Cover Design in Dangerous Times: An Interview with Peter Mendelsund

By Sam Jaffe GoldsteinDecember 13, 2016

Cover Design in Dangerous Times: An Interview with Peter Mendelsund
THOUGH PETER MENDELSUND is a self-described “recovering classical pianist,” he’s better known as the man behind the covers of mega-bestsellers like Emma Cline’s The Girls and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, as well as reissues of classic titles like James Joyce’s Dubliners. Mendelsund is the associate art director at Knopf and the author of two books, Cover and What We See When We Read. The return of the paper book over the past decade or so has also ushered in the return of the cover, and one frequently encounters lists of the “best covers of the year.” Mendelsund’s name is all but sure to appear on every one of these lists.

Earlier this year, just as I was preparing to move across the country, a fellow bookseller put W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants into my hands. Sebald, a German writer based in England, could not escape his past: much of his work centers around history and memory, particularly in the wake of World War II. The Emigrants possessed me as I traversed the United States. Soon after, New Directions announced their reissues of three Sebald books — The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Vertigo — with Peter Mendelsund’s covers. Mendelsund is clearly committed to rereading and rediscovering classic authors. The list of authors for whom he has provided covers includes Kafka, Dostoevsky, Joyce, and de Beauvoir. When Mendelsund and I spoke a few weeks after the presidential election, he offered me the wisdom he has acquired through his reading and design work. Specifically, he suggested that Sebald’s books, though they are haunted by tragedies, might offer some comfort in these dark times.


SAM JAFFE GOLDSTEIN: You were trained as a classical pianist. How did you find yourself in the world of cover design?

PETER MENDELSUND: I finished my master’s in music and was gigging around New York City, teaching composition, orchestration, theory, and piano. My wife got pregnant, and we just needed more money. I needed a skill that was more marketable, so we brainstormed a bit. Because I have always been of an artistic bent — both in terms of musical art and visual and optical art. I’ve drawn and painted a lot, and somehow it just didn’t seem like too steep a learning curve to become a graphic designer. Honestly, it’s the easiest thing in the world — anybody can do it. There are very few barriers to entry, and once that came up as a possible career direction, I just bought a bunch of books. This was 15 years ago, so it’s not like there were online tutorials, there was no “online.” I went to Barnes & Noble and bought a bunch of books on how to use Quark and Photoshop. My first job interview was with Vintage Books, which is the paperback arm of Knopf where I work now, and that’s the only job I’ve ever had. Other than playing the piano.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. While I was playing the piano in New York for all those years, I was working all kinds of weird odd jobs including working as a bookseller, which I did for years. I worked at Books & Company, which was next to the Whitney Museum. It’s very easy to say it was the greatest bookstore in New York City back then, in the ’80s and ’90s. It was the ’90s when I worked there, and all kinds of cool clientele used come in there. Susan Sontag used to come in all the time — she was the first person who I heard mention the name Sebald. The Emigrants had just come out, and she told me: “You really have to read this guy, because he’s going to win the Nobel Prize, and this is the greatest thing that has come out this year.” So I did.

Do you think working at a bookstore is part of what got you interested in cover design?

You know what’s funny? I never thought about the covers when I worked at a bookstore. I just looked right past them, never thought about them. Really, I didn’t. Even after I started sort of learning graphic design during that intermediary year. It was not until I got an interview at Knopf that I started actually looking at book jackets. I never considered them at all as things. I considered the name of the author and the title of the book, and just looked completely past what the cover was. My first moment of consciousness about book covers was probably that year when I started working at Knopf.

Why has cover design become so important?

I think it has something to do with the digital revolution. There’s been a kind of retrenching around the physical book in the age of digital. There was a moment where we thought it would go away, and then we all rallied around the physical book assets. One of those assets is its materiality as an object, that it can be a beautiful thing, that it can have this beautiful paratextual space in which all this stuff happens. The cover is a meeting place for all these different vectors.

