An Interview with the Designer
CHRIS TOBIAS: Peter, tell me anything you want about your background, your training, and your first design job.
PM: The short answer is: I don’t have any design training (formal or otherwise), and the job I’m currently working in at Knopf is the first paying gig I ever had as a designer.
The longer story is: The arts always played a large role in my family—my father was an architect-turned-sculptor, and my sister was a painter. I always thought (and still suspect that) I was the one in the family who lacked visual aptitude—We’d go to museums together (incidentally, my mother works at the Metropolitan Museum) and I’d wonder what all the fuss was about. I think my dad considered me a lost cause in the visual-department as well, because he shackled me to the piano when I was five and I’ve been playing ever since. I went to Columbia U. and was a Philosophy major, though I spent most of my time playing the piano. After College, I got various useless graduate degrees in music from various conservatories, then performed, taught, and wrote classical music for a spell. When my first daughter was born, it became clear that a certain someone needed more income.... and after some soul-searching about what I enjoyed doing other than music (reading, making stuff), I taught myself Quark etc., volunteered to design some CD covers for a NY record label where I’d made some recordings, and six months after that, I showed up with a “book” at John Gall’s door, met Carol [Devine Carson] and Chip [Kidd] (ok, I had no idea who any of these people were, which helped A TON). The following week, I was working here; first at Vintage, eight months after that, Knopf hardcovers. Improbably, the entire process from music to design took less than a year. I count my lucky stars that John and Carol were up for a gamble.
And they hired you because...?
PM: I still have no idea. Someone must have been pumping narcotics into the water fountains at Random House the day I came in. I mean, I assume they thought that I had a passable eye…and I had read, or at the very least showed some familiarity with, a lot of the titles which they themselves were working on. I think one could say that those two traits, a decent sense of space and color, and a relatively high degree of literacy, are the most important to have in this profession. And the exciting thing there is: neither trait is particularly difficult to acquire. They definitely teach the first in design schools (how to look), though I’m not so sure about them covering the second (literacy). I’m constantly telling design classes to read more books that are not design-related. I have no idea if I’m getting through or not.
Anyway, I suppose it’s those things that got me hired, plus the drugs in the water. But Chip and Carol and John are the only ones who know for sure.
Did you ever come to the point where you said to yourself, “Hey, I’m working with some of the most celebrated legends in publishing—pinch me.?”
PM: Truthfully, from the moment they called me to tell me I had the job. I think, to my credit, not knowing anything about design, or the design community, I appreciated a good thing immediately. Still do.
The first book of yours that caught my eye was Mao. I have been hunting down your work ever since. Tell me about some of your recent covers including War and Peace. What kind of direction were you given? Is it liberating or intimidating to work on such a monumental classic?
PM: Well, In the case of War and Peace, I’d been waiting for a Pevear and Volokhonsky translation since the early nineties. I’d read their (translation of) The Brothers K. when it was first published by North Point Press, and realized pretty much immediately that everything I knew about Dostoevsky needed revision; and I felt the same way about Tolstoy when Viking published Anna Karenina. When I first got to Vintage I volunteered to repackage the Dostoevsky paperback list, and ended up talking to Richard Pevear on the phone. I remember that we each came to the conversation with a single demand that turned out to be the same: that we not portray the characters in any literal way. I’m inclined towards abstraction to begin with, so we were both happy in the end. And obviously, when W & P was launched, I jumped on it.
There was really no direction on W&P from editorial to go on—just basically “make it pretty.” I think that there’s only two roads for a designer to take with a classic like this— A totally modern re-imagining, like Paul Sahre’s History of Western Philosophy, David High’s Don Quixote, Gabrielle Bordwin’s Sorrows of Young Werther, Chip’s New Testament, these types of things. Or else one can take a classical route—a route which communicates some of the book’s prior design history. I clearly chose the latter. I tried to make the kind of cover that a Knopf designer of a much earlier generation might have made. It’s ironic, because it’s a jacket treatment that I think Constance Garnett (the previous translator of record, and the stylistic opposite of the current translating team) would have appreciated. In any case, everyone here seemed content, and the book’s gone on to do quite well.
And, as to whether the classics are intimidating or liberating to work on: other than the obvious pleasure one gets from reading good writing, the classics tend to come with dead authors, and that helps a designer tons—it’s one less person to object to your work, and thus one less hurdle to overcome. So I’d have to go with “liberating.”
Do you have anyone or anything that has had the most influence on your design work?
PM: I suppose the Constructivists are a huge influence. Rodchenko, Rozanova, El Lissitsky, etc. They just utilized type and image ingeniously, playfully. and Alvin Lustig. I’m a big fan of the illustrative, abstract book jacket, of which he was the undisputed American master. In terms of the living, breathing designers, I guess Jaime Keenan, John Gray and John Gall would be my favorite designers to emulate. The three J’s.
I notice many of your covers tend to include very geometric elements or compositions. Is that a conscious decision?
