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The grandmaster of book design
ADITYA MANI JHA  27th Jun 2015

Books designed by Chip Kidd.

ast year, Haruki Murakami surprised his worldwide legion of fans with not one, but two new releases: after the somewhat bland Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Murakami also published The Strange Library, an illustrated novella revised from a short story he wrote in the '80s. The Strange Library was always supposed to be a heavily illustrated book that relied on a precise dovetailing between form and content: think Dr Seuss or Mark Danielewski. So when it came to choosing the designer for this challenging project, there was only one serious contender: Chip Kidd, the man who has been designing Murakami covers for the last two decades.

The front cover has a ticket pouch which library patrons everywhere will recognise instantly. The upper half of the U.S. edition of the book has a pair of "anime eyes" peeping mischievously at you. You can imagine these eyes belong to a Laurel and Hardy skit or a Bugs Bunny cartoon: such is the emotional temperature at this point. But the lower half features a set of carnivorous fangs, poised to tear into some fresh meat.

Can there be a more perfect encapsulation of Murakami's world, a world where serial killers dress up as Colonel Sanders, where a bored couple robs a McDonald's, but depletes only the burger trays, not the cash register? Unsurprisingly, Kidd has designed the most iconic editions of Murakami's three biggest novels: 1Q84, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka On the Shore. Of these, the image that readers are most familiar with is the Kafka cover: a bulbous head that resembles a puffed-up golf ball. I like this one because it shows how Kidd deconstructs the thought process of an author rather than directly borrow plot points. And this is true irrespective of whether the author is Cormac McCarthy, Bret Easton Ellis or John Updike (and that's three styles that are as different from each other as they can be).

The 50-year-old Kidd has been designing books for Knopf (owned by Random House) for almost three decades now: he first joined them as a junior assistant in 1986. Since then, he has built a body of work so formidable that several authors today, like Oliver Sacks, have a special clause in their contracts: an assurance that Kidd will design their books. At first glance, this does not seem like much: after all, authors have been known to be fussy and micro-managing when it comes to their babies. But then you consider the people in question here: folks like Chris Ware or Daniel Clowes or Frank Miller, comics legends who know a thing or two about book design themselves, you understand Kidd's aura and what he brings to the table.

And it's fitting that Kidd has the admiration of comics pros: for he has acknowledged that Batman comics and their assorted paraphernalia had a huge influence on his style statement. In Veronique Vienne's biographical book Chip Kidd, she says: "His greatest design influence was daytime television. 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."

The Strange Library was always supposed to be a heavily illustrated book that relied on a precise dovetailing between form and content: think Dr Seuss or Mark Danielewski. So when it came to choosing the designer for this challenging project, there was only one serious contender: Chip Kidd.

The famous bat symbol is now shorthand for the Batman universe. Similarly, Kidd's artwork for Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park novels was borrowed by the film franchise and is now one of the most iconic movie posters in the world. There are other triumphs: too many to be discussed in a single article, truth be told. The cover of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, a novel about terribly old-fashioned Classics students doing terrible things, but in a more or less modern fashion. It had to be a design that suspended the reader in between two eras. And it was: a too-close classical statue staring at you, prompting you into guilt, before the ultra-modern, digital-inspired typeface reminded you of the very contemporary hell you were about to enter. Equally impressive was the cover for Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, where he used a portion of a David Katzenstein photograph; the stunning white mane of a horse offering the only kind of tranquillity McCarthy is capable of giving us: the temporary kind.

As if a lifetime's worth of brilliant book art was not enough, he has written two very decent novels as well. A constant complaint among the novel's reviewers (and those who wrote blurbs for it) was the inherently unfair nature of a man who seemed to be more than competent in whatever he put his mind to. Indeed, as perennial enfant terrible Bret Easton Ellis says on the jacket of Kidd's debut novel The Cheese Monkeys: "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)."

Now if only Kidd finds it within himself to write a graphic memoir, we may yet have the prettiest book of all time.

 
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