Behind the Cover: Questions for Designer Peter Mendelsund

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As we collected the names of cover designers for the 60 books we had chosen for our Best Book Covers of 2009 vote, a few names came up more than once (Rodrigo Corral, Scott Magoon, Jaya Miceli, the photographer Phillipe Halsman, who took both the Liz Taylor and Louis Armstrong portraits used on the covers of their biographies, and of course Dave Eggers, who is credited with designing one of the nominated books he wrote and most likely had some say in the other two on the list he wrote or edited). But one name, a designer at Knopf, came up three times. No, not the one celebrity in the book design business, the fabled Chip Kidd. It was Peter Mendelsund, whose name you also start to see quite a bit if you start to follow book design discussions.

The three 2009 covers of his that made our ballot were each distinctive and true to their subjects, with no apparent connection between them: Lark and Termite, Robert Altman, and The Girl Who Played with Fire. (We could just as easily have chosen a number of his other '09 works, such as Laurie Sheck's A Monster's Notes, Tim Gautreaux's The Missing, or Peter Maass's Crude World.) Among his earlier work, he's also known for the geometric shapes of his series of Dostoyevsky reprints (e.g. The Idiot and The Double and The Gambler), the terrifying wonder box of Martin Amis's House of Meetings, and the deliriously layered covers of Ozamu Tezuka's manga series Dororo, for Vertical, the manga publisher where he is art director (along with being a senior designer at Knopf).

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We wanted to get a glimpse inside the process of designing a book cover, and we had also heard that Mendelsund had not taken a traditional path to that craft, so we were happy for the chance to ask him a few questions below. (You can also find an excellent interview of Mendelsund by fellow designer Christopher Tobias--who himself designed The Age of Wonder this year, among others--and a gallery of Mendelsund's covers at the Book Cover Archive, as well as a gallery of his spines on his own, under-construction site.) --Tom

Amazon.com: Forgive me for asking, since you've told this story in every interview or profile I've read of you, but could you say a little about your unlikely path to the profession of book design? You were trained and worked as a musician, a concert pianist, but within a year of taking up graphic design you were a staff designer at perhaps the most prestigious house in publishing, Knopf.

Mendelsund: It honestly never occurred to me that the transition from musician to jacket designer was all that strange, though the more I more I’m asked this specific question in interviews, and the more I’m told how unorthodox my path was by my fellow designers, the more I’m inclined to believe that maybe there is something notably odd about my particular story.

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