- He is originally a classically trained pianist
- He did not formally study design.
- He is the designer of the now iconic Girl With the Dragon Tattoo book covers.
- Forget this bulleted list. Take a look at his collaboration with Mark Z. Danielewski and try to imagine how long it takes to create something this elaborately weird. That red thread on the sewing of the book’s pages is rare, usually book thread is nearly invisible; the punctures on the book jacket are individual to each book. And then there’s the latched case.
But one of the most distinctive aspects of Peter Mendelsund’s career, and of his approach to design, is that he is a dedicated reader of the books that he creates covers for. “I was struck by how carefully he’d read the book. He fucking seemed to have studied it,” writes author Ben Marcus, reflecting on Mendelsund’s work for The Flame Alphabet.
His Kafka covers avoid many of the tropes that other publishers have relied on for decades: prison bars, author portraits, grotesque insects—these are things that are certainly emblematic of Kafka, but are really nothing like reading Kafka. In an interview on Design Matters, Mendelsund described pointed out that “when a designer shows you too much he robs you of imagination.”
Mendelsund created a series that featured eyes: eyes where you could see prejudice, imagining, longing, eyes that were abstractions. The idea of perception is important in any author’s work, but it gave something special to The Trial and The Metamorphosis: it let you in on the fact that Kafka is not just writing about individuals, he is specifically writing about how others treat them.
After fourteen years of notable work, Mendelsund has produced Cover, a collection of his book cover designs, published and rejected, and his thoughts on graphic design and publishing, which are both practical and poetic. At one point he asks, “What is a book cover?” and answers that it is “a skin,” “a frame,” “a reminder”—giving voice to important design theory that is usually never stated. Readers may want to read more of these musings can turn to his What We See When We Read, which is simultaneously published with Cover.
Mendelsund’s work isn’t just rebranding; in some cases, you might call it justice. His Doestoevsky covers are a welcome change from the countless attempts to illustrate characters and the time and place, or lazy recyclings of the same portrait of the author again and again.
Instead, Mendelsund uses geometric symbols to focus on theme and tone. The geometric crucifix he uses to frame the title of The Idiot is memorable, as are the swarm of red triangles that surround Demons (at first they seem cute, and then you become gradually uneasy with their arrangement).These are simple one- and two-color designs, made of geometric shapes, and yet they have more force than covers with three times the printing budget.
Mendelsund’s cover for James Joyce’s Ulysses is evocative of the “snotgreen sea” described inside, but it also conveys the book’s intertextuality (many readers need at least one accompanying book to interpret it) by underscoring that “yes” in “Ulysses”—a word important for a book that was banned for almost ten years, and is central to the book’s last chapter.
Mendelsund wants more that to just make a book cover a matter of pleasing graphics: “After all, how impoverished would our book-design jobs be if we didn’t, as a rule, delve deeper? If we didn’t interpret? If we didn’t visually translate that which is most essential in a book?”
There’s a price to be paid for this kind of close reading, which is that sometimes what best represents a book is not what might easily sell a book. For example, Mendelsund considers just how problematic it is to create a cover for Lolita. He rejects the “soft-core” covers, which seem to be easily generated by designers who are not interested in the many problematic aspects of the book, one of which is that we are hearing about this supposed romance from a liar, pervert, and murderer. He sides with a cover that could have been made by Lolita, rather than her assailant.
Midway through Cover, Mendelsund reflects on ebooks in “Reading in the Digital Age: Aphorisms for a Future Book,” set in confounding vertical lines of type with the puzzling first bullet point: “Who speaks for the static? Who speaks for the immutable?” He then presents a series of book covers culled from Photoshop gradient effects.
It’s a proposal for a new kind of publishing imprint, and it all feels conceptually sound, but doesn’t inspire the pleasure of seeing the cover for Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet or Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut. Or his Joe Nesbo covers, so stark they can be recognized from a helicopter. There’s no engaging typography, no unique images to speak of in these covers, and it gives the impression of a one-size-fits-all design for a digital future. It seems a bit grim.
In that same tone is the muddled quality of the book’s foreword and afterword, where Mendelsund spends a lot of time saying that he has never considered himself a designer until the publication of this book, affirms that he is a designer, and then concludes the book by stating that his future as a designer is uncertain. What?
“I fear that design is for the young” he writes, italics his own. He wonders if he will be able to reinvent himself, if he will develop a late style, he feels that older designers work is not as good as when they started out.
All of these denials seem to go beyond modesty and into fretting, which is perverse given how rich Cover is with design inspiration and meditations on graphic design. But I think there is hope: Up until he was 30, Mendelsund hadn’t considered being a designer at all.