Now that I know more about book jackets and the history of book jackets, I think people have always been talking about them, as long as they have been made. I was just blind to them. In any case, I do think there’s been a renewed appreciation for book design, a sort of reaction to the digital revolution.

There has also been a lot of criticism from women of a kind of veiled sexism in cover design.

There are new sensitivities around how books are packaged and sold — as there really should be. There are whole genres of writing — I hesitate to even use the word genre, but there have been sort of ghettos — into which certain kinds of fiction have been thrown. The gates of those ghettos are these formulaic jackets. We consider it to be “genre fiction,” which is so condescending, as a term. I find any kind of formulaic jacket to be offensive on some level, but it’s particularly offensive when that cliché is being deployed in order to maintain a kind of pigeon hole for a certain kind of writing.

You designed the Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy covers, and you also design covers for crime fiction. Do you take that into consideration when you are designing “genre” books, or books that are put into certain categories?

Here is where design is not fine art. It is a contingent process, and I can’t do always what I would like to do, if I had my druthers. In the case of most crime fiction, I try to do something that will sell the book — because that is what I’m hired to do. Sometimes that means that I have to do the kind of cliché thing, and I always hate doing it. I kind of hold my nose and do it, because it’s my job. The Stieg Larssons are an interesting example — if you can change up as many of those tropes as possible, sometimes a jacket can sell the book in a different way. Not by cleaving to the clichés, but by doing the opposite: by being as different as possible. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a very bright and colorful jacket for a book that is grim, violent, and dark. Perhaps it is a failure as a book cover, in the sense that it does not represent the book that well; however, I think it did a pretty decent job of selling it. It gave the book a bigger tent, people would have been turned off if I had made a cover that was blood-splattered.

Some of your design projects help bring books into the spotlight that might otherwise not get the attention they do. Does this implicate the choices you make?

If I could only do classic, preferably neglected, backlist books, that’s all I would do. I love doing that kind of work. I love those projects — they are so satisfying. There have been a lot of them, but for example, The Woman Destroyed by Simone de Beauvoir. That publisher was selling 10 or 20 of that book — it was practically remaindered, and we got so many of them out there after I worked on the cover. It’s sort of like bookselling: when you’re handselling a book, if it’s something you are really excited about, you want to get into people’s hands.

New Directions had been asking me to do something for them for a while, and I had just been too busy. But when I found out they were going to redo those Sebald covers, I dropped everything. It was just such an amazing opportunity, because I love his writing so much. I think not enough people read him — he’s not exactly an easy writer to read, for many reasons. I love that kind of job.

Has your current work at New Directions meant that you have to commune with [late book designer for New Directions] Alvin Lustig’s ghost?

My whole career, I always wanted to work for New Directions, and Sebald was the first time I ever did. Subsequently I have done a lot of work for them, and they are my number one favorite client. Both because the Lustig connection is really nice — he always been a hero to me as long as I have been doing this — and because they publish so many interesting books. Great books off the beaten path, European authors in translation — just so much great stuff. Their backlist is so rich. It’s pretty cool to be working with them. Since Sebald, I did bunch of Fernando Pessoa covers for them, some Queneau, some Rilke … I’ve done a whole bunch of jobs. Long may it last!

Do you think Alvin Lustig has influenced your work?

The thing I always used to love about Lustig, more than anything, was that he managed to be so expressive about a particular title, while remaining vague about the particulars of the narrative, which I always think is really a boon for the reader. He doesn’t get in the way of your imagination. So many of the covers he did for New Directions were abstract. I always loved that. One of my first big projects was the Dostoevsky backlist, and I intentionally decided to do that with just shape and color. Not even really with color, because they are in black and red, but to try to represent those books with just shape. That was partly as an homage to Lustig. You look at some of his coevals and the covers they made at the same time in the ’50s, and its pulpy, representational. These are all covers that tell you too much, and subsequently tell you too little. Where as with his covers it was always the opposite. With an economy of means, he told you so much.

