Paul Bacon, Bestseller

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Paul Bacon (1923–2015), master of the “Big Book Look” in cover design, died on Monday, June 8, 2015, at 91 of a stroke. This is an article on Bacon that was published in Print LVI:I, March/April 2002.


During the last half of the 20th century, Paul Bacon designed influential book jackets, for bestsellers particularly, that revitalized the genre.

“If I was born to do something,” comments Paul Bacon, “it was to design book jackets.” Bacon fulfilled that calling for about 50 years, and although he handled his share of obscure titles, his jackets have adorned some of the most prestigious bestsellers of the last half of the 20th century. In fact, Bacon can be said to have invented the bestseller jacket as we know it: His designs have been emblems for such eminent works as E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, James Clavell’s Shogun and Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. And while each of these covers was distinctively designed, they all exhibited traits in common, which in the 1960s fused into something known as the “Big Book Look”: large, bold title, prominent author’s name, small conceptual image.

The “Look” had its inception in 1956 when Bacon was commissioned by Simon & Schuster’s art director, Tom Bevans, to design the jacket for Meyer Levin’s Compulsion, a roman à clef about two young men who systematically plan and carry out the cold-blooded murder of a younger boy to see if they can get away with the crime. The publisher knew that the highly-publicized real-life killing of Bobby Franks by Nathan and Richard Leopold would popularize the novel, but was uncertain how to devise a jacket that would be suggestive without being lewd and evoke a sense of mystery without resorting to clichés. Bacon sketched out a number of ideas until he came up with the rough, hand-scrawled word “Compulsion,” which he positioned at the top of the jacket, taking up a fourth of the space, while below it, an empty taupe rectangle bled off the field, and below that, at the bottom, was scrawled “a novel by Meyer Levin.” Sparse and dramatic—yet Bacon felt something was missing.


That “something” became two small, nervously drawn figures in red, running on the vacant expanse upward toward the title. Although the cover calls to mind Saul Bass’ 1955 expressionistic film poster for The Man With the Golden Arm, it was more likely influenced by the jazz albums Bacon had designed starting in the late 1940s. Whatever the influences, the book became a huge bestseller and the jacket, displayed everywhere, caught the publishing industry’s attention.

Other publishers lost no time contacting Bacon to request similar jackets for their potential bestsellers. But few of them really understood what made Compulsion so successful. Bacon remembers, “I’d get calls that started like this: ‘We have a book we’d like you to do, and it’s called Darkness on the Highway at High Noon, and it’s set in Tulsa, Oklahoma,’ or something like that, and I’d say, ‘Wait a minute—what you like about Compulsion is that big, powerful one-word title.’ But it’s hard to dissuade people from their titles. Nonetheless, I took the jobs, and I started to work for literally everybody.”

Bacon estimates he designed about 6,500 jackets from the late 1940s through the early 2000 for all the major houses—but most consistently for Simon & Schuster for over 40 years. The Bacon-esque approach became pervasive throughout the trade book world, yet his signature style was not always instantly recognizable because Bacon characteristically subordinated ego to function. He explains, “I’d always tell myself, ‘You’re not the star of the show. The author took three-and-a-half years to write the goddamn thing, and the publisher is spending a fortune on it, so just back off.’” Robert Gottlieb, an editor at Simon & Schuster during the 1950s, and later editorial director at Knopf for 21 years, notes, “He has a bestseller look but he came up with other looks as well, some of which helped books become bestsellers.”


In fact, when you look at Bacon’s jackets en masse, you realize you’re looking at a history of late-20th century commercial book cover design, a virtual legacy of eclectic lettering, illustration and typography prior to the digital revolution. Bacon was, after all, a product of an era of hand-drawn lettering, and type that was cut and pasted in order to achieve precise spacing. While this sounds archaic in a time when layered Photoshop imagery is the order of the day, Bacon’s work was appealing precisely for its handcrafted precision (as well as minor imperfections) and spot-on conceptual acuity that evoked the story rather than isolated passage.

