Is the printed book destined for eventual extinction?
Is the thoughtfully designed book cover approaching obsolescence? The availability of ebooks has indeed increased, and print-on-demand technology will likely change the way books are marketed and purchased. But there is something special about the mass-produced book as an object– it is more than just a presentation of the ideas of an author. When a text is published and the book is designed and printed, it becomes a physical manifestation not just of the ideas of the author, but of the cultural ideals and aesthetics of a distinct historical moment. Should the physical book endure the onslaught of virtual forms of information, it will likely be its very materiality that facilitates its survival. The book as an object is comfortingly substantial in its content and its material presence. At a time when so much information is dispersed in virtual form, it is especially important to examine the book as a distinctive object reflecting a marriage of authors’ words and designers’ vision.
The cover is a book’s first communication to the reader, a graphic representation not simply of its content, but of its point in history–in the history of American design, in the history of American
literature, in the history of American culture. Books and their covers are vital, physical manifestations of an evolving American intellectual tradition. In retrospect, the most intelligently designed covers of American books recall particular moments in our cultural memory. The designs conjure up associations of our personal and collective encounters with the groundbreaking intellectual expressions of our times. They define what we were, what we hoped to be, and sometimes, what we have become. The study of great literature and the printed word allows us to better understand our world, and examining how designers have interpreted these words at a particular historical moment sheds light on the complexities of the American design realm. The cover design of James Joyce’s ULYSSES, for instance, was the focus of early American interpretations of modernism and has ultimately returned to its original form of seventy years ago. The first American edition of the book was made possible in 1933 with the lifting of the U.S. ban of the text for obscenity. In his cover for the 1934 Random House edition, Ernst Reichl created a functional and dramatic jacket design that seemed as modern as the text itself. Reflecting a modernist heritage that would take firmer root in America in the decades to come, Reichl used type as a meaningful compositional device in and of itself.
The elongated typography echoed the path taken by the protagonist Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Subtle, horizontal crossbars found at the base, midpoint, and top of the type helped to create a harmonious formal structure that plays against the extreme verticality of the book. The attenuated title lettering was further balanced by a blunt red rectangle anchored by the author’s name rendered in lowercase Futura Black— a typeface that had been designed only a few years earlier by German modernist Paul Renner. Reichl’s simple yet effective typographic manipulation created a striking cover that foreshadowed the rigorous formal and conceptual experimentation of American design in the coming decades. In his 1949 cover for ULYSSES, E. McKnight Kauffer pushed the typographic experiment along with an even purer modernist approach. The typographic elements of the cover dominate, but do more than spell out words. They act as abstract compositional features carefully placed to create an asymmetrical balance of form and color on a stark field of black. Perhaps acknowledging Reichl’s design, Kauffer elongated the U and L, playing with the type as image and giving graphic form to the phonetic structure of the title with its accent on the first syllable. Kauffer’s design for ULYSSES reflects a time when the distilled forms of modernism were being adapted to the realm
of American book cover design with the great hope for a visual vocabulary that could transform not just design but society as a whole. As promising as the spare typography and clean forms of modernism might have been, their formal and theoretical rigor could easily be diluted. Interpretations of modernism could turn into the suburban blandness of covers like the 1940 Modern Library ULYSSES, which stayed in print for over two decades. Here, the formal and conceptual complexity of Kauffer’s design was lost. By the 1960s many of America’s most innovative designers would look to alternatives to modernism’s stark, universalizing forms, but ULYSSES and modernism would have other encounters.
Carin Goldberg’s 1986 cover for ULYSSES once again incorporated the language of modernism, but now as a self-conscious act of historical quotation. In an era when designers were exploring postmodern concepts of appropriation, authorship, and originality, Goldberg created a cover that did not simply use historical tools like Renner’s typeface Futura. She went further, audaciously basing the composition on Renner’s 1928 Applied Arts of Bavaria exhibition poster. While Goldberg’s design for ULYSSES earned its share of ridicule, it is emblematic of a moment in American design when practitioners were seriously engaging their historical legacy and grappling with some of the most intriguing theoretical challenges of the twentieth century. Random House’s 2002 edition of ULYSSES is a facsimile of their 1934 edition, including Reichl’s now uncredited cover design. Similar facsimiles with original cover designs have been made of modern classics like Catch 22 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and reproductions of vintage covers are prominent on the walls and shopping bags of every Barnes & Noble bookstore. The recent reappearance of these covers is an acknowledgment of the importance of not only the historical legacy of the texts, but also of their designs. With historical hindsight, the covers become the visual manifestations of groundbreaking literature, a document of a historical moment, an articulation of our cultural identity. That identity is still manifested in contemporary book cover design. In an age where some claim that an intellectual tradition is being quashed by a soulless media society, the book cover remains an amalgam of form and meaning, a reflection of an American literary legacy that continues to find new avenues of expression and new ways to explore the nature of contemporary experience. Indeed, a tradition of sophisticated, conceptual American book cover design proves to be the visual language that defines the literary legacy of an entire culture.