Michael Russem has fulfilled a dream I’ve had: He started a bookshop and gallery dedicated to book arts, typography and graphic design. Formerly, as proprietor of the Kat Ran Press, he published small but visually rich booklets on subjects as diverse as designer postage stamps, banknotes and book covers by known and forgotten designers. The Katherine Small Gallery in Somerville, MA, is currently showing Janet Halverson: An Introduction—which Russem curated—through Jan. 13, and recently published a catalog with the same title.
This catalog caught my eye because it introduced me to a female pioneer of modern cover design who was unknown to me. Indeed, much of her life (and she’s still living at 97) is something of a mystery. Seymour Chwast, who illustrated one of her covers (below) when she was on staff at Harcourt Brace, recalls only, “I loved Janet. She was great to work with.”
Halverson designed, art directed or illustrated over 1000 book wrappers. Russem told me he began collecting her work around 10 years ago, but even after he learned where she currently resides he has never spoken to her — “not wanting to disturb her”.
He writes, “Janet Halverson designed covers and jackets for books written by some of the most important authors of the 20th century. That and the fact that those covers and jackets are highly regarded by contemporary designers of covers and jackets is, more or less, all that is known about her. There are no books about her. There are no articles. Most recent references to her on the internet are by people wanting to see and know more. When we tracked down people who might’ve known her, we were most often told, ‘I knew Janet—but not well.’”
Unfortunately, he adds, “this exhibition won’t provide much interesting information about Halverson’s life”. Here are the bare bones: She was born in Orono, Maine, in 1926, grew up in New Haven, worked in New York, and presently lives in suburban New Jersey. “But at least there is her work. And from that work we can discern that she was a good and inventive and smart designer. This show won’t provide the definitive story of her life and work. It is, alas, only an introduction.”