Five Questions for Vintage Art Director/Designer Megan Wilson

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While cataloging my home library over the holiday break, I found myself wondering who had designed some of my favorite book covers. I made notes to myself in series of notebooks. When I tallied up my final list, it turned out that at least half of them were designed by Megan Wilson.

For the better part of 20 years, Ms. Wilson has worked as associate art director at Vintage/Random House, re-imagining what is possible with paperback book design. Originally from New York, Wilson grew up in England, which has played a pivotal role in forming her design aesthetic and brainstorming process. The majority of the titles she works on are literary classics, giving Wilson the liberty to work free of the usual sell lines and author blurbs that clutter the covers of many paperbacks.

Her “alter ego,” as she refers to it, is her blog Ancient Industries, which presents domestic “living + extinct” artwork, photographs and objects, some of which can be purchased through the online store of the same name. Coupled with her book blog, My Book Covers, Wilson’s two-pronged online presence offers design outsiders like me, an insight into her inquisitive eye and decidedly anglophile tastes.

She was gracious enough to participate in this month’s Five Questions segment.

You have several blogs that dovetail nicely with one another. Scrolling through the My Book Covers blog, I feel as if I’m able to glean some insight into how you work creatively, searching out visual cues for book cover designs. Tell me about the “Ancient Industries” and “Potted Histories” sites and how they became your alter-egos? I started the blog because it took so long for the retail site, which I had designed to be programmed. The idea was suggested by a friend. I resisted for a long time until I realized it could be done with just pictures and very few words. The images are very carefully chosen and I hope speak volumes. So many traditional domestic objects are timeless and completely contemporary when presented in a fresh way. I try to think this way when using fine art on my book covers also. Potted Histories concerns itself only with companies that I work with that are doing very well despite the pressure to manufacture more cheaply abroad. These stories are more wordy than the blog because they are ripping yarns and I want to pay tribute to these inspiring companies, to whom I am grateful.

When we moved to England in 1972, my mother was so excited at being in Europe that she traveled a lot, usually without us kids. Being traditionally minded herself and one of the great shoppers of all time, she brought back a lot of gifts for nobody in particular which she kept in a drawer. The drawer might contain yellow leather slippers from Morocco, little badges of Lenin as a baby from Russia or untreated wooden Dutch clogs. Everything at home was very carefully selected because she put style above all else. When I moved to New York I continued this pack mule tradition. The shop evolved as a response to the needs of myself and others. I hoped it might help ease my constant pang for England and Europe. It has, to an extent.

You look to the past to brainstorm for new ideas? I know this is common among designers, but yours is intrinsically British. Do you miss England? How long have you been in NYC? This will be my 20th year in New York so I am technically more American than English. However, my accent is English, my clothes are English, I eat Marmite and my cultural references are English. I lived there for the 20 formative years. I live with the painter Duncan Hannah who was a serious Anglophile long before he met me, and he has a formidable knowledge of British art between the wars. He has an amazing library and helps me quite a bit when I have something in mind but don’t know how to find it. I use fine art more than the average cover designer and that is probably because of Duncan and a love of art history at school. There is so much out there that is brilliant and totally forgotten or unknown; a goldmine if one knows where to find it.

When I first wrote to you, you wrote back something that made me laugh out loud: “I started in publishing when it was a really good secret, and everybody else was going into the packaging of soap powders etc.” If you’re comfortable doing so, could you provide some anecdotal context? I went to St Martins School of Art in London, and because of its reputation and central location a lot of important designers came to the degree show every year with job offers. My fellow students were scooped up by famous packaging companies; they worked in smart converted warehouses with wooden floors with lots of matte black and chrome (this was the late 80s). There was a lot of swanning about. When I looked at what they were designing I was aghast; one friend was really excited because she was being allowed to re-design the boxes for Lil-Let (a British tampon). I went for an interview at Secker & Warburg, a publisher based in Poland Street, Soho. It was in an old Georgian house haphazardly converted into offices and the art director, Peter Dyer, was working in the garden shed at the end of a flag stoned path. His shed was full of books, and littered about were beautiful collages and photographs by emerging artists he had discovered at degree shows. It was one of the most important moments of my life and I fell in love with all of it.

Do you have a favorite book cover you designed in the last few years? I am very partial to the Vintage Classics series because I have more of an editorial input on these than the usual, which includes suggesting some of the books, e.g. Fitzgerald, Chaucer, Forster and Twain. Because of who the authors are, they require no explanation; no author of or prize winner lines and no quotes. No authors to complain or send in their own bits of art. No grid other than the little bunting triangles on the spine. There is no reason why classics should all be set up with an identical panel accompanied by a dark and deadly sombre painting. It was great fun with Jane Austen to turn to the fashion illustrations of the time, which are witty and sophisticated and above all, light.

The other joy of last year was working on all things Mitford. We acquired several books from the Nancy Mitford backlist, which was catnip to me, having been a Mitford Maniac for years. She is a sophisticated writer but has always had cartoon-ish covers in England so I tried to redress that. The novels are very autobiographical, and Nancy was a slave to fashion at the time when fashion was fashion, so who better to pose for the covers than Nancy herself. I tried to use only photographs that had never been published before. I was also lucky enough to design the last surviving Mitford sister, Deborah Mitford’s memoir, published this year at age 90. She put me up at the inn at their childhood village in the Cotswolds and we got to know each other a bit through various projects. The one thing better than dead authors is living authors who one admires.

What is one thing that most people (including your close friends and work colleagues) might not know about you (and that you’re comfortable sharing in this forum)? Despite appearances, I am a product of Coney Island. When I wa
s born, my identical twin had been rather greedy in the womb so I was put in an incubator for three weeks. When the incubator was invented in the late 19th century it was not taken seriously by the medical world. So in order to prove that they worked, a doctor set up a permanent exhibition of incubated babies in Luna Park. This was so popular another exhibit was opened across Surf Avenue at Dreamland. The two exhibitions ran for years before the incubators were taken out of the fun fair and placed in the hospital.

If that weren’t enough, my grandparents met at Coney Island in the late 20s. Perhaps, I’d like to think, whilst looking at the babies, on their way to the Bearded Lady.

About J.C. Gabel

J.C. Gabel is the founding editor and publisher of STOP SMILING magazine, and now edits and publishes books under the moniker, STOP SMILING BOOKS. He also writes regularly for Wallpaper and Bookforum, and lives in Chicago. Photo: David BlackView all posts by J.C. Gabel →