I haven’t thought about Lustig and these Sebald covers, but there is sort of something there. I think of his cover for Lorca’s Three Tragedies, where he collages preexisting imagery. He didn’t tend to do a lot of collage. There are some Tennessee Williams covers where he used collage, some Lorca, I think maybe a Céline title. Mostly his stuff is abstract or surrealist, but there is something about the shapes in the Sebald covers that is Lustig-like.

I was wondering about your decision to do a collage for Sebald, versus doing something more abstract.

There’s a funny story behind that, actually. In the wake of my two books coming out, I had been so busy, and the art director at New Directions had been calling me. I had been putting them off, because I just couldn’t take on new freelance work. Then the email came in asking if I wanted to do the Sebalds, and I couldn’t say no. But I was about to go on vacation — we go to the cape every August, hunker down, and I don’t do any work at all. Because I agreed to this, I took the books to read and just think about. But I didn’t have a computer, so I couldn’t design the things.

What I ended up doing as I was reading the paperbacks that they sent me was ripping them, both to pull pages out of them, and to remember imagery. Also, without a computer around, it was just the only way I knew how to make a cover. I could have drawn one, but it just seemed right, given that his books are kind of collagist to begin with. They are sort of fractured and reconstituted — Sebald takes these preexisting ingredients in his novels, which have a kind of historical facticity, and he threads them together to make fiction. So this is the visual analogue of that. The first covers I designed for The Rings of Saturn were literally collages that were made out of the book itself. The problem was that they just weren’t colorful enough. It’s not that his writing is so colorful — his writing is so melancholic and just so damn sad. But you want to make something pretty so people want to own it.

Sebald’s books feel black and white, and your covers are in full color. Was that distinction purely aesthetic, or is it a discussion you’re having with Sebald?

The best answer is two part: it comes back to this thing of selling the books versus representing the books. If I’m selling the books, I want to make them desirable. So that’s part of the reason I used color. If we’re talking about representing the books, I will say that the colors that I chose — there’s a tomato soup color for Vertigo, a kind of desaturated green for Saturn, and The Emigrants is black — are way more muted than the colors I tend to use in my design. They are colorful, but they are not bright. I tried to keep that spectrum muted on some level, so there’s a compromise between that selling vector and that representing vector.

I would say there is color in his books. It’s just like everything in his book, all the thematic throughlines or moments that appear for a moment and then disappear. But they scintillate when they appear. They sparkle. I think about The Emigrants and its big topic, which is the war and its refugees, and yet war is never mentioned in the book once. This stuff just comes out of the background, wobbles in front of your eyes, and then dissipates. I think of those as the colorful moments in Sebald. The books are really foggy; the landscapes that he describes — the coastlines of England — they are foggy and forbidding. Things emerge out of fog for moments, and in a way, that is what I wanted the designs to do. I wanted these images to be affixed to these kinds of grounds, and to emerge from them, in a way. I think about The Rings of Saturn with the Rembrandt and all the silks. There are moments of lustrous beauty that just poke out for a moment and then recede.

In your essay “After Sebald,” you talked about finding shared space with Sebald as a designer.

I think that piece is as much about Sebald as it is about what reading him inspired in me, which is this kind of nostalgia. I think his books are very much about nostalgia, and it’s hard to read them and not feel that pang of nostalgia. So that essay is really about my own childhood and trying to recover it, in these kinds of fractured ways.

Sebald is a very visual author. There are dozens of actual images — photos, maps, paintings — included in his book. You could have made infinite covers with these images. How did you narrow it down? How did you make your specific choices?

It was easy to narrow down once I decided this wasn’t going to be a black-and-white universe, and that I wasn’t going to use his images from the books. Then it just became another book cover assignment, in that I had to think thematically about the texts, and which were the important notes to him. I wanted The Emigrants cover to have something that signified the Holocaust in a way that wasn’t too overt, thus the train tracks. There is also lot about the Alps in that book, and I feel Nabokov haunts that book. Much like the silkworms and the Rembrandt in The Rings of Saturn, and Stendhal and Casanova in Vertigo. Which are all in someway included on the three covers. In the end, when I’m designing any kind of cover, I think: What are the things that stay with me from the text? What are the important points that the author wanted to drive home? That ends up being the material that I use for a jacket. It did feel a bit hamstrung by how many choices I could make, when I first started designing these. But once I decided not to use his images, it became a lot simpler.

