Designers Carol Devine Carson in conversation with Ellen Lupton about her work at Knopf Publishers.
Who was prominent in the world of book cover design at the time you came to Knopf?
Louise Fili was art director of Pantheon, Sara Eisenman had been art director at Knopf. During the previous ten years, book jacket design had become a very visible phenomenon. Designers who were contributing to that included Louise Fili and Carin Goldberg. Also important, Fred Marcellino and Paul Bacon.
Is there a distinctive identity for books at Knopf?
There’s no one distinctive look, because all the books are different, and we are committed to expressing the particularity of each title. You don’t want Ann Tyler to look like Tony Morison. The main idea is that we think have the opportunity to publish the best—the best books, with the best jackets.
Has what’s happened here since you came to Knopf been copied by others?
Other designers are watching what we do, whether it’s a cover by Chip, Barbara, Archie, or myself. Other publishers tend to rip off our production ideas, such as vellum covers or a small format book. What happens is a new design for a successful book sets that tone for a whole “category” of book, so then other books deemed similar by the publishing community come out with a similar look‹“a book like Jurassic Park,” “a book like Damage.”
What was the Knopf art department like when you got here?
It was a bit of a mess since there hadn’t been an art director for a couple of months. On the first day I came to work, I thought I would get myself settled in, and the managing editor was in my office at 9:30 asking where something was. How was I supposed to know? But soon you figure out how to track things done across the long process of publishing a book.
Chip Kidd was already here in the department. He had been an assistant designer for about ten months. He hadn’t been in charge of any complete projects. I saw some of what he was doing, and I loved it. I asked him, don’t you want to do more actual design work? He was ready to go. Barbara de Wilde was already a freelance. Archie Ferguson had worked for the Times Books imprint and Knopf as a freelance designer, when he was hired as a full time designer.
Louise Fili was art director at Pantheon when I got here. She left about 2 1/2 years later, and now has her own design studio. Susan Mitchell had been art director at Vintage for about a year, and had a strong and versatile background with interior design, soon to make a mark with giving Vintage a new look.
What are the most important projects to you?
If I like the writing, I love to work on the books. The most important ones to me include Alice Munro, Anne Tyler, Gabriel Garcîa Mrquez. Marquez’s Strange Pilgrims—he wrote to say it’s his best American jacket. Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth. Josephine Hart’s Damage and Scott Bradfield’s The History of Luminous Motion, which I did with Barbara de Wilde.
Are book jackets different from other forms of design?
Yes, partly because they’re 3-D. They’re not packaging per se, yet it is a kind of packaging.
How important is design to sales?
That’s not really quantifiable, but people have very strong opinions. Sonny Mehta knows how important design is. If he has a favorite project, he makes sure you deliver. He has excellent taste. He comes from a strong publishing background in London. He knows that authors, editors, designers, and marketing have all contributed to the current success and reputation of Knopf—he doesn’t claim to have made it all himself.
How has the publishing climate changed since you came to Knopf?
The corporate world here at Knopf has changed a lot since 1987. It’s more market oriented, more aggressive, more bottom line. Mehta didn’t set that tone, but he can work within it. What he’s really interested in is publishing books. He’s not a marketing type; he’s a publisher. He loves to make the deals and edit the books. He loves the craft of publishing, and he can do it in an economically successful way.
In the publishing climate outside of Knopf, there’s not much cultivation of authors and editors. People have to be trained to become editors, and a publishing house has to create an environment for that kind of care.
Do you see “cultivation” as part of the design process as well?
Yes, this department definitely cultivates designers. We’re lucky the four of us have been together so long on staff. We try to have regular designers for some of our list; Martha Simpson for our poetry titles, Michael Bierut from Pentagram, Eric Baker does a few non-fiction titles, etc.
What else about the publishing world?
Marketing viewpoint, stress on marketing, is a big change now. Electronic publishing is posing big challeges for everyone, especially writers. It’s hard to tell yet what the effects will be. The problem is how to protect the rights of authors. Since 1993 authors have had to sign off on electronic rights for their books at Random House.
You referred to the “triumvirate of women art directors.” How do women fit into the culture at Knopf?
I was greatly encouraged by being made a vice president. Before we (art directors) felt cut off from management. Now, the imprints are more dependent on the art directors. Marketing people, editorial people, have to rely on us for effective design. Before, Bob Scudelari was the management figure, working between the art directors.
Editing and marketing departments are totally mixed in terms of gender. There are other female vice presidents from these areas. Publishing has traditionally been a place where women can go forward—and where women have always done a lot of the real work. The difference in the past fifteen years is that it’s more common for women to be rewarded for the work they do.
Who were established designers when you got into the field?
The innovative work was being done by Louise Fili and Carin Goldberg. Established people at Knopf included Paul Bacon and Fred Marsellino. They were big guys in the 70s, and also into the 80s. Fred’s stuff has always had a distinctive look—certain use of typography, images, color. Paul was big on the ‘heavy-hitting’ authors. He’d do very big type and an emblem. He got to do Michael Crichton, Thomas Tryon, etc.
Carin Goldberg is interesting because she never aligned herself with a corporation. She has always worked from her own studio. Louise Fili has a rather feminine style, but very distinctive. She has great taste, a great color sense, a love of typography and its history.