Don DeLillo

The following post was commissioned by Picador as a part of their 40 year anniversary. You will no-doubt know I was their long-standing art director so I cut the introduction. Picador asked me to recount the process of this specific jacket design

. . . in full flow and inspired by those around me – and, most importantly, the fabulous writers under the Picador umbrella – I was joyfully drawn to experiment. Not from recklessness, as there was a weight of responsibility to the writers, but more a matter of looking to the differences. What made them unique. Special. Inspiration for my design work on Picador would not be other book covers. More likely it would be the text, music, foreign stamps, artists and explorers.

Explorers? Long before the appellation of ‘renaissance man’ was attached to his name, I was intrigued by the work of Brian Eno. I was an art student when Roxy Music was an art school band. And I thought they were pants once Eno left. By the time I was working on the book jacket for Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Eno’s seminal collaboration with David ByrneMy Life in the Bush of Ghosts, was fizzing around life and work. Eno had produced the LP/CD image himself, too. White Noise as a title, and as a notion, seemed to me to resonate perfectly with his work, and I commissioned him to illustrate the jacket.

Over-ambitious? Maybe. But I took a risk. Sadly, it didn’t come off. I didn’t feel I could use the results. Very hard to do when I admired him so much, but the book had to come first. Art directors take the reflected glory from the successes so, we too, must take the responsibility when it just doesn’t work out. No criticism of Brainy Brian from me – his work on the Picador catalogue was fabulous, by the way.

But there was now a big problem for me. A design concept I thought an open goal was now a big headache. (I’m not a writer – well not a real one – but I can mix my metaphors).

Going back to quiz my instincts on the book, I found I was fumbling for a visual equivalent of white noise. The sleeve of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts had put TV feedback in my mind and, in addition to the sonic title/trigger, had led me to Eno. In need of a ‘wild card’, I turned to Oblique Strategies, which is a set of cards Eno produced with Peter Schmidt in 1975. They are sharp notes to short-circuit tired thinking. And this was no time for creative block! The enigmatic messages on the cards are “evolved from our separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition) . . .” Picking up random cards some irritated me in the way fortune cookies do. But one or two sparked across the synapses: “Assemble some of the elements in a group and treat the group”  and “Imagine the piece as a set of disconnected events”. One card read, “You can only make one dot at a time”. These phrases reminded me that a company called Imagine had approached me to demo their new computer graphics thingy. The computer and terminal were huge! This was 1984, so just ahead of Apple Mac’s breakthrough with their first computer that went on to become ubiquitous in the design industry and to revolutionise it in some ways.

In short, I felt emboldened in by the notion that serendipity rather than standard practice may be a more productive way to work around the problem I had with this book jacket design. I called Imagine and booked two hours with a computer operator. I called my creative buddy Russell Mills with the scantiest of outlines and asked him to bring a connected object to Imagine’s office next morning. I think he chose the megaphone, or ‘crowd hailer’ as I called it. I took my Braun alarm clock. And a picture of an F1 driver (Ayrton Senna, I recall) in his flame-proofs from the day’s newspaper.

And no plan.

Around my notional framework of a wall of TV screens with a lot of signal interference, we played with the pixels. Never having touched a computer before. Designing ‘live’, more by intuition than literal reasoning. Flying by the seat of our pants.

The spine is a de-construction of the front. The back a further degeneration of the front.

The result is evocative more than literal. A little oblique? Sure. In that decade Picador was something of a research lab in every department.

Despite putting no physical hand on the design is seemed to me correct to credit Brian Eno. And Russell. As it was, being on staff, to leave my name off.

Gabriel García Márquez

 
 

A very sad message landed on Sunday’s doorstep. “The Nobel prizewinning author Gabriel García Márquez is suffering from senile dementia and can no longer write, his brother has revealed.” Age takes us all and the Columbian writer is 85. Yet it seems a particularly cruel irony that a mind should fade that once created the magic of One Hundred Years of SolitudeLove in the Time of Cholera and Chronicle of a Death Foretold. A stunning talent that emanates from a country more often in the news for the havoc caused by crops of mind-altering drugs. If only the appetite for literature were as rapacious to western tastes.

