“I like to start with a blank slate,” Helen Yentus explains over coffee at a bustling Brooklyn café filled with fellow twentysomethings. “I enjoy the feeling of not knowing what I’m doing.”
Perhaps this penchant for unfamiliar territory stems from her dramatic arrival in New York. When she was nine, her family was forced to flee Moscow amid the social upheaval that led to communism’s collapse; they settled in the largely Russian community of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. “In the fourth grade, on my first day of school, I didn’t know any English,” she says. But she quickly adjusted to a new country, a new culture, and a new language; and because her father worked as an exhibition designer, she picked up the language of design at an early age, too. “There was a specific type-specimen book of his,” she explains. “I remember sitting and tracing it for hours upon hours.”
After graduating from the School of Visual Arts in 2002, Yentus landed a position designing book jackets at Penguin. Although she has worked in various genres, she’s especially fond of repackaging classics, calling them “the ultimate design project.” For the Penguin Deluxe Classics series, she and creative director Paul Buckley assembled a dream team of comic-book artists—Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Roz Chast—and gave them full creative control to reinterpret such standards as Candide, The Jungle, and Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy. Most recently, she redesigned the complete works of Camus, whom she cites as a personal inspiration. The covers’ stark, utilitarian type treatment contrasts with the optical illusions triggered by the interplay of the black and white, giving the reader a slight sense of vertigo that Camus himself might well have appreciated.
Repackaging such masterpieces requires a delicate balance. “They have a voice in their own time period, their own culture,” she says. “You have to find a way to give them a contemporary voice in our culture while respecting the past.”
Because she tackles a variety of projects, Yentus doesn’t feel the need to be recognized as having a consistent style. Instead, she describes her role as that of a problem solver. Her cover for Penelope Lively’s memoir Making It Up uses found objects pieced together; for Jill Ciment’s novel The Tattoo Artist, she asked a colleague, Joel Holland, to illustrate the ornate hand lettering after her initial sketches didn’t satisfy her. Her keen eye and insistence on a job well done seems to trump the itch for fame.
“There’s no fine artist in me trying to get out through the work,” she says. “Often, I find when my ideas get killed, it’s because I get carried away into doing my own thing.”
In 2005, art director John Gall brought 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 group there—not that she would ever brag about it. “She has a good proportion of modesty for her talent,” he says. Now that’s an understatement.