I didn’t even realize they weren’t his images.

They’re not — they are images of things that are referenced in the book. The only exception is the Rembrandt, which we just get a little piece of — it’s not even that recognizable as a fragment. I wanted the gaze of the onlookers in the painting more than I wanted the actual subject of their gaze; sort of mimicking Sebald himself, or the narrator, in this case. That’s the only example, the rest of the images were pulled from hither and yarn.

Were you scared that your redesigns would mess with people’s nostalgia for the old covers?

Yeah, but that’s a risk you always run when you’re doing a repackage. Even for people attached to a cover there is going to be a moment, you hope, when they get past the shock, and see a new jacket on a book and begin to accept it on its own terms. I think most people do. To be completely frank, I’m not sure people ever really loved the covers that were on the first wave of the Sebald books. I don’t know anybody that thought those covers were fantastic. It was more that people love Sebald so much and those happened to be the covers, so people might like them by association. But I felt way more anxiety doing someone like Kafka or someone like Tolstoy. I’ve done covers for books that have had so many prior covers, this was not one where I was worried about it. The response has been wonderful.

In your book What We See When We Read, you talk about the distinction between seeing and understanding. Sebald shows us so much, but we understand so little.

I think Sebald’s sleight of hand is that it’s as if he were showing you more, when in fact, he is showing you less. You are aware, while you are reading, that the artifacts that you are looking at don’t represent the narrative he is telling you. It’s like an unreliable narrator — an unreliable illustrator, to some extent. You know that these are historical artifacts, but you also know they represent other things, so they are sort of reappropriated. It’s a very odd feeling while reading his books — he’s not showing you optically what he’s telling you semantically. There’s something way more complicated going on. He’s showing you something else optically, which pertains in a kind of parallel, almost metaphoric, way to what he’s telling you. This whole in-text-art-form-fiction that has become a thing now. It creates a whole other level of complexity in terms of the reading imagination, and one that I did not really contend with, in the book.

To come back to the Rembrandt painting: This is a moment where in a fictional world he is referring to a real-world artifact and then showing you that artifact. Most of the time he is referring to a character and the photograph of “him or her” when all readers know that we are looking at someone else.

It makes for a weird reading and seeing experience.

I never even realized that, in some cases, the art work proceeded the text. He had these folders where he collected clippings, and it sounds like he built the text around these clippings. Which is another level of weirdness. I really enjoy the conceit of having the art in the text.

Can you talk about the importance of negative space in these covers? There is so much to get lost in, when you look between the images.

The feeling I always have when I finish one of Sebald’s books, the thing that remains with me, is this sense of an unpolarized atmosphere. These pointillistic moments, these discrete moments, are so wonderful. The thing that remains is the overall effect of the thing, the feeling that I felt while reading. When I think now of reading Sebald, my memory is of that atmosphere. So that’s, in a way, what I mean by the negative space. It’s not so much the discrete events, it is the solution in which they are held.

What do you think it means to read Sebald in dangerous times?

All of Sebald’s books are about what it’s like to live after dangerous times. Everybody in his books is a victim of dangerous times who has grown old, weary, and darkly wounded in some way or another. I will say that the election happened, the world fell to pieces, and my personal response was to get off social media, stop reading the newspaper, go into a kind of hiding, and only read old books. In a way it has been really calming. I would hope that if anyone else is using that particular methodology to just try and keep themselves calm, then maybe they will read a little Sebald and it will chill them out.


Sam Jaffe Goldstein is a bookseller at Skylight Books in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

You can find Sam Jaffe Goldstein on twitter @sjaffegold.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!