“I like to start with a blankslate,” Helen Yentus explains over coffee at a bustling Brooklyncafé filled with fellow twentysomethings. “I enjoy thefeeling of not knowing what I’m doing.”
Perhaps thispenchant for unfamiliar territory stems from her dramatic arrival in NewYork. When she was nine, her family was forced to flee Moscow amid thesocial upheaval that led to communism’s collapse; they settled inthe largely Russian community of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. “In thefourth grade, on my first day of school, I didn’t know anyEnglish,” she says. But she quickly adjusted to a new country, anew culture, and a new language; and because her father worked as anexhibition designer, she picked up the language of design at an earlyage, too. “There was a specific type-specimen book of his,”she explains. “I remember sitting and tracing it for hours uponhours.”
After graduating from the School of Visual Arts in 2002,Yentus landed a position designing book jackets at Penguin. Although shehas worked in various genres, she’s especially fond of repackagingclassics, calling them “the ultimate design project.” Forthe Penguin Deluxe Classics series, she and creative director PaulBuckley assembled a dream team of comic-book artists—Chris Ware,Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Roz Chast—and gave them fullcreative control to reinterpret such standards as Candide, TheJungle, and Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy. Mostrecently, she redesigned the complete works of Camus, whom she cites asa personal inspiration. The covers’ stark, utilitarian typetreatment contrasts with the optical illusions triggered by theinterplay of the black and white, giving the reader a slight sense ofvertigo that Camus himself might well have appreciated.
Repackagingsuch masterpieces requires a delicate balance. “They have a voicein their own time period, their own culture,” she says. “Youhave to find a way to give them a contemporary voice in our culturewhile respecting the past.”
Because she tackles a variety ofprojects, Yentus doesn’t feel the need to be recognized as havinga consistent style. Instead, she describes her role as that of a problemsolver. Her cover for Penelope Lively’s memoir Making It Upuses found objects pieced together; for Jill Ciment’s novel TheTattoo Artist, she asked a colleague, Joel Holland, to illustratethe ornate hand lettering after her initial sketches didn’tsatisfy her. Her keen eye and insistence on a job well done seems totrump the itch for fame.
“There’s no fine artist in metrying to get out through the work,” she says. “Often, Ifind when my ideas get killed, it’s because I get carried awayinto doing my own thing.”
In 2005, art director John Gallbrought Yentus on board the Vintage/Anchor division of Random House,where she works alongside the likes of Chip Kidd, Carol Devine Carson,and Peter Mendelsund. Gall says she fits in well with the groupthere—not that she would ever brag about it. “She has a goodproportion of modesty for her talent,” he says. Now that’san understatement.