Chip Kidd: Work 1986–2006, Book One
By Chip Kidd
New York: Rizzoli, 2005
Hard back: ISBN: 0847827488 Price: 65.00
Kidd may be the best jacket artist in the business. It's hard to compare because he also might be the most prolific.
You know Chip Kidd, even if you don't know it. He's a living legend in the world of designers, publishers, and authors. You can't avoid him. Walk into any bookstore, and you'll be overwhelmed by his work as your eyes scan the shelves. He's even been the subject of a question on Jeopardy. A: "His work at Alfred A. Knopf made Chip Kidd a superstar in designing these." Q: "What are book covers?"
Work is a compilation of nearly twenty years of book covers designed by Kidd. The subtitle, Book One, is a promise of more to come. Kidd started with Knopf in the 1980s and after designing more than a thousand covers, he shows no intention of slowing down.
He's covered all genres in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. David Sedaris. Michael Crichton. Anne Rice. James Ellroy. Larry McMurtry. Elmore Leonard. John le Carré. James Merrill. Oliver Sacks. Robert Hughes. After flipping through four hundred pages of book jackets, some of them packed two and three to a page, the easier question might be who hasn't he designed book art for? Kidd's work is inspired by the books (he insists on reading them), and in turn, the authors are inspired by and devoted to him. Many of them supply brief anecdotes and exultations next to their entries in Work. Some are amusing, some are indulgent, a few are insightful, and all serve forth superlatives.
Kidd may be the best jacket artist in the business. It's hard to compare because he also might be the most prolific. He's a Sir Mix-A-Lot with his materials, combining old-fashioned design principles, draftsmanship, and digital technology with imagination, intelligence, and wit. John Updike is correct when he writes that Kidd "exploits every resource of modern printing," although he lays it on thick in claiming that he "locates a disquieting image close to the narrative's dark, beating heart." Maybe that's for Updike's work. I don't remember the dark, beating heart in Elmore Leonard's Be Cool.
But Updike's underlying point—that Kidd can capture the essence of the book in a single picture—is apt. If you think of some of the most striking covers of the last quarter century, then there's a fifty-fifty chance it was Kidd's handwork. All the Pretty Horses. The Secret History. The English Patient. My favorite is The Good Life by Jay McInerney, an author I normally don't like, but Kidd's cover hooked me: A simple dinner place setting covered in dust and ash, which I instinctively knew was fallout from the collapse of the World Trade Center.
The work inside Work is astonishing. The design of Work is something else. The book is twelve inches long, but the binding is only half that, leaving the fore-edge floppy like a Sears catalog. This makes it easier to flip through the book until a familiar or curious piece catches your eye. That's clever. Then you try to put it in the bookcase, and the first and last pages are bent by the abutting books or crushed by the back of the shelf. Better lay it prone on the coffee table, splayed open on a particularly creative or provocative entry for guests. I recommend the spread of boxers and tidy-whities in Kidd's design for Sedaris's Naked.
The arrangement of Kidd's covers is too clever and too crowded. If you try reading Work, as I did on several occasions under controlled environments (at table, on sofa, in bed, with and without television), I got a splitting headache. If this is the intention—Browse! Don't read!—then kudos. I hope Book Two will allow more space for the art to breathe, instead of being crowded like a rush-hour subway for very bright, anxious people. For the record, Kidd did not design the book himself.
Putting down Work, a few questions lingered in my mind. Is Kidd famous because the books he covered became famous, or did his jackets play a deciding role in making them so famous? Would the art seem exceptional if the book itself didn't stick in our minds?
What is the "Chip Kidd" style? Can you identify a Chip Kidd cover in the same way you can pick out a George Salter cover or a Penguin paperback? Book designers of previous generations, like Salter or Paul Bacon, drew their own work by hand, creating gestalts, signal images, and devices that identified them as individual artists. Modern book artists and designers use the digital tools of desktop publishing, which are powerful, efficient, and intrinsically no better or no worse than traditional tools. The best designers in the history of the book, whether a Salter or a Kidd, compress enormous thought and craft into a visual space not much larger than an envelope. But since many designers have followed Kidd's lead in the last two decades, there's ubiquity. His jackets tend to look like everyone else's (only better).
The debate about these conundrums doesn't diminish Chip Kidd's talent or accomplishment. His work is a keystone of modern book design and Work belongs in the library of any serious collector of modern book arts. Just watch out when you slide it on the shelf.