Sunday, 24 May 2009

Health Insurance & Shostakovich: An Interview with Peter Mendelsund



Peter Mendelsund is one of the most talented book designers working at the moment, part of the amazing team at Knopf/Random House in the US (whose best-known member is probably Chip Kidd). I talked about his design for Things We Didn't See Coming here, and Mr Mendelsund was kind enough to agree to be interviewed for this blog. As I hope you'll see, he's a very entertaining and informative interviewee. For all of the images below, click for bigger versions.

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CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: So how did you end up in design?

PETER MENDELSUND: It was a question of health insurance.

About seven years ago, I was looking for a profession other than Classical Musician (the job description I’d always answered to) that would provide insurance coverage for my family. I assumed that, whatever this new gig was going to be, it would be temporary- a stop-gap until I could go back to the piano. My wife and I had a brain-storming session, during which we made a list of my interests:

macramé, animal husbandry, model-rocketry, heraldry, yodelling, anti-trust mediation, jujitsu, cryptology, forensic medicine, comparative theology, harpsichord maintenance, taxidermy, Graphic Design, historical re-enactment, rodeo clowning, cock fighting, oyster fishing, oyster fighting, clown fishing...

Design struck me as the most feasible alternative.



As it turns out, I had learned to use Quark and Photoshop so I could make our wedding invitations, and these skills had come into play again when I designed our daughter’s birth announcement. Some friends, having seen these designs, asked me to design business cards for them, which led to some posters, and more business cards...so...

...I offered to do some free design work for a record label where I had done some recording as a musician and composer (MotherWest Studios, which is where the Magnetic Fields do their recordings) and I made a bunch of CD packages and posters for them over a period of six months- just long enough to build up enough work to make a portfolio.

Then came the news, from a friend of mine: THAT PEOPLE ACTUALLY HAVE TO DESIGN THE JACKETS THAT BOOKS ARE WRAPPED IN.

Book jackets, mind you- which are already needless, redundant, frivolous items in life’s already cluttered inventory- themselves need designing. This arcane little tidbit came as something of a shock to me. “Someone gets paid for that?” Well, if there are professional whistlers, snake milkers and golf ball divers...why not?



This same friend who introduced me to jacket design had a friend (poet J.D. McClatchy) who was Chip Kidd’s boyfriend. So a meeting was arranged.

Chip and I laugh now about our various expectations going into this meeting- he sees a LOT of work, and his feeling was: “Here’s another friend-of-a-friend whose substandard work I have to pretend to encourage” and for my part I was thinking “Book jacket design is the most ludicrous job I’ve ever heard of shy of poodle-wrangling, and who names their child Chip Kidd?”

As it happens, Chip was genuinely encouraging and we liked each other instantly. But. There were no jobs at Knopf (or so Chip thought). As a courtesy, Chip introduced me to John Gall, who looked at my “book” and I accepted a job at Vintage the next day.

CCC: Very few of your books use stock photos, and those that do have altered them significantly. What's your feeling on the proliferation of stock images on book covers?

PM: If used well, a stock photo is a fine thing indeed. There’s nothing intrinsically good or bad about stock photography. Like any raw material, the important thing is how it’s implemented.



My personal disinclination to use stock stems from both a desire to save money, as well as a kind of self-imposed puritanical roll-up-your-sleeves-and-make-your-own-art kind of ethic. Incidentally, some of my favorite designers use a ton of stock photography, and some of my favourite designs are comprised of stock.

In any case, I’ve been thinking recently that I should use more stock in my work as a hedge against my becoming predictable. I’ve noticed that every design of mine starts out with type and illustrative elements. It’s good to shake up your own habits every now and then.

CCC: What would your dream book be to work on, from any era, doing the covers and interior art?

PM: I’m lucky enough to work at Knopf, where many of my favourite authors are published. On any given list there is at least one book (but often more) that I feel sincerely honoured to work on.



