Book Cover of the Month: “The Copenhagen Trilogy,” Designed by Na Kim
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?
Yeah, I love those.
So it kind of translated into things like that. I think it’d be hard to just pick up ceramics again. There’s so much work that goes into making ceramics and so many pieces. It’s like being diligent, and where things can go wrong. So I think without a studio it’s not something I’m really ready to approach again in that way.
Yeah. That’s what always fascinates me about the processes. One simple mistake can either make or break a piece.
Even if there’s not a mistake, it could just not work out. It’s so unpredictable, and so much time goes into waiting and drying. I feel like there’s no way I would be able to give it the attention that it needs in order for me to make something I’d be happy with. So I feel I can do more in immediate mediums.
Can you recall the first book cover that you ever designed, either in school or in the professional world?
I didn’t design any in school. I actually didn’t take any graphic design classes in school.
I love that.
But the first book cover—I wouldn’t say I designed it, but my introduction to the fact that this was even a career path was I did an illustration for a book cover for Charlotte Strick, when she was actually the art director at FSG. And that was my introduction to that. I think it’s called True Things About Me, by Deborah Kay Davies.
Today, you’re at FSG. Congrats on the promotion [in January, to associate creative director], by the way.
Oh, thank you.
Why do you enjoy working on book covers today? In a deeper sense, what does the book jacket or book cover mean to you as a design object or challenge? Broad question.
Well, first, I really love reading. I feel like reading, not to sound super corny, but it’s just such a gift in a way for us to experience these things and see other ways of thinking. It just makes everything so accessible—especially, I know with the internet now, things have changed a bit, but it’s like this is the way you experience, “Oh, this is what life could be,” or at least that’s how I experienced it when I was younger, and still do now. But it’s an immense privilege to be able to work on books by these amazing authors who pour years of their life into making something really special for other people.
I’ve just never worked on anything like a book cover before where it’s like the perfect amount of time and there aren’t all these brand guidelines or something. You’re really free to problem-solve in a way that can still be true to yourself and your vision. Obviously it has to reflect what’s inside and respect the author’s vision and the publisher’s vision and all that. That’s the primary goal. But I think there’s an amount of freedom within it for designers that really doesn’t exist in a lot of other fields in graphic design.
I love that. This is a much-hated question, but probably an easier question. What’s your general process for designing a book cover?
I feel like it varies, and I think that’s also why I really am drawn to cover design. Obviously there are the formulas you can fall into to just get things done, but I don’t think there’s really a strict set of rules for how you need to approach it. …
My process has evolved over the years. In the beginning when I started, I spent two weeks doing type research for it, or just trying to set the title so that it doesn’t look completely whack, and do a ton of other research. I tried to do a lot more illustration work that maybe didn’t quite fit the book well. But now I think it’s much easier to get to one idea, or it’s easier, when reading, to kind of know what to look out for, because I feel like after however many years of doing this I don’t have to spend as much time wondering, Is this the right typeface? Is this the right image? You figure out how to recognize the mood of something, if that makes sense.
It seems like your antenna would be up and you’d pick up the visual cues and things like that faster.
I think I trust my instincts a little bit more now, too, and it’s really more about the process of it. I don’t do sketches at all. I just kind of start with one and see where that takes me.
What inspires you?
That’s another tough one. … Obviously I’ll study other people’s work. It’s good to know the history of things in terms of contemporary design. [But] I really try not to look at it, because I’m afraid I’m going to subconsciously rip it off. I think it’s just so hard not to do that anymore with the immediacy of things on social media. Like it just gets ingrained in your brain, then it moves so quickly that you can’t really remember the source or even know what the intent of the original source was. So I try to avoid looking at it too much. But I feel like I generally tend to get inspiration more from just sort of everyday things. When I was working on the cover for Austen Years, I just remember seeing a sweater draped over a chair. I took a picture of it, and there was just something about that that had a feeling to it of the presence of something being there while it’s not there. So it’s really so cliché.
No, it’s not.
I’m really inspired by just everyday things, and I like these little ah-ha moments that happen every day.
Totally. Do you have any favorite book cover designers?
There are so many. I will say the first cover I bought for its cover was the Murakami series, paperback series, by John Gall. I bought that in high school just based on the covers, and it opened a whole new type of literature for me. So that was a pretty powerful experience, and I love his work. Obviously everyone I work with is incredible. Like Rodrigo Corral, Alex Merto, June Park, Thomas Colligan. They’re all so good.
Yeah, you guys have a dream team over there.
They really push me to make better work. I find them inspiring. I think Janet Hansen is incredible. Obviously Peter Mendelsund and Oliver Munday.
Do you have a dream author who’d you love to design a cover for?
I really love Alexander Chee’s writing. I would love to design one of his covers. I don’t know—we have so many good authors at FSG honestly that I’m not really left wanting too much more.