all. You should just get a part-time job and help me make money for the house.” I said, “No, I’m going to the art school.” … So I’ve been independent pretty much since high school, I would say.
… But even then I was still trying to be like a fine artist. I wasn’t interested in illustration or design at all.
When did you make that switch?
It was in college, I think. I hate that I’m only talking about money, but it’s just the reality of the situation where I was basically working almost 40 hours a week as a waitress since I’ve been in college, and I was like, “Well, if I’m working this hard to put myself through school, I think I need to learn some kind of trade where I can have a job.” Little did I know, illustration, it’s not the most stable. If I was really thinking I should’ve just jumped into graphic design. But I was like, “I really enjoy drawing.” I waffled between being a painting major and a sculpture major, and thought, this is not going to get me anywhere. So I just decided to switch to illustration since I felt confident about drawing and thought it can go somewhere.
After you graduated, what did you spend your time doing before you landed a book design job at Bloomsbury?
Well, I was mostly bartending and waiting tables, to be honest. I had taken on some op-ed work from The New York Times right before I graduated, luckily, but I just couldn’t keep it up, because again, I didn’t have a cell phone. I had a pay-as-you-go phone, which would die all the time. I didn’t have internet. I didn’t have a scanner. I didn’t really have the tools or the space in my mind to actually do a good job or succeed. So I think I just missed a bunch of calls and never got my website together. I just kind of gave up on it, honestly, after a few months, and was like, OK, I guess I’ll just bartend forever. But I also graduated right when the recession happened. So it’s like the options felt very limited, especially if you went to art school or something. It was pretty much standard that you would just become a waitress, which I was fine with, because I had already been doing it for so long.
… Basically, it’s weird, because I had kind of given up on the illustration thing, and then I got into book cover design—and then suddenly I was just getting a lot of illustration work again. So now it’s become pretty regular.
Yeah, because I feel like so much of book cover design, especially if you’re working on budgets and stuff, you make your own art, and I think they kind of inform each other in a really nice way in terms of conceptual thinking and pairing type with images.
On your Instagram you can see crossovers and themes from your book covers to your illustrations. I’m curious about the period from 2011 to 2016 when you had [your ceramics business] Young Alexander.
That was during my waitress phase, and a friend and I were feeling really stuck in Baltimore—and we’re like, “Oh, we should maybe do something.” So we started making ceramics, and it kind of took off way more than we expected it ever to. We were not like, “this is going to be a real serious business.” But there was all this additional work and we tried to do it seriously, but we both had just moved to New York in 2012 and were both waiting tables, both working other jobs. I just really felt like I needed to focus, put my energy in one direction, and she decided to go to school. So that’s sort of why we stopped making ceramics at that point.
Do you still make any, out of curiosity?
I haven’t in a really long time. I’ll make little sculpty sculptures sometimes, or things like the … I don’t know if you’ve seen the Bread Shoes that I make with my co-worker, June?