Classic Book Jackets
The Design Legacy of George Salter
By Thomas S. Hansen. Foreword by Milton Glaser.
New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005
Hard back: ISBN: 156898491x Price: $35.00
If you collect fiction published in the United States during the middle years of the twentieth century—by Thomas Mann, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Ayn Rand, William Styron, Franz Kafka, John Hersey, Hermann Hesse, John Dos Passos, or quite literally hundreds of other lesser-known authors—you will be familiar with the jacket art of George Salter. Salter (1897–1967) was born in Germany and practiced design in Berlin until emigrating in 1934 to the States, where he began designing books and jackets for American publishers.
Trained in calligraphy and design, Salter was one of a handful of designers, like W. A. Dwiggins, Jan Tschichold, and a few others, who changed the look of American books from the 1920s to the 1960s. Salter’s dramatic combinations of hand-drawn lettering and his own imaginative renderings, based on his intuitive understanding of the central idea or image of a book, made for some of the most distinctive book covers of the period.
Thomas Hansen, a professor of German at Wellesley College, has put together the first complete survey of Salter’s life and work, and it’s both delightful to look through and a concise, thorough, and semischolarly account of all of Salter’s work. Hansen divides the short text portion (48 pages) into sections: Salter’s “Berlin years,” his activities in the 1930s and 1940s (“From Berlin to New York”), and a final section on his “Designs of the 1950s and 1960s.” The bulk of the book is given over to full-color reproductions of more than two hundred examples of Salter’s best work. At the back of the book are appendixes listing all of Salter’s designs for German publishers (1922–34) and American book publishers (1934–67), as well as notes and an extensive bibliography.
Hansen’s heroic dedication to filling in the gaps in Salter’s own records can be seen in the appendixes, where he lists the nearly 1,000 commissions Salter completed for book jackets, bindings, magazines, and record covers for an astounding array of clients (about thirty-five in Germany and nearly a hundred in the U.S.), making this something between a catalog raisonné and a comprehensive bibliography.