Don’t just judge this Kidd by his covers

Graphic designer Chip Kidd is a master of hidden complexity. Yet his fame is also deceptively one-dimensional.

Best known for his book covers, Kidd’s work manages to feature simple, bold images that subtly comment on the text inside. But while Kidd, who gave a Master’s Tea in Swing Space on Wednesday, is best known for these covers, his work with publishing company Alfred A. Knopf only scratches the surface of this artist’s many talents.

Chip Kidd, a renowned graphic designer, speaks at a Jonathan Edwards Master’s Tea yesterday.
Kate Hawkins
Chip Kidd, a renowned graphic designer, speaks at a Jonathan Edwards Master’s Tea yesterday.

Kidd’s non-contracted position at Knopf allows him to freelance but, as he said, “I sort of take it to the next level.”

On top of his Knopf job and further freelance design work, Kidd has written two successful novels, “The Cheese Monkeys” and “The Learner.” He also makes up one half of artbreak, a band called which, on its Myspace page, describes itself as “Bowie crashing The Cars into Joy Division going 300 miles per hour at 4am on Abbey Road.” And, on top of all of that, he is an editor-at-large at Pantheon Books, where he manifests his life-long love of comic books by overseeing the publication of graphic novels, including Chris Ware’s “Jimmy Corrigan” and “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi.

Kidd’s Renaissance man-hood is not universally admired, though.

“His peers don’t feel comfortable with his fame,” Veronique Vienne wrote in her 2003 monograph “Chip Kidd.” “They resent the fact that to compete with him, they can’t be mere graphic designers any more. They also have to be perceived as multitalented, articulate, charming and funny.”

And if the frequent laughter of the 15 or so Master’s Tea guests was any indication, “multitalented, articulate, charming and funny” is certainly how his fans view him.

“I really liked … the way he presented himself,” Natasha Vitek ’11 said. “He was very honest in a very amusing way.”

Kidd’s self-presentation was a deceptively simple cover hiding his impressive volume of talent and projects. Modest to the point of self-effacing, he apologetically repeated “God, this is going on way too long,” throughout his slide show and avoided talking about any of his freelance projects unless specifically asked.

Not that his covers don’t warrant a Master’s Tea on their own.

On one of Kidd’s most arresting covers, a child’s stuffed bunny rabbit rests upside-down on its head, its legs splayed slightly apart. This image is an ingeniously apt one for the book, Paul Golding’s “The Abomination,” which tells the story of a child whose sexual identity makes him an outsider.

It is this complexity disguised as simplicity that marks some of Kidd’s best-known work, like the boxer shorts covering David Sedaris’s “Naked” or the familiar dinosaur skeleton on the front of Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park.” The success of these books and others with Chip Kidd covers — including Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient,” Cormac McCarthy’s “The Border Trilogy,” and “Dry” by Augusten Burroughs — has prompted critics to draw connections between Kidd’s talents and the bestseller rate among the authors who employ them.

Kidd acknowledged during the talk that his work does have some impact on how a book sells, referencing the cover of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” which is entirely black except for the text.

“This worked well in the bookstore because everything else was competing for your attention and screaming at you, and this was like a black hole drawing you in,” he said.

But Kidd pointed out that the subtleties of his art can be lost on the consumer. He mocked the publishers’ enthusiastic reaction to his cover for Augusten Burrough’s “Possible Side Effects,” which features a photograph of a six-fingered hand.

“The reason they loved it was because it was yellow and it had a hand on it.”

But sometimes, Kidd said, a novel’s success is based solely on the author’s skill and reputation. In narrating his drawn-out battle with David Sedaris, during which Sedaris kept changing the title of his upcoming book — now tentatively called “When You Are Engulfed In Flames” — Kidd expressed bewilderment at Sedaris’ internal conflict over the exterior trappings of the book.

“You could call this book ‘Steaming Piece of Shit’ and everyone would buy it,” Kidd said. “They would probably buy two.”

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