If ever two lives have been destined to intertwine, they are those of writer John Updike and book designer Chip Kidd. Both are from Reddington, a suburban town near Philadelphia, upon which Updike based his Rabbit books. Kidd explains: “Those books provide a very intense portrait of what my childhood was like.” Updike’s “eccentric” father was Kidd’s father’s maths teacher. Both went to art college, Updike a couple of decades before Kidd, who studied graphics at Penn State University in the late Seventies. And while he was there, one of his early projects was to design a cover for Updike’s novel Museums and Women.
Even after Kidd escaped Rabbit territory and went to New York where he joined Alfred A Knopf (the hardback fiction division of Random House publishing) at a very junior level, Updike’s books followed him – something he is not altogether happy about. “Because John was a typography student, he has a little knowledge, which is always dangerous,” says Kidd. “He decided he wasn’t crazy about my design sense, (he called it ‘monstrously ugly’) so for each book jacket he now sends us a brief with what typeface to use in what point size.” Fortunately for Kidd, such a nightmare doesn’t exist for every project. “I would get annoyed if every author did this, but he is an exception,” he says.
“Most authors tend to say ‘I’ve done my part, now you can do yours,’ which is great.” That’s not to say Kidd doesn’t have to come up with a range of ideas and the writer doesn’t have the last word. For Michael Crichton’s novel Disclosure, Kidd came up with eight covers. “When I’m nervous, I always make it big and red,” he confesses. Hence one idea which featured a woman’s lips. “In this case, Michael said ‘Chip, I’m not going on Oprah with a cover with big red lips on it.'” So the final solution was a red band with a white middle.
Disclosure was a particularly long process; often the initial design is approved, and Kidd and his team of four do around 30 covers a year. Then there are his freelance forays, which included a saucy cover for an edition of Esquire magazine on male vanity. Featuring a male torso with a pull-off strip over a tiny penis, the editor dropped it, but it hit the national press. Such conservatism also exists with books, but radical ideas sometimes get through. Kidd used a controversial photograph of a Manhattan murder victim for the cover of a translation of the New Testament by Richmond Lattimore. “I thought they would hate it, but they went for it straight away,” he says. And the Knopf borzoi wolfhound logo absolutely has to appear on every cover but, even then, Kidd manages to manipulate it into many forms, from digital borzoi to cartoon borzoi.
After all the time and effort that goes into getting the cover just right – Kidd reads all the books that he has to work on – it comes as no surprise that he sees red when low-budget publishing houses bring out the same titles with cheapie covers, in gold type and tacky colours. “I was in a hold-up in a deli in Manhattan recently. I lay down on the floor right next to a shelf full of mass market paperbacks of the books I had covered. The gunman told us to put our hands up, so I jumped up and said ‘whenever you’re ready’.”
His most exciting freelance venture to date has been to write and design a book entitled Batman Collected. A compilation on all things Batman, from its creation in 1939. Kidd has gathered together Forties radio scripts and movie posters, Sixties memorabilia and sketches from its revival in the Eighties which leaves “Batophiles” in a state of euphoria. “This book fulfilled a childhood obsession,” explains Kidd. “And it was good to see the publishing process from the author’s eye. After I had finally signed the contract, I had eight months to put the book together.” Kidd designed everything from promotional material right down to the invites for the launch party.
For Kidd, one of the joys of book design is having the chance to read, “Content plays a huge part in determining the cover design and I enjoy about eight out of ten of the books Knopf publishes. I have done great covers for novels I haven’t enjoyed, but it’s much more gratifying if I enjoy the book,” he says. The tactile experience of books also gives him a buzz. “I particularly love hardbacks for their snob value. The Bloomsbury hardbacks with their hand-done type are knock-out.”
It is for this reason new media holds no appeal for Kidd. “I like objects. I have no interest in the Internet or virtual graphics. There were no computers at Random House until 1993 and that was when I was trained. It’s so sad that so many typefaces have disappeared as a result of the computer,” he says.
So does Kidd see the huge institutional machine that is Random House grinding to a halt? “There will always be books and they will always need jackets,” he says. “I read recently that one of the most visited websites is Amazon, where you can buy books. I think book stores are in more danger than publishers. No one wants to sit at a screen and read War And Peace. You’d go blind. Reference books are under the greatest threat. People don’t want to spend 200 on the Oxford English Dictionary when they can get the information on the Net.”
So does he want to spread his wings beyond the literary field? “I blink and ten years have gone by, so why break something when it’s intact? I like working with authors. Musicians all fancy themselves too much. They are so image-conscious. I hear horror stories of designers having to present 20 or 25 concepts for a CD cover.” Then, of course, there’s the glamour of being part of the New York literati. He has worked with a range of authors from John Le CarrÃ© to Donna Tartt, who he claims, is “a tiny little treasure”. She wears men’s vintage suits from the Thirties and “smokes and drinks like a sailor”.
For a man who professes that “Ralph Lauren is all I’ll ever need”, it seems fair to judge that Kidd is a square peg in a square hole. “Sure,” he admits, “wherever I am in the world, I can’t wait to get back to Manhattan.”