Peter Mendelsund’s 16 Favorite Book Covers of 2012


Recently, we polled book jacket designers on their favorite book covers of the year, and we were dazzled by what they came up with. But Peter Mendelsund (who happens to be one of our very favorites) had a bit more to say on the subject than we could fit into our other roundup. Here we give you his full report on the state of book jacket design (and his favorites of the year!)

“The story of this year in book jackets was the story of how we book designers were finally given the go-ahead to use illustration and hand drawn typography instead of photos on covers for blockbuster novels,” Mendelsund says. “It only took ten years worth of badgering from art departments to get traction with the idea — and the tipping point came in the form, I believe, of Keith Hayes’ very pretty and commercially viable Art of Fielding jacket produced by Little, Brown in the Fall of 2011. This jacket looked ‘big,’ and it was made of cursive! What a coup. It was a real floodgate opener. Copycats abounded in ‘12. (Inevitably, this is also the year in which I became bored with illustration and hand-drawn typography on book covers—just as these methods had become so popular, and just as publishing clients everywhere were asking for them.)

“2012 was also a year in which production values got a little bit spiffier. Suddenly designers were allowed to budget for foils, die-cuts, spot colors, spot glosses, glow-in-the-dark inks, slipcases and other effects which were considered cost-prohibitive in the past. I attribute this trend to the fact that physical books needed to justify their existence in the face of the cannibalizing effects of electronic reading. And they did so, partially, by having some money spent on their appearance. Did it pay off? Well it certainly did for the consumer.Which is to say, all in all: a very good year for book jackets. Here is some of the work I found most memorable (In no particular order).”

“Jonathan Gray’s cover for The Yellow World. What can you say? It’s perfect. Nothing is out of place. (Imagine, for a moment, the jacket above without the yellow and white circles being out of registration — it is just such a detail that makes this cover sing.) There are moments when the field of design encroaches on the fine arts — this is one such time. I would happily frame this jacket and hang it on my wall. A special nod goes here to the publishing program itself — as it is not every day that a designer is allowed to work type-free on a book cover. But Jon Gray took the assignment and made something flawless of it.”

“John Gall for Tom McCarthy’s Men in Space (Vintage Books). John Gall is a master of many types of design: he makes many of his amazing jackets by hand, and is an accomplished collagist… but, for me, his true genius is on display in the type-on-a-photo school of design as seen above. He does a beautiful job here of representing the disoriented anomie of McCarthy’s writing. And his design scheme works brilliantly cross-platform! (Increasingly important)”

“Weirdly overlooked on other best of ’12 lists. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, for FSG. Designed by the office of Rodrigo Corral. Obviously, there’s the BIG EFFECT, the glow-in-the-dark thing (When can we expect the first scratch-and-sniff book jacket you ask? I’ve been waiting years for that) but it’s those stylized yellow books, and the simplicity of the execution as a whole, that really makes the jacket work for me.”

“Simple, simple, simple. Confident, and beautiful. What more needs be said? NW by Zadie Smith, designed by Darren Haggar, art director at Penguin Press with Tal Goretsky, art director of Scribner’s. Publisher is also to be congratulated here on allowing less to be more.”

“(I also should say that I love the slightly more complex and referential Brit edition. Another beauty by Mr. Jonathan Gray.)”

“What is more satisfying than a gorgeous backlist reissue? The Vintage Books Ralph Ellison collection. Appropriately jazzy. The designer, Cardon Webb, is a rising talent.”

“Chris Ware’s cover for his Building Stories box set. To see it, is to want it. Which is as good a definition of successful graphic design as I’ve ever heard.”

“Paul Sahre, my number one favorite living book designer, gets at the heart of the matter here with this sinister, ingenuous cover for Thomas Mallon’s Watergate. This jacket takes beautiful advantage of the drama inherent in book jackets wrapping on top of, and hiding, the books themselves. On the jacket is a phone receiver, beautifully stylized and die cut, and on the book, the metallic silver bug. (Full disclosure: this book was designed for Pantheon Books, which is one of the houses I also art direct. I thought about not including Paul’s jacket on this list for this reason, but it’s too damned good to leave out.)”

“Leanne Shapton is, like Chris Ware, both author and designer here. Beautiful shapes, beautiful colors (beautiful writing too.) This one really stands out on the shelves. I’ve included another version I’ve seen online — which must be the UK cover.”

“Had to include Milan Bozic’s colorful LP for Michael Chabon’s latest, Telegraph Avenue. Very nicely done, with a meticulous period look. The center hole is die cut, the casewrap a metallic silver. Looks even better in person than on screen.”

“Technically, this one is 2013, but it’s to be printed, JUST OVER THE LINE, in the first week of 2013. So screw it: David Pearson’s magnificently cheeky 1984, for Penguin UK. The abstract beauty of redaction. Black foil covering the title and author name. This is the 1984 I want on my shelf forever.”

“While we are in Britain: Really impressed by this cover by Tom Darracott for Hawthorne & Child, for Granta Books. It is simply so bizarre and compelling. What the hell does it mean? What even is it? Who cares!”

The Solitudes, for Penguin. A pretty little cover by designer Eric White. Makes beautiful use of the space. Love the receding type; Fantastic penguin placement.”

Dead Man Upright was produced in 2012, but the other two books in this Derek Raymond series from 2011 get grandfathered in. An excellent visual template for a series, a wonderful group of illustrations. By Christopher King, art director at Melville House.”

In Cold Blood, designed by Vintage art Director Megan Wilson. Locale, here, tells the whole tale. A haunting composition, the type hovering in the clouds, like observers, watching at a remove. (or like the newly dead?)”

“Designed by cleverboots British design-genius Jamie Keenan. Alain de Botton, for Vintage books. Love how deadpan the treatment is here. Big, important topics treated with mordant wit. There were many more, but a guy has to stop somewhere.”