Saturday, October 23, 2004

The cover-up Kidd

His flamboyance and bravado -- not to mention those Upper East Side parties -- have made Chip Kidd more famous than many of the authors whose book jackets he's designed, writes GUY DIXON


UPDATED AT 9:40 PM EDT Saturday, Oct 23, 2004

He's been called "the closest thing to a rock star" in the otherwise sequestered world of publishing, a "path-breaking designer" and even, a little oddly, an "inky colossus."

The fact is that Chip Kidd, who just turned 40 and passed his 18th anniversary as a designer at Knopf in Manhattan, is more famous than many of the authors whose book covers he designs. Certainly he has created some of the most recognizable covers of the 1990s, from the dinosaur-bone image for Jurassic Park to the black-and-white photograph of a horse's mane below a white header on the cover of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. He has even written his own novel, 2001's The Cheese Monkeys, as if flouting the notion that he should be contained on a jacket.

The end result is that Kidd is probably the only designer that many book buyers can actually name, giving him a celebrity status, at least in publishing houses and graphic-arts departments, of rock-star proportions. "Oh, were it only true!" says Kidd, with a theatrical quaver in his voice. "Being in New York and knowing several famous people is good because it helps you keep your perspective, and you realize that, no, you're really not all that high up on the totem pole."

Modesty aside, Kidd has said that all the attention can get a little ridiculous -- that it's akin, as he has put it, to being described as the world's most famous plumber. And he hasn't been alone in trying to temper some of it. In a monograph on his work published last year by Yale University Press, Sonny Mehta, editor-in-chief at Knopf, is quoted as saying, "I admire Chip immensely, but I want to be sure that you understand that Chip is not the only great designer at Knopf."

VĂ©ronique Vienne, who wrote the essay and who teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where Kidd also taught for six years, notes that his fame hasn't always sat easily with his peers in the tiny New York community of book designers. "On the one hand," she writes, "they envy his bravado and his willingness to be flamboyant in a field that used to be the domain of tweedy practitioners." But then there's the feeling that they now have to act more like Kidd -- and be thought of as equally effusive, multitalented and charming.

In part, Kidd was able to ride a nineties wave of new interest in designers as personalities. Just as he was making his mark with jackets for such bestsellers as Donna Tartt's The Secret History, Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, notes Vienne, the cult of celebrity turned its eye on designers in general, with major profiles appearing on such people as Fabien Baron, the former art director of Harper's Bazaar (who helped establish fashion retailing's trend toward black-and-white minimalism),and Tibor Kalman (particularly known for his work editing Benetton's deliberately provocative magazine, Colors).

If it were ever traceable, the tipping point in Kidd's own widespread recognition seems to have started with such articles as Janet Froelich's 1996 piece on him in The New York Times, which was perfectly timed to Kidd's work on illustrated books such as Batman Collected (an exhaustive look at Batman memorabilia, which Kidd collects). Then there's the simple fact, as Kidd says, that his subfield "is one of the few areas of graphic design where graphic designers get personal credit for what they do. You open the book, and there it is on the back flap: Jacket design by Chip Kidd."

One thing leads to another, and a reputation gets built. And since young designers -- like every entry-level job in publishing -- start out making barely enough to afford to live in a city like New York, freelancing is accepted, if not encouraged. The work of a tiny group of book designers in Manhattan therefore proliferates across publishing houses, and, if the conditions are right, their exposure quickly grows.

When asked how many covers he has done since arriving at Knopf in 1986, straight out of university, and where he's still a staff designer, his usual response has been in the neighbourhood of 1,200, based on rough calculations. But while helping to amass his past work for the Yale book, and now a larger, more comprehensive retrospective of his work to come in two years from art publisher Rizzoli, he says it's actually closer to 750 book jackets.

Whatever the right number, it's a huge, widely acclaimed collection of work. Some authors, such as Oliver Sacks, have it written into their contracts that only Kidd will work on their books. Kidd is also an editor-at-large at the Knopf imprint Pantheon, where he acquires and edits graphic novels and illustrated books. His own coffee-table book for Pantheon, 2001's Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz, is a highly praised, vibrant appreciation of Schulz's life and work.

Kidd's graphics have a kind of inviting directness, drawing in the reader and summing up the essence of a book, while asking as many questions as they answer. Why, for instance, on the cover of Donna Tartt's The Little Friend, is the face on the doll looking so wary, and peering to the side?His metaphors may be a little heavy-handed for some, like the upside-down -- perhaps dropped? -- stuffed bunny on the cover of Paul Golding's The Abomination. But these are covers obviously intended for the bestsellers table.

"I try to avoid having any kind of signature style," he says. "Which is not to say I don't repeat myself. I do. But I try not to. I really try to employ various kinds of techniques and visual approaches to the jackets in order to keep them fresh."

Is that hard after designing so many? "Yes," he says, "you do have to consciously fight it."

A frequent lecturer, Kidd is also known, at least from accounts in New York magazine, for his parties at his Upper East Side apartment. He says it's because his place is conducive to entertaining, simply because it has a terrace, which is unusual in crowded upper Manhattan. Still, it all adds to his celebrity.

In the meantime, he's working on his second novel. Writing doesn't pay the bills, so he can't see it superseding his design work any time soon. But he also doesn't let on that he has much fear of criticism or, for that matter, the envy of peers -- or even any just-trying-to-be-helpful feedback from his partner, poet and essayist J. D. McClatchy.

"The book I'm working on now is in the first person, as was The Cheese Monkeys," says Kidd. "And I remember I worked on a long, difficult passage of it, and he looked at it and said, 'Well, maybe you should be writing in the third person.' Of course that was pretty much the last thing I wanted to hear."

But for all the restraint with which he describes his work, there are clues, too, about how much control he's willing to cede, particularly in his design work. The retrospective book to be published by Rizzoli is largely a response to the Yale University Press monograph, he says emphatically.

"I strangely really wasn't part of the process of putting [the Yale book] together," he says, other than to help collect some of his past works.

But what really got away on him was the book's cover, which has neither a central, straight-on image nor tells a mini, metaphorical story on its own. "I'm not," says the designer, "terrifically crazy about it."

The Globe and Mail

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