Why, in an age where we are supposed to be downloading our books, happily reading off screens or magic electronic paper or (gasp) having them read to us by mellifluous voices streaming through the Wi-Fi ether, do I find myself standing in line for a sold-out lecture by a gentleman engaged in the quaint profession of book cover design? Who goes to talks like this? Well, just about everyone who loves books, which turns out to be a very ecumenical demographic: some old, some hip, a guy with a viola and thoroughly converted folk like the young girl seated next to me, her arms contentedly wrapped around a stack of hardcover fiction, snug in the warm embrace of LA’s Central Library.
We, the groupies, the curious and novices alike, were assembled for a behind-the-scenes look at the graphic work of design rock-star Chip Kidd, associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf for over 20 years and author of The Cheese Monkeys (2003) and Chip Kidd: Book One (2006), a collection of jacket designs from 1986 to the present. In a simple PowerPoint presentation entitled ‘Book Jackets! Or Better Cover Your…’ Kidd, looking like a nebbish Ben Hogan in a jaunty cap and baggy trousers, took his admirers on a journey through the processes by which book covers are born, showing the successes as well as the false steps and failures that go with creating anything. While his results are almost always immediately visually pithy and compelling, it was Kidd’s knack for storytelling that made the whole process come alive. His anecdote about the devolution of the cover for Cormac McCarthy’s recent Pulitzer-winning tale of the apocalypse, The Road (2006), was hilarious. From Kidd’s original concept to the author’s anomalous suggestions and the editor’s irrational demands he arrived at the finished product: a black-on-black void with a fuzzy blood-red title, a solution arrived at simply by using the worst photocopier in the office. The bleak cover prompted more jokes when it was – to everyone’s surprise – accorded the Oprah’s Book Club seal of approval with its cheery adhesive sticker. Mr Kidd drolly noted the book ‘then went on to cure cancer’.
A natural bon vivant, his yarns had the zing of classic Algonquin Round Table ripostes, especially when aimed at the oblivious marketers who never get the humour, or the challenges posed by clients’ taste deficits. Kidd, a former wunderkind steaming full throttle into creative maturity, made it clear that good things can come out of even the worst of beginnings. During a question and answer session Kidd was asked twice why he doesn’t just do what he’d done all night: host witty talks such as this, which everyone agreed was one of the funniest evenings in recent memory. He replied that he knows some stand-up comedians, and while this particular audience was predisposed to love books, design and literary world high jinks, stand-ups have to deal with a pit of vipers. It was true: everyone walked away charmed, with their love of the objecthood of the book reaffirmed and reminded that the creative process could be an uproarious convivial thing. You can’t download that.