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Redesigning Nabokov: How Limitations Can Be a Designer’s Best Friend

Updated: Aug 26

Publishers routinely outfit their backlist titles—the books that have been kicking around for years but still sell—with new jackets, hoping that an updated design will keep a classic book afloat in an easily distracted market. But Vintage Books has done something altogether different with the works of Vladimir Nabokov, timed to coincide with the posthumous release of his last, unfinished book, The Original of Laura.

Vintage art director John Gall asked a roster of jacket designers to create new covers for the twenty-one Nabokov titles that the company publishes, including such masterworks as Lolita, Pale Fire, and Pnin. (The existing Nabokov design scheme dates back to the late 1980s.) Gall gave the designers one stipulation: each cover would be a photograph of a specimen box, a nod to Nabokov’s passion for butterfly collecting. Within the framework of the box, and using layers of paper and insect pins, the designers were free to create more or less what they wished.

The new versions have been rolled out as existing back stock of old editions are depleted. “I thought that using the different designers would be a way to keep people interested in what was coming,” Gall says. “People stop paying attention after the major books are issued. I wanted them all to be important. So many backlist redesigns just slip themselves onto the bookshelves barely noticed.” We asked seven of Gall’s selected designers to discuss Nabokov’s books, their cover art, and just how tricky it was to work within the confines of a butterfly box.

Michael Bierut on Speak, Memory:

“Most of the books on the list are novels. Speak, Memory, however, is a memoir. And it’s illustrated with photographs, mostly of Nabokov’s family and from his childhood. I brought my copy (a beat-up first edition) to the office, and we scanned the pictures. My idea from the start was to make the box look like a repository of old photos. Then I decided that the photos were too literal and we needed something to sort of filter them, to make them feel a bit more nostalgic, so we tried them with a piece of yellowed vellum on top. I liked this effect, and we started preparing the final version. While the assembly was underway, Katie Barcelona, the designer in our office who was helping me put it together, took a picture of the box with only the vellum in place, no old photos underneath. This version was surprisingly effective, and John agreed.”

Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin on Despair:

“We had a few ideas and were playing around with cut paper, and then it just came together. There’s a line in the book where the narrator sees a paint company’s truck go by. There is a rainbow on the side of the truck, and the colors are in the wrong order: RGOYBIV. The narrator meets a tramp who appears to be a mirror image of himself. I don’t want to give away the story, so let’s just say that our double flawed rainbows slide down into the black. … Sometimes restrictions make things easier. I read this quote the other day by Kierkegaard: ‘The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes. A solitary prisoner for life is extremely resourceful; to him a spider can be a source of great amusement.’”

Peter Mendelsund on King, Queen, Knave:

“I read King, Queen, Knave after it was assigned to me, and I enjoyed it—though compared with Nabokov’s other novels, it’s pretty lightweight. The author said, “Of all my novels, this bright brute is the gayest,” which seems like a backhanded compliment. But John Gall had specifically asked that I make mine colorful, so this book seemed to fit the bill. It’s essentially the tale of a love triangle, and an exploration of the dissatisfactions of marriage. The pivotal scene, an aborted murder attempt, takes place in a rowboat off a misty Baltic seaside town. When I initially read the title, I assumed I would do something with playing cards, or chess pieces, but this just turned out to be too obvious, parroting the title in that way. As I was reading, I tried to find an image that could represent the kind of telescopic writing that Nabokov excels at (where something is occluding something else, which is occluding something else in turn …), and the ocean just seemed like it would work well in that regard. And the idea of gradating those waves backwards seemed cool from the let’s-make-something-nifty-and-new point of view. Working in the framework of the box was a total joy. Anytime you’re given strict parameters, I find it extremely freeing. I dispatched this one in a matter of days and then I was like, ‘Is there another one I can do?’ I would have happily done all of them—I’m a huge Nabokov nut.”

Sam Potts on The Real Life of Sebastian Knight:

“The specimen box was daunting because it’s such a great idea as a frame for the whole series that I was intimidated to come up with something that would serve the series well. The idea of the small book came directly from the novel itself—it’s the story of the narrator’s pursuit of another author, who is his brother. So the book-within-a-book is embedded in the story itself. Luckily, John liked the idea and we went ahead with it. Hopefully people will see the connection between the splayed book and the way butterflies are splayed in specimen boxes.”

Paul Sahre on The Luzhin Defense:

“I hope the design functions the same way the title functions. The title refers to a defensive chess strategy, which also happens to serve as a metaphor for the main character’s life. I love the constraint of the specimen box, but I also like the challenge of a group project like this. It adds a degree of difficulty in terms of trying to be dead sure you don’t end up where someone else ends up. I kind of feel that my cover works better in the context of the other covers than on its own. The rest of the covers have images and type carefully pinned; mine have collapsed. I also think that John found a way to collaborate with the designers who participated without doing it in the conventional way. He was totally hands-off after assigning the title to me, but his larger series idea was the driving force behind what I was going to do. He created a very interesting and difficult game to play.”

Martin Venezky on Glory:

“John Gall sent me a copy of Glory, which I read carefully knowing that I would need to develop a cover for it. The novel was much darker than I had expected, considering the title. The lure of distant lights at night and the desire to head towards them recurs throughout the book. So I took that as a visual cue to begin. I thought the restriction [of the specimen box] was terrific, although I had expected the boxes to be a little bigger and the pins a little easier to handle. I work by hand with paper a lot, and was in the middle of constructing paper collages for some SFMoMA products when the Nabokov project arrived. So all my tools were out and ready. It seemed like a natural extension of the work I had been doing, but it was the first time I used the technique for a cover. … Because I don’t live in New York I had to ship my finished construction to him through the mail. Fearing that things might fall over or break apart in transit, I wrote out extensive notes explaining what bits needed to be where. And since I wouldn’t be present for the photography, I made another whole list of lighting suggestions. The result came out even better than I expected. Alison Grootee, the photographer, got it exactly right.”

Megan Wilson on The Enchanter:

“The Enchanter was given to me by John, perhaps because it is described as the ‘Ur-Lolita’ and I had designed the previous cover for that book. Or perhaps because I live with a painter [Duncan Hannah] who has been known occasionally to paint girls of a certain age. Or maybe because it was at the bottom of the pile. John was especially inscrutable on this project; he assigned the books with the written instructions and no more; he refused to be drawn into discussion. Duncan had just had a rather successful show where he sold about thirty of his vintage collages to J. Crew. Because this project involved both collage and youthful girls, he seemed to be the obvious partner for collaboration. I was not familiar with the book (I think Duncan read it years ago) but it was quite shocking, especially as the Ur-Humbert comes to a very sticky end indeed. The book takes place in the 1930s, so Duncan made a lovely drawing of a girl of that time period to incorporate into the collage. As a fine artist, he felt very restricted by the box and was quite stumped by the pins. It was decided that the collage should be flat, i.e. stuck with glue in the usual way, but with the girl pinned down like a specimen butterfly. The same treatment was given to the title, which was printed on a block of flat color to reflect the collage.”