Genius Abounded at “The Art of the Book”

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We dispatched Ian Curry to soak up what at least one UnBeige editor called an orgy of book loving madness last night at the 92nd Street Y.

“You mean Chip Kidd is going to be here?” said bookish girl to bookish boy, settling into the seats behind me. “Damn, you really know how to plan a date.” And the bookish boy glowed.

To understand why this boy and girl, and 900 others, ventured out on a Monday night to the 92nd Street Y’s “The Art of the Book” lecture in New York City, I should explain that Chip Kidd was joined onstage by Dave Eggers and Milton Glaser, with Michael Bierut moderating. It was the kind of creative convergence that could cause car alarms to go off for blocks around the theater. Fortunately, after a charming introduction, Michael Bierut brought them up one at a time.

First up was Milton Glaser. It’s hard to describe Glaser at 77, except by saying that if he pulled a tiny, live unicorn out of his shirt pocket and set it down on the podium, it would seem only mildly surprising. He’s a benevolent magician, and that magic comes through in all of his work. Yes, you know him as the guy who designed the “I love New York” logo. He’s also a seminal book cover designer. Glaser’s covers are a mix of psychedelia and modernism, with clean typography accompanying flowing, bizarre illustration. As Glaser pointed out, book cover design is one of the few design disciplines in which the designer gets a printed credit. It’s a small thing in a way, but as became evident throughout the evening, a good book designer has a special relationship with the medium.


Often sharing some literary inclinations themselves, book design is collaboration between two storytellers. Glaser detailed how, in illustrating a volume of Baudelaire, he avoided creating scenes that directly represented the text, opting instead to create spaces Baudelaire’s characters would feel comfortable in. The result is a kind of parallel story, beautifully complementary of the first. And apart from the ubiquitous t-shirts, that’s why Milton Glaser is famous.

Chip Kidd was next. It’s not just the name that makes Kidd memorable: it’s the haircut; the 50’s clothing; the glasses. He’s a sort of literary/design archetype come to life. Kidd’s work is in the lineage of Glaser’s in terms of visual wit, and relationship to the author. Kidd works at Knopf, and despite his rock-star status, he winningly reminded the audience that he too must wrestle with unreasonable clients, and the insane demands of the market.

The central question of Kidd’s presentation was, “What does a bestseller look like?” Must it have foil stamping and the author’s name in Trajan Bold? Or can it be something more subtle, like the cover one of Kidd’s coworkers did for Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking; a dignified typographic treatment in which the letters of Didion’s deceased husband’s name are subtly highlighted. He’s one of those rare people that is good at everything (read The Cheese Monkeys), and yet you have no impulse to hate him whatsoever. At the end of the session, one of the questions directed to him ended by saying “Also? I love you.” Ditto.

Dave Eggers had a tough act to follow. Fortunately Eggers’ work mostly speaks for itself. Michael Bierut introduced him, noting that Eggers “writes in Quark.” He’s also a rare crossover between a designer and writer. Eggers’ presentation was a tour of the history of McSweeney’s primarily, with brief dips into side projects. As Bierut also noted in the introduction, there’s a highly unique, almost outsider-art quality to Eggers’ work. Eggers himself is more quirky than I would have imagined for someone who’s been almost preternaturally effective at building his empire. I’m pretty sure the claim to still using a 56k modem was an affect, but his professed loyalty to Quark 4.1 and OS 9 seemed authentic.

The difference between Eggers and the other speakers was markedly that Eggers has taken ownership of the production. Unlike Glaser and Kidd, Eggers runs McSweeney’s more or less independently, allowing him to explode the form of the book. With help from his printing house, McSweeney’s has explored boxes, rubber-band-bound folios, and a number of other unique forms that would be impossible to justify to a corporate publisher. His latest is an invention in which the book’s folios are bound to the spine with magnets. A glass book is promised.

The final question session brought all the speakers up to the stage for a hurried-but-thoughtful audience Q&A session, moderated by Michael Bierut. Bierut was well-chosen as a moderator: he’s a charismatic balance of rigor defused by affability. The most engaging questions brought out a central theme of the talk; that of “keepability.” As different as each designer’s work was, all agreed on the aim of increasing the book’s value as an object, not just a container for ideas. It’s an ethic that could be applied to any design discipline, and one that all the speakers had excelled in.

An electrified audience had a certain quality on its way out of the theater. There was a sound like people breathing cold air. We’d been laughing for several hours straight and shown some of the most beautiful cultural artifacts produced in the past several years. Bookish boy and bookish girl, needless to say, had very good dates. All 900 of them.

Ian Curry is an artist and designer who lives, with others of his kind, in Brooklyn. He currently works in the digital media group at frog Design in New York.