PM: It was a conscious choice on the Dostoyevsky covers I did for Vintage (which are sort of little Malevich homages). And certainly on Walter Abish’s memoir Double Vision. I definitely gravitate towards using illustration, in general, more than photography in book jackets; and the more abstract the better. I think this approach leaves more to the reader’s imagination. It’s easier to be evocative without being literal. Though, upon reflection, those geometric jackets were to some extent influenced by the fact that they were all designed in Quark, which, really because of the limitations of the software, one finds oneself designing with the most accessible tools—boxes, circles, in flat colors or simple blends on top of art. It’s more tempting in that environment to simply place a shape on top of art. In PhotoShop, or InDesign, of course, because of the ease of blending layers, compositions tend to be denser, shapes more amorphous, and the final result, well, more photographic. We need software updates here at Knopf.
What is the ratio of the work you do between fiction and non-fiction?
PM: It’s about 50/50.
Do you have a preference?
PM: They are both challenging and rewarding in their own ways. For some reason (and I know this is just a personal proclivity) with fiction, I find myself trying to design in a more evocative fashion, setting a mood etc., whereas with nonfiction I find myself going for the big, clever concept more (and usually failing). Again, just a habit.
Talk a little bit about your work process. Do you start with a pencil and paper, or do you go straight to the mouse?
PM: Every project is completely different. Today for instance, I just pencil sketched one project, (I just had a clear vision of it). On another, I futzed around on my computer till something emerged. There’s one project I’m working on now where the process seems to be: stare at the ceiling, cruise the web till I get carpal tunnel syndrome, bother every coworker I can find, bang my forehead on my monitor, then walk home dejectedly.
Well, I’m glad I'm not alone—I mean the banging my head and going home dejectedly part.
What is a typical timeframe to get a cover from assignment to approval?
PM: It really depends. On average, a couple weeks? I work pretty quickly, which means I get rewarded with being given ungainly, problematic jackets, books late to the list, etc. I was given something to design last week that was already late for the mechanical-stage when it was handed to me. So, in that case, one day.
How often do you bring (or does an editor bring) an author into the process? I know that designers tend to want to keep them at arms length when it comes to specific input for the cover’s direction.
PM: Some authors want to art-direct everything; some (wisely) leave everything to us. Normally, when an author demands total involvement, the results are disastrous (not naming names here). But there are rare exceptions: I had a blast working with Nina Marie Martinez on ¡Caramba!, and with David Leavitt on the hardcover of The Body of Jonah Boyd. Also working with Adam Gopnik on his new book was great (he was literally in my office working on it) and it turned out pretty well, despite some production issues. Martin Amis definitely had a salutary role to play in House of Meetings, and there are others. I’ve found that editors will never buffer you from an author who wants to get their hands dirty on the jacket.
Which of your covers is your favorite?
PM: It’s like choosing a favorite child….I’ve always liked Double Vision by Walter Abish. This was a last minute substitute for a jacket that was rejected days before it was due to production. I was completely in the "I give up" stage. I basically resignedly threw up some black circles and type, and magically it all worked well. It was all done so fast that I couldn’t get in my head about it. Also Plain Heathen Mischief, by John Clark was really fun, and I’m really proud of those Kafka books (K, and The Zurau Aphorisms) and that crazy scroll-wheel for Mark Haddon’s poetry….Though I’m working on something for Vertical now called “The Usurper of the Sun” that might end up qualifying for the favorites-list…
What were some of the highlights while working with Vertical and designing the covers for Osamu Tezuka’s Dororo?
PM: The Vertical gig is essentially the coolest gig ever. Whereas the Knopf list is all literary gravitas (which is of course, fantastic in it’s own right), the Vertical list is all aliens, manga, j-horror, sex and derangement. It’s the perfect foil to the Knopf work. The two jobs complement each other perfectly.
Dororo was the first job I did for Vertical—it’s three books actually, all by manga granddaddy Osamu Tezuka. And, well, being able to use Tezuka’s artwork was the biggest plus for me. That and the fact that the Vertical people weren’t squeamish at all about covering the book in internal organs and viscera.
How often do you end up with a finished product that you don’t want your name attached to?
PM: Almost every day. One of the things that I find most people misunderstand about cover design on “the outside” is that so much of what happens is determined editorially, or in a marketing meeting. You try your best, but at the end of the day, most things are not going to turn out the way you liked. That’s why it behooves one to do a high volume of work. The law of averages suggests that you’ll end up with something to be proud of amongst the dreck at the end of the day.
I think that is a good point. There is a tendency on some of the websites dedicated to book design to critique covers like they were designed in a vacuum. It’s my experience that the final product ends up to be a collaboration, some more so than others. Agree?
PM: Oh yeah. And a good three quarters of what one does ends up changed irreparably. That’s not to say we (designers) always get it right the first time around—often things are rejected for good reasons having to do with legibility, marketability, etc. it’s just, none of those “good” reasons turn out to be aesthetic reasons. In any case, my golden rule is – get three covers approved, every list, that I’m proud of. As long as I have those three, I can keep my sanity.