Born in Ossining, New York, in 1923, Bacon grew up all over the Eastern Seaboard, and graduated from Arts High School in Newark, New Jersey. Serving in the Marine Corps during World War II, he started his jacket career by accident after his discharge in 1946. Unable to get into the course he wanted at New York’s Art School League, he took a job with the former promotion art director of Fortune, Hal Zamboni, who had started his own Bauhaus-influenced studio in Manhattan. Bacon was given a $30-a-week job making laborious scratchboard drawings of, among other mundane items, bottles of pills for advertisements. From doing such tasks, he developed a better than average drawing style along with a certain stylistic flair.

At the time, a friend’s father asked Bacon to do the illustrations for a book titled Chimp on My Shoulder, about the father’s exploits in Africa to round up monkeys for the Denis-Roosevelt Chimpanzee Farm in Florida. The witty, impressionistic drawings were, Bacon recalls, “pretty good for a novice”—good enough that the art director for E.P. Dutton, the book’s publisher, requested that he do the jacket too. The jacket, a photograph with type, is “nothing to send to the Hall of Fame, but it got me started,” he says.

But Bacon’s real passion was jazz, certified by his membership in The Newark Hot Club, a hyper-serious bunch of fans who admired Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, founders of the legendary Blue Note Records. Bacon had known the two before the war and soon started designing 10″ album covers for the label. He simultaneously wrote record reviews for The Record Changer magazine, edited by Bill Grauer and Orrin Keepnews, who eventually started Riverside Records, for which Bacon also designed albums. Today, many jazz aficionados know Bacon exclusively for his contemporary-looking record sleeves.

But record albums
alone did not ensure a viable living, and during the early 1950s Tom Bevans at Simon & Schuster gave Bacon a quirky grouping of titles to work on, including an album of cartoons from Punch and some science-fiction novels. It wasn’t until the Compulsion jacket, however, that Bacon realized that books were going to be his lifelong vocation. The S&S advertising people liked the idea of using an icon or a logo on a jacket as opposed to the conventional treatments of just type or literal illustration. And Bacon discovered he was good at “finding something that would be a synthesis graphically of what the story was about.” Moreover, since he had no formal illustration training, he felt free to explore the realm. “I was not encumbered by having to work from models,” he says. “Many of the things I did, I just did strictly from memory and without any reference at all. Unless I needed something specific, like a German airplane or something—then I’d look it up. But it was very liberating to realize that I didn’t have to do something that looked like Norman Rockwell did it.”


If he was decidedly not Rockwellian, neither was he a follower of the Modernist principles pioneered by Paul Rand, Alivin Lustig and Leo Lionni, who imbued their work with theories of European art. While Bacon admired these designers, he points out that, as the book covers they did were generally for “heady” works of criticism, analysis and literature with small print runs, they could do virtually anything they wanted with little interference. His orientation, on the other hand, being resolutely commercial—heavy-hitter books with big runs—required that he navigate around sales and advertising people and countless others with numerous opinions.

This he did—with the help of staunch supporters like Frank Mertz, art director at Simon & Schuster for over 40 years, and Harris Lewine, iconoclastic art director at Harcourt Brace and various other houses. Having editors as allies was also a plus; Robert Gottlieb, for example, when he was at Knopf, not only kept the merchandising people at bay, but kept authors at a distance from Bacon, too. According to Bacon, writers make literal suggestions that could result in dumb illustrations. He recalls one occasion when Norman Mailer managed to get through to him. “Mailer was very diffident,” Bacon remembers. “He called me ‘Mr. Bacon.’ We both sort of bowed and scraped to each other. And it turned out that what he wanted—he actually loved the jacket [for An American Dream]—was to know if a very tiny postage stamp of his girlfriend could go somewhere on the front. As it turned out, there was no way it could hurt, so I said, ‘Sure, why not?’”