So, not to be a greedy-guts, but, it would be completely cool to work on:

The Interpretation of Dreams; The Republic/Symposium/Phaedrus; The Tractatus Logico-philosophigus and The Philosophical Investigations; All of Nietszche; Gravity’s Rainbow/Against the Day/Anything Pynchon; Bergson; Hume; Husserl; Tristam Shandy; The Principia Mathematica; Lao Tse; Basho; Dogen; Maimonides; Descartes; The Information/ London Fields; anything and everything by James Joyce; The Divine Comedy....Blarg. Stop me at any time.

I know you didn’t bring up music, but I’d love to redesign the complete works of Shostakovich and J.S. Bach, who are like unto gods to me. The covers of scores are notoriously awful with the exception of Verlag and Durand who have very simple typographic treatments. So if you’re out there listening Boosey & Hawkes, Barenreiter, G. Henle, Dover--give me a ring.




CCC: What's more fun to tackle: a genuine classic, like the Tolstoy covers you've created, or a reinterpretation of such a classic, like 'A Monster's Notes'?




PM: I would say that both scenarios are equally challenging and exciting to work on, though the classics have two added benefits: 1.) The designs you make will be around a LONG time, and 2.) There is no author to disapprove of one’s design work.

CCC: Are there any other book designers do you admire?

PM: There are too many great jacket designers to name.

This fact- that there are so many great jacket designers- I find simultaneously heartening (awesome design makes life better for everyone) and discouraging (if it’s so easy to do that everyone can do it, why do I bother?)

CCC: Are you on the staff at Random House/Knopf, or do you do a lot of freelance work?

PM: I’m officially at Knopf, though Chip and Barbara (De Wilde) and I now split the Pantheon art-directing role as well. And I do some volume of Vintage/Anchor work also.

My freelance work includes art directing Vertical Books as well as freelance jacket designing for other publishers in the US and abroad. There’s also a fair amount of music packaging I do, mostly in France, some editorial design, and occasional logo work. Phew.



CCC: Many of your covers make use of typography alone, or typography and a small but striking pictorial element. Given how well this works, why do you think it's so relatively uncommon an approach?



PM: I think, when I first came to Knopf, it was a very unconventional approach. Much of the jackets at that time were very driven by the full-bleed photo, or the combination of full-bleed photos. And I remember thinking back when I started designing: why doesn’t anyone use simple shapes, fewer colours, and geometric elements in covers? Decades before I started working, this methodology was the norm in cover design. Then the photo and the photo-realistic took over.

So my personal mission was to bring back abstraction in cover design. That sentiment resulted in covers I worked on like Double Vision, and the Dostoevsky series.




But that was then. Nowadays there are almost too many examples of this type of design. The field is glutted with the stuff. I would say at this point, as I was saying earlier, I’m inclined to move OUT of the abstract just to try something new. And, as it happens, I have a great outlet for my more abstract geometric work in the French records and CDs I work on.

CCC: What are you working on now?

PM: Right now I’m working on several things- a logo for the French humanitarian mission in Senegal, A book about Winston Churchill by Sir Max Hastings, A book on Confidential Magazine, A Russian poetry collection, two short story collections, three novels, a coupla biographies, a mess of Vertical stuff and I’m writing an article for a new web magazine about the death of Classical Music.

CCC: And are there any early cover designs out there you'd take back if you could?

PM: Oh God, yes.

CCC: Finally, can you tell us about a great book that nobody seems to know about?

PM: Sweet: no-one ever asks me that...

Off the top of my head: The works of Jean Giono, which North Point Press used to publish in translation are incredible, vital, inimitable works of fiction that are revered in France but mostly unknown over here. In particular, Chant du Monde, and Que Moi Joie Demeurre.

I read Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe, when I was in high school at the urging of my grandfather, and loved it. I even named my golden retriever after one of the characters. This book was the most popular, widely read book of its time and is now largely forgotten.

I’ve always felt very close to the work of David James Duncan, author of The River Why and The Brothers K as well, and feel he never quite had the audience he deserved. His novels are incredible funny and touching in equal measure.

These three are just off-the-cuff. There are many more...

CCC: Thanks for your time!

PM: Thank you!


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As a bonus, here's an excerpt from Peter's fascinating blog, Jacket Mechanical:

I've been a big fan of the popular website FFFFOUND! since it's inception. The site is chock-filled with interesting design, curated (for the most part) by users with wide-ranging visual interest and impeccable taste. The way the site works (for you three or four people who don't already know) is this: There are images chosen by various user-members on the main page. By clicking on an image, you are told in effect: "If you liked this image, you may like these as well..." and you are subsequently led to other images related by subject-matter, or style. It's a kind of visual free-association.

Here's the rub: this associative system invariably leads me, without my knowing it, to an image of a naked lady.

It just seems to happen that way. And reconstructing the path it took to get there helps not one whit in my understanding how I ended up with full-frontal nudity. It's sort of like a game of telephone where X shares a trait with Y, and Y shares a trait with Z, but X and Z have little in common. And, I know, I KNOW- Maybe it's just me- maybe I have answered the site's Rorschach test in this particularly perverted way. But I assure you- I always start out honorably, wanting to take in some design inspiration... and the female form is the inevitable result. But of course, isn't this just the way of the internet in general? Perhaps.

(I would also submit that my OTHER obsessions, like, say, species counterpoint, don't arise in this or any other internet context merely because I am interested in them. I've never accidentally come across a picture of Palestrina or Orlando di Lasso on ffffound. Sex, as we all know, is clearly on everyone's mind. And, incidentally, for what it's worth- I had assumed naked dudes would turn up as often, but they don't.)

I decided to do a little experiment, and see how many steps it would take me to get from a piece of my own graphic design work on ffffound to a page with a sexy woman; and then, how many steps it would take me to get from the nude lady in question back to a different work of my own. I chose design work of mine that is maximally abstract and contains no erotic subtext whatsoever (or so I thought).

Well, the results are in, and I seem to average between 3 and 4 steps removed from the unclothéd female body. Click on the chart below to see how I fared in my first outing:



(Now, as I look at this chart many questions arise- the first and most pressing of which is: why on earth, if someone liked the jacket for Roberto Calasso's "K" would they enjoy that torso/stereo system cited from the Kanye West blog. Some questions are better left unanswered.) N.B. here I was consciously trying to end up with nudity so the results are somewhat skewed...

Now this game could work with anything- see how many clicks it takes you to get from Abraham Lincoln to a picture of a muscle-car. How many clicks between a "Keep Calm and Carry On" variant and a chunky geometric font without counter-holes (why, oh why are these so prevalent?). I think there's a really decent drinking game in all this. The only thing of which you can be sure is- whatever path you choose, you will eventually have to look at a beautiful woman. But I suppose there are worse things in life...


8 comments:

Ian Shimkoviak said...

Fucking wonderful. Thanks.

JRSM said...

Very much my pleasure!

Dan said...

So great. Thanks for posting. Will be linking to this ASAP! :-)

JRSM said...

Cheers, Dan: everybody should head over to http://www.casualoptimist.com/?p=1590 for other great links--I love the concept of the Wankers' Shelf.

John Self said...

Great interview - I had no idea the same man was behind McGrath's Trauma, Amis's Second Plane and Marai's The Rebels, all of which I've admired.

I suppose the only drawback with a magician such as Mr Mendelsund is that he could make a terrible book look really great, thus parting me from more of my not-that-hard-earned pennies. But it's a small price to pay.

Georgie George said...

Thanks for introducing me to the talents of peter mendelsund. What a legend, what a designer, what a talent. No trickery, just pure artistic skill. Love it!

JRSM said...

My pleasure, George: you're a woman of taste and distinction!

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