Peter Mendelsund often says that “dead authors get the best book jackets.”
Mr. Mendelsund, who has designed striking covers for departed literary giants like Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Joyce, dreads working with picky writers who demand a particular font, color, image or visual theme. “It ends up looking like hell,” he said.
Then last year, Mr. Mendelsund, the associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf, became his own worst nightmare. He started writing a book himself. Coming up with a cover for his book, “What We See When We Read,” a playful, illustrated treatise on how words give rise to mental images, was excruciating, he said. As the author, he felt as if no single image could sum up the book’s premise. As the jacket designer, he had to put something on the front, or resign in disgrace. His first attempt was stark and off-putting: a plain black cover with small white text. “It was like stage fright,” he said. “I just seized up.”
Stage fright isn’t a chronic affliction for Mr. Mendelsund, a 46-year-old “recovering classical pianist” who taught himself graphic design. More often, he suffers from a surfeit of ideas. In the past decade, Mr. Mendelsund has designed about 600 book jackets, ranging from a sober, sophisticated cover for Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” to his whimsical Pop Art-like treatment of Kafka’s novella “Metamorphosis,” to the hypnotic fluorescent swirls on Stieg Larsson’s thriller “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
Mr. Mendelsund has long been regarded as one of the top book designers at work today, taking his place alongside design luminaries like Chip Kidd, Alvin Lustig and George Salter. Now, he’s making his debut as a writer, with two books coming out next week. Both explore the peculiar challenges of transforming words into images, and blend illustrations with philosophy, literary criticism and design theory.
In “What We See When We Read,” which is being published by Vintage Books next Tuesday, Mr. Mendelsund tackles the mysterious way text yields vivid mental pictures, even when the author supplies very little visual detail. Most readers, for instance, feel as if they can perfectly describe Anna Karenina, even though Tolstoy gives us little more than gray eyes, thick lashes and curly brown hair. In short, illustrated chapters, Mr. Mendelsund argues that reading is an act of co-creation, and that our impressions of characters and places owe as much to our own memory and experience as to the descriptive powers of authors.
On the same day, PowerHouse Books is releasing “Cover,” a 267-page coffee-table book with more than 300 of Mr. Mendelsund’s most arresting book jackets, and dozens of rejected drafts. The images are interspersed with notes on his process, along with essays by authors of some of the featured books, including the best-selling Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo and James Gleick, author of the nonfiction books “Chaos” and “The Information.”
“Most designers look for a central image to sum up a book, but Peter isn’t looking for an image, he’s looking for an idea,” Mr. Gleick said in an interview. For the hardcover edition of “The Information,” Mr. Mendelsund repeated the title about 60 times, so that it looks like a flood of code.
For much of his life, Mr. Mendelsund felt “visually illiterate,” he said. He grew up in Cambridge, Mass., the son of an architect and a high school history teacher. He started playing the piano at the age of 4. After studying philosophy and literature at Columbia University, he spent two years at a music conservatory and tried to make a living as a professional pianist. But he struggled on a classical musician’s salary, and, after several years, he found himself married with an infant daughter and no health insurance.
He decided to try graphic design, though he had no formal training. He read design books and picked up a few freelance projects, sometimes working free. A year later, he was hired as a designer at Vintage and Anchor Books.
John Gall, the former art director at Vintage and Anchor, said he saw Mr. Mendelsund’s artistic potential right away, but was even more impressed by his knack for literary criticism. “He combines very strong, very smart conceptual thinking with beautiful, risk-taking execution,” said Mr. Gall, who is now the creative director of Abrams Books.
To come up with a cover, Mr. Mendelsund begins by scribbling notes on a manuscript and underlining key thematic sentences. He hangs the marked-up pages above his computer. Then he begins cataloging his ideas on a piece of paper covered with 16 rectangles, filling each one with a word, phrase or tiny sketch. He picks the most promising concept and creates a draft on the computer.
Once he has a rough design in place, he will often switch to illustrating by hand, drawing with an ink brush, layering on paper collage or filling in blocky shapes with gouache, a dense watercolor. Finally, he prints out a mock cover, wraps it around a hardcover and leaves it on his bookshelf for a few days. If his eye is spontaneously drawn to it a day or two later, he considers his direction on the right track. If the cover disappears into the background, he knows something is missing.
He often repeats this process dozens of times. For a new edition of Julio Cortázar’s 1963 novel, “Hopscotch,” he created 60 covers before choosing one with a pattern of blue footprints imposed on white squares. “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was even tougher, taking nearly 70 attempts. Theresulting cover became ubiquitous as the novel went on to sell about 10 million copies.
Sonny Mehta, the chairman and editor in chief of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, said the surprisingly cheerful cover probably helped make the novel a blockbuster. “I didn’t want a gloomy Nordic landscape,” he said. “It was unconventional, and it worked.”
Hannah Depp, a floor manager at Politics and Prose, an independent bookstore in Washington, said she has seen customers respond to Mr. Mendelsund’s designs, particularly for classic titles that are available in multiple editions. His cover of “Ulysses,” a lush green with “Yes” scrawled in black marker within the title, echoing the last word of the book, outsells other editions, as does his minimalist black-and-white cover for “Crime and Punishment,” she said.
Of the hundreds of covers Mr. Mendelsund has designed, none has been quite as taxing as the one for his “What We See When We Read.” (He also created the design for “Cover,” but said that one, a photo of a red book against a white background, was easy.) The subject seemed to defy illustration, because Mr. Mendelsund’s central thesis is that readers often invent images that the text does not support. “The whole point is not to show something,” he said.
Finally, he found a solution. “It’s still very minimalist, but it’s a way to show the feeling of not being able to see something,” he said. He added a small, reflective gold keyhole to the plain black cover. The keyhole’s metallic finish catches the light, drawing the eye to it like a candle in a dark room.http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/29/books/peter-mendelsund-book-designer-debuts-as-a-writer.html?emc=edit_th_20140729&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=61733211&_r=0