January 10, 2010
It’s next time again
So what is it like for you? Do you buy books or CD’s based on the cover? I do. Probably you do too. I think of it like a code. Of course, the best is when you already know what you want and have heard a good recommendation. But when you’re just browsing, do you get sucked in the way I do with good graphics? One designer I really like, Hans Müller, called the book he edited about ECM’s cover art, Sleeves of Desire. Isn’t that perfect? I really enjoy the creative decisions that have gone into really great cover art and more often than not, I feel as though I truly can judge a book by it’s cover.
I love it when a book just jumps out from the display and screams, “Buy me! You’ll love me!” It is one of the things I miss about all the reading I’m doing on the Kindle. But you and I have been through all this before. Even if you are too young to have bought vinyl you must love those big graphic covers on LP’s. There was so much to like. First the big square format. Already a timeless symbol – the circle in the square. Just like the paving stones in front of the Pantheon in Rome. The large format gave the designer so much real estate to fill with good decisions and meaningfully coded content.
One of my first jobs was in a record store. I discovered, almost without fail, if I really loved the cover – there was a pretty good chance I liked the music inside as well. I remember we all held our breath when the Beatles brought out a new album. In the wake of the uproar that happened after the dismembered babies on the British version of the Yesterday and Today album, we were certain their next album was going to be a shocker. It was. In a defiant gesture of zen bravado we laughed our asses off when we unpacked The White Album. It was designed by an artist friend of Paul McCartney’s, Richard Hamilton, who had curated exhibitions on Marcel Duchamp.
CD’s shrank the LP graphic experience, and now with digital downloads cover art has become even less fun. I am so obsessed with CD’s and good cover art I spend a huge amount of time making sure all my iTunes albums have good cover art to go along with. If I hate the original cover I sometimes make my own. But how is the package a code for what lies within?
These days I look at almost all art as the product of a series of decisions. Perhaps this not profound and completely self evident but I find the concept both restful and intriguing. As a filmmaker, I know a project breaks down into thousands of decisions. This is what a Director does – make decisions. “Not that way, it should be this way.” A great project is when there are more good decisions than mediocre ones. I think one of the ways to best appreciate a great painting, a great building, a beautiful couture dress, or a fabulous meal is to break the final product down into its component parts and look at the decision process that went into every detail. The process is endlessly fascinating and often frustrating. I love Woody Allen’s take on it. He says, “I conceive the film–I sit home and write it–and, when I conceive it, it’s brilliant. Everything is true Chekhov or Shakespeare: it’s great! And then, you start work, and the truck with fresh compromises drives up every day.”
This is why the cover of a book matters to me. I see it as an extension of the artist’s decision making process. When well done, the cover is a talisman for the project. If the book is good the author hopefully found his or her way to a quality publisher. They decided to work together. Hopefully the publisher decided to hire a good designer and so on. In the design, I love to see intelligence connecting the major themes of the book.
Great graphic design signals quality. It doesn’t happen by accident. It costs money. It requires sophistication and judgement. It is a great joy in my life. I’d love to see some of your favorites. In your comments, if you send me a link or email a photo of something you really love I’ll get it posted on the blog. I can’t wait to see what you select. I bet this turns into a really rich experience.
Shepard Ferry, whose work you know from the famous Obama poster (and the subsequent legal troubles with the Assoc. Press) had a recent show at the wonderful new ICA in Boston. He is a new Andy Warhol. Penguin recently hired him to do special edition covers for George Orwell’s classics (seen above) and he did minor masterpieces which evoke the paranoid oppression of Russian propaganda posters. Shepard Ferry is a genius at this totalitarian control freak world view. The decision to hire him for this project was inspired.
In Filmmaking, and in Opera (and in most complex artistic endeavors of any sort), the number of decisions can be very overwhelming. I know I’ve hit the wall when I can’t make one more decision. This is why David Lynch (the guy who directed Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet) jokes that he orders the same thing for lunch every day. One less decision to make.
One of my favorite quotes is from the great film director Luchino Visconti. In his retirement, a journalist once asked him if he still went to the movies and what he liked? Visconti said something like, “I don’t go to the movies much any more. When I get in there and see all the decisions up there on the screen – it is just too exhausting.”
What a triumph when the project is finally done and the creator still has a bit of strength left to decide upon (or at least approve) the perfect cover.
Until next time with much love,