Bacon didn’t do thumbnails or multiple sketches, just one visualization of an idea. But he was accommodating. “If people didn’t like something about a Cole Porter tune, Porter just tore it up,” he says. “And I did the same thing with the jackets.” For the 1961 publication of Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22, he did as many as 11 versions. “I did a jacket that just said ‘Catch 22’ in very large lettering, and underneath, I can almost remember how the subtitle I wrote goes: ‘A novel, wildly funny, and dead serious, about a Macedonian [changed by Heller from Assyrian] malignerer who recognized the odds.’ Gottlieb liked it but didn’t do it. Then I did one that had [the protagonist] Yossarian bull’s-ass naked but with his back to you, saluting as a flight of planes went over. I liked that one. Then I did a couple of modifications of those. Then at some point I came up with the little guy that I tore out of a piece of paper, representing Yossarian in full flight from everything.”

From then on, Bacon designed most of the jackets for Heller’s other books, a long-term assignment that Heller commented on: “The coverage of my life as an author, from Catch-22 to Closing Time 33 years later, may be unique in publishing; in my case Paul Bacon did it for me and [I’m] lucky and glad!”


The cover Bacon designed in 1969 for Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint was a departure. Though the vast majority of his covers are built on some conceptual idea or image, this one consisted solely of pure type against a yellow background; no fancy touches, except for the swash capitals in the titles and author’s name. Asked why he avoided his signature conceptual image, Bacon says it was because of the difficulty in portraying the book’s most prominent element: masturbation. But also, “In color, it was just so simple and raw.” He continues: “This was one of the things I started to do for books like Sophie’s Choice—that were strictly lettering covers—which in some ways I suppose was a coward’s way out. But it just seemed appropriate for these enormously complicated books.” Given the epic roots of Sophie’s Choice and Ragtime, Bacon felt that attempting to do anything other than a solution that proclaimed “Important book—read it!” would not work. “I guess that’s kind of a dumb thing to say, but it was at the back of my mind,” he admits.

Ragtime, with its Victorian-sheet-inspired, handlettered title was symbolically astute; it indelibly evoked the book’s character. About his increasing use of illustrated lettering, Bacon explains that he didn’t try to be “too accurate in a time sense” and did not, as a rule, go after a face that was used during the period of the story. He simply would write out the title and author’s name to see what they looked like in upper- and lowercase and in caps, and then see if [there was an] interesting feature, like a double consonant, that could be manipulated. “I did all that stuff by hand and I wonder why I didn’t go crazy,” he reflects. E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime’s author, says of the cover, “I believe it’s a classic of book jacket design—simple and immensely evocative at the same time.”

No trend follower, Bacon confides that he did what seemed feasible at the time. “I had a feeling for the art directors and the editors of a given house,” he says. “If they had certain prejudices or if they were going to be resistant to something I had in mind, I wouldn’t waste with it, even if I thought it was fundamentally good.” Yet he was so highly regarded that editors often would just send him a manuscript with the mandate to “figure it out” for himself. Except that, every so often, Bacon would get a note saying, “Please, no swastika”—this because he had a justifiable reputation as “king of the swastika,” having done many books about World War II that incorporated the Nazi emblem.

To Bacon, a successful jacket is one that the reader makes sense of. “If after you’ve read the book, you then look at the jacket and say, ‘I wonder why he did that,’ that doesn’t make it for me,” he states. These days, ambiguity is much more frequent in book jackets, which may explain why Bacon’s past and recent work seem so dated. While the “Big Book Look” is not precisely obsolete, it is no longer a design code for readers, who today are more drawn to fragmented and vague pictorial jackets and skewed type.


Time and fashion have changed and Bacon has officially retired from the book jacket business, though he still gets calls for assignments. He has returned to designing his first passion, jazz albums. “I certainly believe that anything in the arts is a track meet, and when you can run 10-flat and somebody else can run 9.8, your day is done. To some extent that happened to me,” he acknowledges, adding, “I still like the last things I designed—they’re good—but they’re not competitive in that multi-grained way that the things are being done now are.” There’s another reason, too. “I was 78 last December, I’m too goddamn old,” Bacon says. “But I’m lucky, in one sense. I got phased out by myself and by publishing at the same time.”

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →