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WORK: 1986 - 2006

Michael Crichton: Jurassic Park  
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli



By Joseph Romero

NEW YORK, 23 DECEMBER 2005— In Book One - Work: 1986 - 2006, Chip Kidd, the current poster boy of the prestigious New York publisher Alfred A. Knopf, documents two decades of illustration and book jacket design for some of the world's leading authors and publications.
To the mainstream public, Chip Kidd is best known for the Tyrannasaurus Rex skeleton on the cover of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park", later adapted as a logo for the Hollywood film (and interminable spinoff kitsch). But to those who love to read, Kidd is also known for imaginative and vivid dust jackets for books by writers from John Updike to Orhan Pamuk, from John LeCarré to Edward Said, and from Michel Houellebecq to Haruki Murakami.
Born and trained in suburban Pennsylvania, Kidd relishes his roots, rather than the usual urbane cultural and graphic legacies of Paris, London or Milan.  He delves time and again into his rich repository of American pop culture—fantastic comic book heroes, corny day-time television fare, and the cheap glamour of mainstream, Hollywood lave plus blanc magazine, movie and advertising images of the 1950s and 1960s.

In his introduction to the book, Updike describes Kidd's work as "edgy" — a code word in American media for the evocation or treatment of sexual imagery and identity, vulgarity, gratuitous violence, and ethnic divisiveness. Still stuck in this adolescent phase of their development and still paralysed by their Puritan heritage, Americans are fascinated, titillated and scandalized by sexual images and verbal profanity in popular culture.

It is therefore interesting to see which jacket designs fell into this category, or were even rejected by Knopf management for having pushed this particular envelope too far. Kidd's camp cover for The New Republic's feature story "The Gay Awakening" featured a comic book Batman confessing his love to his sidekick Robin, in a Hollywood close-up complete with whiter-than-white teeth. It was published, but with trepidation over fear of a lawsuit. On the other hand, consider two cover designs for Alan Richter's Sexual Slang: a standing, smiling, buff male nude with a cock masking his genitals was rejected in favour of a reclining female nude with two owls over her breasts and a beaver covering her vagina.
Also "edgy" was Kidd's collaboration with the shrewd shock jock Howard Stern on Howard Stern's Miss America for Regan Books / Harper Collins. Kidd designed not only the dust jacket, but also the entire text, and, through clever typography, transformed Stern's already loud and aggressive text into visual acoustic riffs and disembodied sound bites with the same feel as Stern's on-air mode of presentation.

Less threatening, but equally hilarious in the poignancy of its irony is Kidd's design for Allan Gurganus' White People, which featured deadpan white-on-black typography. 

After some 900 book jackets, Kidd admits that graphic design career retrospective books are not new, and does not wish to add to the already heavily-subscribed genre. But this one is worthwhile. Kidd's short texts accompanying the images provide entertaining, wry commentary about the creative process from his reading of a manuscript to the eventual illustration of its cover. Author assessments and endorsements sometimes confirm his choices, and provide an insider glimpse to aesthetic and marketing concerns affecting the publishing process.

There are, as well, wry insights into the relationship (and, at times, complicity) between author and book cover illustrator. For example, it is better to work for authors than musicians: "authors are most concerned with how their work is presented, while musicians are most concerned with how they are presented." That said, Kidd confessed that he was "frustrated" that he couldn't design the poster for City Opera performances at Lincoln Center of Tobias Picker's opera Emmeline—having to content himself with the design of the CD box for Albany Records. 

Americans like to boast that theirs is a visual culture. Unfortunately, this does not always imply visual literacy. Perhaps this stylish, entertaining and instructive book will increase awareness of the art and impact of the illustrator and graphic designer.

Chip Kidd: Book One
Work: 1986 - 2006

By Chip Kidd, Contribution by David Sedaris, Donna Tartt and Elmore Leonard, Introduction by John Updike
Hardcover: 400 pages
Rizzoli, New York (September 2005)
ISBN: 0-8478-2748-8
US Price: $65.00
CAN Price: $90.00

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