By Jeet Heer
National Post (September 12, 2003)
For normal people, encounters with artistic genius always provoke a mixture of gratitude and resentment. Gratitude: because there can never be enough beauty in the world and a genius adds to humanity’s shared stock of cultural wealth. But resentment also: because a genius by definition does what we cannot do, throwing into sharper relief our own bovine inability to distinguish ourselves from the common herd.
In the hitherto esoteric world of book-jacket design, Chip Kidd has achieved an unusual fame, earning the awe and enmity reserved for genius. In hailing Kidd as “the world’s greatest book-jacket designer”, thriller king James Ellroy was merely adding his voice to a loud chorus of praise. Art critic Robert Hughes and novelist Paul Golding have been equally effusive. After seeing Kidd’s design for his novel The Abomination, Golding immediately dashed off a two page fan letter thanking Kidd for finding just the right image to capture the novel’s mood. Oliver Sacks, whose best-selling explorations in medical lore include Awakenings, insists in his publishing contract that Kidd always be hired to design his books.
A witty public lecturer, Kidd is frequently profiled in magazines like New York and Print. In recent years, he’s expanded his range, moving from the covers of books and starting to shape their content. In this capacity, he’s won plaudits both as a writer (in his 2001 first novel The Cheese Monkeys) and as an editor of coffee table books devoted to pop icons like Batman and Peanuts.
Yet amidst all the applause, there has always been a murmur of discontent. A hint of this can be seen even in the blurbs for The Cheese Monkeys, where some of the celebrators seem to be asking if it is fair for Kidd to start showing off his talents in yet another field. “Not only has Chip Kidd altered the face of publishing with his revolutionary book jackets, he has also written a really good debut novel (the bastard),” Bret Easton Ellis quipped with exasperated admiration.
“His peers don’t feel comfortable with his fame,” Veronique Vienne notes in her new monograph Chip Kidd (Yale University Press). “On the one hand they envy his bravado and his willingness to be flamboyant in a field that used to be the domain of tweedy practitioners, but on the other hand they resent the fact that to compete with him, they can’t be mere graphic designers any more, they also have to be perceived as multitalented, articulate, charming and funny.”
Vienne’s book, part of a new series entitled “Monographics” devoted to contemporary designers, is both testimony to Kidd’s celebrity and an exploration of it. The Yale series as a whole shows that designers are becoming celebrities in our increasingly visual culture. It is remarkable that Kidd, still shy of his 40th birthday, already merits a career overview. But aside from providing numerous images of Kidd’s book-jackets, which taken together offer startling proof of his achievement, Vienne also helps us understand where Kidd came from and why some people remain uneasy at the sight of his book designs, as well at youthful fame.
Born in Shillington, Pennsylvania in 1964 and raised in a suburb of Philadelphia, Kidd grew up surrounded by the consumerist cornucopia that was post-war America. “His greatest design influence was daytime television,” Vienne notes. “At age two, he was already a Batman fan, sporting as often as he could his superhero’s costume, complete with mask, cape and gloves. A pure product of American pop culture, he developed a love of graphic design by staring in supermarkets at the packaging of Batman playthings – nightlights, belt buckles, action figures, pencil cases and so on.”
A kid (or Kidd) in a toy store is saturated with images. Visually overloaded, a child in that happy environment is much more likely to go after what looks odd or engages the eye. Kidd remembered this childhood lesson when he joined the design team at the Knopf Publishing Group in 1986.
Knopf was a good fit for Kidd, and he continues to work there to this day. From its early days at the beginning of the 20th century, Knopf had given priority to books as physical objects. When Kidd came on board, the Knopf jacket design team, led by Carol Carson, was entering into a fertile period of experimentation.
A photography-buff, Carson had startled the publishing world by showing how effective photos could be if they were put right on the cover of books, rather than sequestered in the back or inside the jacket. Previously, with a thudding literal-mindedness, publishers used illustrations for fiction and photos for non-fiction. Realizing that photographs were themselves works of art, Carson demonstrated that a well-chosen snapshot, often of an enigmatic and evocative nature, could enhance a novel’s appearance.
Kidd learned a great deal from Carson, chiefly the importance of daring to do the unexpected. While he’s always been happy to credit her influence, journalists telling his story haven’t always fallen his lead. This has given Kidd the unfair reputation as a publicity hound who gets press for a creative efflorescence that was actually nurtured by Carson.
While Kidd certainly learned from Carson and other colleagues at Knopf, he also developed a strong individual style. Most books are like shy teenagers at a dance. They stare meekly at the floor, hoping someone will talk to them but not willing to risk the embarrassment that comes from seeking attention. Kidd’s books take a more aggressive stance.
“Chip Kidd frames the front cover in pristine white – a color at once stark, innocent and inviting,” notes James Ellroy, describing the cover of his novel White Jazz. “Centered in the white expanses: an LAPD patrol car door shot full of holes. The potential buyer/reader has been presented with a statement and a challenge – forceful, simply, elegant: Read This Book!”
As Vienne observes, many of Kidd’s exhibitionist visual gambits are taken from the more lurid reaches of popular culture, especially comic books. Like a cartoonist marking off panels and word balloons, Kidd tends to divide his covers into discrete blocks of information: one chunk for the title, another for picture (which is sometimes itself divided into smaller squares).
As with reading a comics page, a Chip Kidd cover asks the reader to both see and read. Often the image is elliptically related to the title or contents of the book, but the reader has to make a guess as to what the connection is. Sometimes, only a reading of the book will make the full meaning of the cover clear. (Among his other virtues, Kidd is a careful reader of the books he designs: the jacket is always uniquely tailored to match the text). This subtle combination of words and images, calling upon readers to use a magpie intelligence, is the essence of comics. It is also the key to Kidd’s own aesthetic.
To fully appreciate a Chip Kidd cover, you have to work at seeing it, just as you would in looking at a painting. To some people, the fact that Kidd makes such a demand on their time and energy is proof that he is a pretentious show-off. Yet any author should be glad to have Kidd’s services. After all, we live in a world drowning in printed material, now not just from books but also from computers. Chip Kidd makes sure your book will get noticed, even if you have to share the limelight with him.