But perhaps that bitter observation is too harsh. Márquez is widely read and has received many plaudits including a Nobel prize in 1982. His writing is rich with the spicy marinade of his homeland that so often only an exile can concoct. He worked mostly in Paris, New York, Barcelona and Mexico. I regret that I never met him. But his work was a key part of  the Picador stable so I had the pleasure of applying design to his work. The cover of his best known work, One Hundred Years of Solitude, was designed by David Larkin. Subsequent cover designs under my art direction were aimed at simplicity and character. An attempt to create a sense of expectation. A title such as Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which opens with an anonymous note slid under a door is magic, is a gift. The trick is to recognise it. The illustration by Gary McCarver brings the image to vivid life. Graphic elaboration or over-worked visuals would add little to this potent combination.

So, sadly I cannot tell you of our meeting, of his traits or personality. No jokes, no first-hand insights. Just a recommendation that you read his glorious work. I feel moved to mention that I have friends and acquaintances who are dealing with senility in parents. The tragedy of seeing a mind slip away, perhaps not recognising their own children, whilst physically still present and active. So hard. I find myself hoping that if the mind is in ‘another place’ that it may be a place of contentment not torment. Great art is one of the lasting legacies available to a precious few. One is Gabriel García Márquez. I hope he is in a place as good as he put my mind as a reader.

A Piece of China

Against the advice of those who thought I should post every week I took a break from Blogging. I thought you had earned a rest from this place (sorry, PosterousSpace). But I just realised it has been a bit too long. Weeks in fact. Great Googly Moogly! as Frank Zappa would say, if he were still with us.

I could say that I write today about design and technology but that seems rather grand and pompous. The connection is China. Full of surprises they recently closed down several entire fake Apple Stores (yep, the whole sleek Geek temple). In fact not just one – but dozens. Extraordinary enterprise. Gasp here.

 

 

The design part is a cover of a book by William Hinton. It is an account of every day life in rural China. It is called Shenfan and it has a sister tome called Fanshen. The design is simple. Not much to say about it. A well-chosen photograph of a villager painting the name of the town on the end of a house. Long Bow. This is married to a fine choice of typeface by Joy Fox. Check out Joy’s recycled jewellery.

The technology? Cow Gum for that cover to be honest. But I found a great use of current technology to amuse myself on the Devon/London train last week. I sat in the last seat before the area for luggage and seats for the disabled. Four young Chinese sat cross-legged on the floor playing cards. The two girls facing me. The two boys with their backs to me. The girls were losing every game.

Needing distraction from fretting over an important imminent presentaion at One Alfred Place I turned to technology. Taking my, now ancient, iphone surreptitiously from my pocket I channelled Spooks and started taking pictures of the boys cards. Then showed them to the girls. They stifled giggles and started winning regularly. A little creative mischief.

Eventually my cover was blown and they disembarked at Reading, amongst much laughter as a fair section of the carriage was by now in on the game on the boys blind-side. One of the boys came over trying to look menacing but grinning from ear to ear. “You owe me wun pownd!” he declared.

So there it is, China, Design and Technology. This Friday I shall use my phone to attend a feast probably at Wong Kei where fierce waiters will force march me to a table and interrogate menacingly me over a menu.

And I shall think of the kids on the train. And grin.

 

 

Salman Rushdie

But there was trouble again for the author.

It turned out that Director Deepa Mehta chose the island location over India or Pakistan, where the story is set, to avoid religious protests. Iran had objected to Sri Lanka’s Premier and filming came to an abrupt halt. You will recall Iran’s former leader Ayatollah Kohmeini was the source of the misguided (potty) Fatwa on Rushie for The Satanic Verses. I have never believed the author sought controversy or intended offence. He is an exceptional writer who sets his work in complex societies he knows well. He was a soft target for zealotry.

I leave this well-worn topic and return to more innocent times, at Stanley Studios, London SW10, as I set about designing the original paperback cover for Midnight’s Children. Not for the first time Pan’s commitment to the significance of the book was to be reflected in the point-size of the typeface. The trouble with a brief of ‘Big Author + Big Title’ is that it can be a typographical blunt instrument. But Sonny Mehta‘s unerring literary judgement had picked another great. In fact he saw it as a possible Booker Prize winner. So the task was to work with it and bring some character to bear. Devouring the tome hungrily in my West London flat I found there was a feast on offer. I was particularly struck by the doctor who when visiting a young woman is confronted by female family members protecting her modesty with a sheet. The sheet has a carefully placed hole through which only local examination of the immediate medical problem is possible. Over time the various local areas build an overall picture for the doctor who has gradually fallen in love with her. The film-maker’s must have had a such an amazing time with such rich narrative.