I like that you have posted some rejected designs on your site that you preferred as opposed to what was chosen by the publisher. How often do you go home frustrated?
PM: If I told you, you’d be depressed. The big battle in book design is keeping your chin up. I try, but often fail, to have the twentieth comp be my best. Truth is though, eventually everyone can be worn down.
So then, how do you arrive at a balance between producing covers that meet the needs of the editors, marketing, store buyers and consumers, while maintaining a creativity level that’s personally gratifying?
PM: If you know the answer to this one, let me know… I guess, for me, it helps to have the Vertical work—at that imprint I can sorta let my freak-flag fly in a way that is increasing difficult at Knopf and the other trade publishing houses. But the hope that you’ll sneak something fun or different past the censors really keeps one going.
Are there any disappointing trends you see in book covers and jackets today?
PM: Well, our editors really love the look of parchment, old paper…. I AM REALLY SICK OF OLD PAPER. A lot of our books (Knopf is a very literary imprint) rely on nostalgia as a selling point, so we get asked to design in a way that evokes the past—the result being a lot of OLD PAPER behind our designs. I just worked on a freelance job where the jacket was this clean, pristine, white thing, then, it shows up on the shelves with ALL THIS OLD PAPER behind it. I had no idea this was going to be done. Anyway, you get the point. no more. I’m sick unto death of it. In terms of current trends—I guess I'd like to see more illustration that demonstrates good draftsmanship on the part of the illustrators. There’s a lot of this naive-school, something-that-a-teen-would-doodle-in-their-algebra-book type illustration out there. It’s all over books and music. Show us you can draw! (not that I can). Also I’m pretty tired of all the nostalgic seventies and early eighties typography out there, especially all the Avant-Garde, Poster Bodoni, ITC Grouch, Bookman Swash kinda vibe. These days I’m trying to restrict the faces I’m working with to just well-made classics.
What do you think the future holds for book cover designers (i.e. DIY, print on demand, Kindle, short attention spans, etc.)
PM: I’m not really concerned at all about the fate of book cover designers (although I’m constantly concerned about the fate of one particular book cover designer), or see the fate of the book as such a pressing issue…As long as ideas can be communicated, transmitted from the one person to the many, it’s relatively unimportant how that’s accomplished—if by Kindle, so be it. Although, frankly, the book is too well designed to be supplanted. Cheap, portable, tactile, durable. Too bad about all the trees though…
Is there any book for which you have a burning desire to rework the cover?
PM: I guess the shortlist would have to include anything by Italo Calvino, and anything by Borges, because on top of their irrepressible narrative, story-telling brilliance, they both have this way of evoking stunningly imaginative visual landscapes as well…I’d love to design Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, or the Walter Kaufmann/Nietzsche backlist—(there are very few beautifully designed modern philosophy classics of late; though (Jaime) Keenan did some of Karl Popper’s work if I’m remembering correctly, and I think Evan Gaffney did a Derrida reader, though I could be wrong about that). I did just design the Walter Benjamins (Illuminations and Reflections), which was a long-time dream of mine. Ooo, anything by Thomas Pynchon—I would have killed, or at least maimed someone to have had a shot at Against the Day. It was beautifully done (Michael Ian Kaye) but if ever there was an opportunity for a lenticular cover (which I’ve always wanted to do), this was it. The book is all about light, refraction, bifrigence, it would have been really fun…. Anyway, I’m sure there’s a gazillion more, but that’s what springs immediately to mind.
What does Peter Mendelsund do with his free time?
PM: I honestly don’t really have any. I get the kids ready for school in the morning, practice the piano an hour or two before work, go to work, then go home, kids to bed, talk to my wife (if I’m lucky), and then put myself to bed. It sounds dull, and it is. And it is going to get worse, because I seem to have (jeezus what was I thinking!?) just signed on to write a book recently, (although I still presumably have time to bail, the window is closing rapidly). I can’t really believe I said yes in the first place—the Knopf list, along side the Vertical list is time consuming enough, and I’m no writer by any stretch of the imagination. But the editor tells me it can be short, so that’s a huge bonus. In any case I’m going to be doing most of the writing in the shower, and some while I’m sleeping. I’m hoping my guinea-pig Dwayne can ghost-write some of it.
How do you think your musical training has played a part in your success?
PM: Well, it certainly would have helped me more as a designer to have started designing sooner, and I often wish I had. But that aside, I think the music helped in the sense that it made design feel easier by comparison. A career in classical music is such a hard row to hoe—it’s grueling, agonizing, lonely work (though ultimately so, so profitable emotionally). By comparison, the design work feels more (for the most part) fun, playful, un-neurotic. Starting with music, for me, was like being a baseball player swinging two bats before coming to the plate. It just makes the one bat feel lighter.
Thanks so much, Peter.
PM: The pleasure’s all mine!