For those with voyeuristic tendencies there’s pleasure to be had in reading defunct blogs in retrograde. Start with the newest post, the one that acts as the last word from the author to you, and work back through years of words and pictures to their timid beginnings. Shared words unedited, unfiltered (and at times undecipherable), a constant teasing out of something within until the platform becomes redundant and is left. Peter Mendelsund’s blog Jacket Mechanical (defunct since 2014) ends with the publication of his book COVER, a compilation of his work as a Book Jacket designer. His oldest posts (circa 2008) are Tumblr-like shares of design inspiration – a single image occasionally accompanied by a line of text, sometimes a link. Over the years he begins to share his own work.
As a self-taught designer, Mendelsund landed a job (through a friend of a friend) as a junior designer with Chip Kidd and John Gall, after deciding that the reality of a career as a concert pianist was financially untenable. In the 15 years since switching careers Mendelsund has designed over 1000 covers, most notably for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the works of Martin Amis, and redesigns of the collected works of Kafka, and until recently was the Associate Art Director of Knopf (an imprint of Random House).
Mendelsund’s covers have a clear preference for abstract imagery and strong typography, but always with reference to the text itself. His colours are beautiful. His approach is to try and translate the feeling of what it’s like to read that specific book. Of the actual design process, he says:
“I read the manuscript. That is the first, and obviously most important step. And at some point during the reading experience, something from the text – a scene, character, image, object, metaphor – will emerge as a possible candidate for a cover image. This “something” should be able to serve as an emblem for the manuscript, taken as a whole. If this cover idea is good enough, I then make a million versions of it, in multiple media, with various typefaces et cetera, and when I have one cover that I like, I wrap it around a book and place it face out on my shelf. I live with it for a while, and, if I still like it after this period, I’ll take that one cover to an editor, or author, and say, “This is a thing I made.”
The nature of applied arts is that they primarily serve their subject (the book), and good aesthetics will often not win out over commercial pressures, but the balance between the artistic and the commercial is negotiable. A good cover will create a want in the prospective reader, whilst doing justice to the text it encases. The jacket of Mendelsund’s own book COVER is a thick transparent plastic (for the bibliophile fetishist in all of us) and coats a photograph of a plain red book, a blank slate. The cover worked on me when I saw it in Oxford St Books (in Leederville) – I opened it, flipped through, have constantly thought of it since, and if I had the money I would’ve bought it. That was the first time I knowingly encountered Mendelsund’s work, and it was a perfect case of the physical informing the digital, for it led me to his blog. I’m ever grateful that in a time of instant publishing and unpublishing, Mendelsund’s blog chronicling his early works and thoughts have been left intact, unaltered, for trawlers of the internet to find. Of course, the greatest pleasure comes from finding his work, on your own personal bookshelf, already living there, with you. Designs loved, and now known. The digital informing the physical.
Words by Ruth Thomas
This article first appeared in print in volume 88 edition 7 Soft