Potential bestsellers on the mass-market list at Pan Books (parent to the Picador imprint) endured relentless pressure, in cover briefs, to parade 70s film-poster style collages of heroes and helicopters exploding or some such chaos. It was clearly dated even then and I fought the good fight for better graphics where I could. On Picador we worked to develop ways to set the mood and entice interest with the visuals in subtler, but no less effective ways. Midnight’s Children was seen to have huge sales potential yet its target audience is inclined to more nuanced sensibilities. (Read between the lines people, work with me here) As some scribbled notes on the inside of the hardback edition reveal (just unearthed from a box emptied to fill yet another new bookshelf) the ‘just before midnight’ clock hands were my first idea but survived scrutiny. The execution would provide the character. I would handle the type differently now but remain happy with my apparently perverse choice of Ian Pollock to create for me the pealing paint/ faded opulence wall. He was widely celebrated for his brilliantly bizarre, idiosyncratic characters at that time. And we incorporated one big peel in case it won the Booker Prize. In that space I could announce its triumph and avoid a Daz-style corner flash. And if it didn’t, well it’s a peeling bit. The illustrator gave me the original painting (shown) and that recently emerged from another box.

I keep reading that blog posts should be kept short. Shame. Because coincidentaly that was the title of his next novel. I took the painted wall route again with the cover. This time with ‘Shame‘ as graffiti, in Urdu I recall and Salman popped in to Stanley Studios to write it for me. Hard to imagine within a few years he would be in hiding.

Sonny Mehta left London for New York. I left Pan (well it was important for me!). Salman Rushdie went to Penguin with The Satanic Verses. Midnight’s Childen went on to win the ‘Booker of Bookers’ in 1993. Time sure keeps moving after midnight . . .

Can’t wait to see the film of Midnight’s Children. Or whatever else turns up in boxes come to think of it.

 

 

Michael Ondaatje

This week I overheard two boys, about 8 years old, at the magazines section of WHSmith. One asked the other if he read comics. “Back in the day.” was the reply.

Back in the day, this designer worked on the cover for Michael Ondaatje‘s early novel, Coming Through Slaughter. Michael is a very charming man who writes like an angel. This book is a ‘fictionalised’ account of the brief life of Buddy Bolden. Fictionalised because so little documentation remains. But – back in the day – in New Orleans, he played Jazz on the trumpet for the very first time. The Birth of Jazz. 
 slaughter
Miles Davis & Coltrane move me but Jazz is not my first musical port of call. And I am sure that is my short-coming, not the music’s.

But this story makes the hairs on the neck stand up. He was called the first great jazz trumpet player. No recorded music. How tremendous does your impact have to have been for that colossal appellation to form your legend? Now that, for me, occasions use of the over-worked word ‘awesome’.

Ondatjee relates a tale of massive, high-impact collision. The explosion of a creative talent. The implosion of drink, drugs, excess, squalor and madness. His description of Bolden’s rampant trumpet outpouring, in a public town parade, at his musical peak, and at the same moment as the fissure to his final insanity.  This is one of those very rare times a writer truely does justice to the potent alchemy of music.

Not only are there no recordings and sparse documentation of this pyrotechnic talent, there is little visual record. One fire damaged glass plate. At the time it seemed to0 obvious to use it on the cover. Beautiful, on reflection but as a grabber maybe just another bunch of sepia negroes as entertainers. Once into the text, it holds a howl of melancholy. On the shelf, another poignant, but passive moment awaiting Ken Burns‘ genius for his trade-mark, slow-motion, re-ignition of the past.

This is probably the point where I should tell design students to sit up straight and learn what you do when you want someone’s image but do not have the subject available. Nah. All I can do is tell you what I did. On that day with that problem.

I fibbed a bit about me and Jazz. I love Louis Armstrong too. In fact I once speculated about my funeral music (as you do) and chose two tunes to bookend my experience of adult life. I fancied David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust‘ at the start and Louis Armstrong’s ‘Stardust‘ at the end. Then I forgot about it. Until just then.

I remembered that a signature visual for Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong was the way, during performance, he would mop the sweat from his face with his handkerchief. Some rascals suggest he kept cocaine in it to revive him during a particularly vigourous set. I doubt it. In fact, I expect that would produce a Woody Allen moment. But the point is that it totally obscured his face.

And I had it. My muse moment. A portrait of a man who was not there. A hope for a pause in performance of exhaustion, intensity and pain. I wanted a close-up study and often have a mischievous desire to commission out of genre. I took the idea to Robert Golden. At that time he was the man for food photography. A serious man, he now makes documentary film, I believe.

