One shouldn’t judge a book by its cover — or should they? The current exhibit at the Whitney Humanities Center, “Book Jacket Design from the Yale University Press,” is a part of the Press’s centennial celebration. Continuing through Jan. 28, the show highlights cover designs from the past decade that have invited the reader to pick up the book in the first place.
Director of the Yale University Press John Donatich explained how elements of a book drive decisions about both the cover and the layout of its content.
“One of my favorite meetings every week is when we talk jacket concept,” Donatich said. “We try to impart with one quick impression what the book is trying to say.”
Development Manager of the Yale University Press Janyce Siress, who helped put the exhibit together, said it was important to have a visual aspect to the centennial celebration. She explained that the gallery features original artwork rather than digital scans to allow viewers to see how size affects the presentation of the covers.
“I tried to include some best-sellers, some books that were near and dear to us,” Siress said. “There is always the danger that you leave something important out.”
Mark Bauer, an associate director of the Whitney Humanities Center and curator of the show, worked with Siress to organize the exhibit. The diversity of the jackets featured reflected the variety of genres of books that the Press publishes. Bauer pointed out how the covers highlight the synergy of different art forms in one space, including typography, photography, line drawing, painting, woodcuts and more.
“There are such different moods struck … from the wonderful, playful cartoon to the really haunting ‘Walden,’ ” Bauer said. “The silver title just floats off the page.”
He described how covers can also make editorial comments. The cover of “The Lonely Crowd,” a classic sociology text, touts a flock of sheep instead of people.
“The Plausibility of Life,” the first jacket design a viewer would see when walking along the gallery, is breathtaking. The butterflies, lizards and insects splattered over the entire jacket do not need text to convey the vibrancy of life itself. Notably — and thankfully —explanatory text is missing from the exhibit. Instead, the show simulates the effect a book cover should have on a consumer.
“You just want to come in and look into the detail,” Bauer said. “If you did see this book in the stack, would it speak to you?”
Mary Valencia, a staff designer for the Press featured in the exhibit, stressed the teamwork involved in book design. Some authors suggest an image for the jacket, while in other instances, it is up to the designer to conceptualize the cover. Valencia defined the process as a concerted effort to create an “aesthetic, accurate and saleable” product.
Valencia, while skimming “Proust in Love,” read about Proust once courting someone by playing on a tennis racket as if it were a guitar. She chose to paint a rose on a photograph of the author, with the end result a cover depicting a ready-to-woo Marcel biting a rose.
“He is a playful person,” Valencia said. “That image … I thought it would be funny.”
She also designed the cover for a book by Sartre in which she chose to use lowercase letters for the title.
“I just had a feeling that that seemed more personal,” she said.
Donatich has coordinated other centennial events, including exhibitions at the Sterling Memorial Library, and commissioned a book about the Press’s first 100 years.
The celebration will culminate in a full day of panel discussions — a collaboration of the Press, the Whitney and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. To complement the Book Jacket Design exhibit, the Whitney will also host Chip Kidd — the leading American book designer according to Bauer — on January 23 for a talk about 20th century book cover design.