No drug dust. Maybe just a little Stardust. Back in the day.

Italo Calvino

Brian Eno

Not quite like the posts so far. Not a linear tale, which given, the exquisitely non-conventional nature of the subject, is probably apt.

Art School, Brighton. Student. Main-lining music without frontiers. Captain Beefheart, Joni Mitchell, Velvet Underground, Dylan, Roxy Music, Bowie, Frank Zappa, Toots. But finding gold in the crevices. Peter Tosh, Brian Eno, Winston Rodney, The J.B.s, Lee Perry, Fela Kuti. I loved the line, “The matchless privacy of the obscure.” Now I can’t remember if it was Peake or Joyce.

Nigh-time DJ for Soul Society and Friday Night Club in The Basement. Playing Funk not Disco and clearing the dancefloor with a compulsive obsession with Dub Reggae that I used to buy in a record shop in Brixton Market that was the size of a phone booth. Putting Stevie Wonder on to get them back dancing. I hated Glam Rock. They were all a bunch of over-weight Kwik-Fit fitters in glitter. But Bowie and Eno, they were the real deal. Exotic explorers.

And there I was one day with performance artist, Charlie Hooker, listening to Eno’s solo album “Here Come the Warm Jets” and I was away. Unusual, pioneering and no big fan base intruding in my private pleasure. “Taking Tiger Mountain“, “Before and After Science“, the playful, determined, occasionally bonkers vocal albums. It seemed most people just sniggered when I went on about it. And, clutching the purist badge of the completist, I took to the early Ambient Work. 

Blissful, straining, serene, epic emotional landscape . . .

Anyway, back on earth I am to be found later working for a living at Pan Books. The logo (called a ‘colophon’, in Publishing) was a hairy-legged fellow with a flute. To me it was Pan as in Panorama. Breadth, Scope. Jackie Collins’ “Hollywood Wives” in the morning and Samuel Beckett in the afternoon. The Becketts, and many other design projects were collaborations with my 80s soul-mate Russell Mills. More of that another time. But the initial bonding with Russell was music (and Guinness). He was the first person since Charlie Hooker that ‘got it’ with the Brian Eno thing.

Excuse the fan bit here but Eno’s music was ubiquitous for me. “On Land” in particular seemed to just be around, like breathing. It influenced me in haunting ways. When I could escape meetings and the cacophony of studio days, I would slip into my office and listen on the Walkman as I worked. Shifting between Eno, John Hassell, Harold Budd, mixed in with Ennio Morricone, I worked on my personal passion, and challenge, on the Pan Catalogue – Picador.

I struggle to relate this without sounding a bit of a tosser. If you think that, tough. This my story and my truth, so blame the writing not the wiring. So there.

A new writer to Picador. Graham Swift. Publisher, Sonny Mehta and editor, Tim Binding had impressed on me how highly they rated his new novel “Waterland“. You become immune to pressure. It doesn’t produce results with Literary Fiction in the same way as it does for Mass-Market Properties. Great writers have a unique voice. I had to ‘feel it’, become attuned to it. There was an elusive atmosphere to this novel I was struggling to identify. Frequently attempting, with Picador cover designs, to avoid the graphic mini-poster of the mainstream. Seeking the sense of expectation as the house-lights go down and the curtain rises . . .

With “Waterland” I found the muse in music. In an early morning black-bean soup of a fog, driving at a snails-pace, “On Land” loud and all-pervasive on the stereo, all the windows open in the BMW320 with my future wife, Sandy and Russell & Annie Mills, off for a weekend in Norfolk. This atmospheric moment was the inspiration I needed and I commissioned photographer, Charlie Waite. Murphy’s Law stepped in and Charlie had the misfortune of beautiful weather. We had to grossly over-enlarge a detail for one shot to get the effect we needed. Charlie is one gracious gent and he went along with it. The result was  a piece of work that pleased the author and sold very successfully. That year, at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Graham Swift referred to me a the ‘genius who produced his cover’. And I nearly died with pride. Good times. 

Later, I was able to feature Brian Eno’s installation work on the Picador catalogue above, and I went on to design the original Opal Records branding, for Brian, which Russell Mills developed beautifully. Graham Swift’s writing continues to be true ‘genius’.

If you design book covers don’t look at other book covers for inspiration. Look outside.