In the living room of Knopf art director Peter Mendelsund’s Manhattan apartment, inspiration is everywhere: a battered, sea-green first edition of Ulysses; a toy version of the rocket Tintin takes to the moon; the vertebra of a blue whale; and, on top of his baby grand piano, a wooden model of a convention center made by his father, in the mid-’70s, when he worked for a New York architecture firm. It was never built, because the firm didn’t win the competition (Renzo Piano did), nor were any of his other models, because, in his late 30s, Benjamin Mendelsund was diagnosed with a brain tumor and devoted the rest of his life—he died at 48—to sculpture and painting. “He cut out all the bureaucracy of architecture,” Mendelsund says, “and turned to this.” He points to a small canvas painted entirely black except for two rectangles—two faded photos of a barn’s loft, its window open to the bright of day.
That image of a window onto a window is central to the signature style that’s made Mendelsund one of our preeminent book jacket designers: geometric, fascinated with negative space, striving to capture infinity through simplicity. You see the painting echoed in his cover for Martin Amis’s 2006 novel, House of Meetings, for which he photographed a tiny simulacrum of a room, its perspective slanting toward a miniature door. You see it in his many book jackets with drop-cuts—holes carved out of an image—like the diamond torn from a woman’s face on an early cover for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, back in 2005 when it was called The Man Who Hated Women. And you see it in his May 11, 2015, New Yorker cover, which features an American flag smashed like a storefront window, a single star-shaped hole evoking the myriad emotions of last year’s civil unrest in Baltimore.
His father’s second act as an artist also helps explain how, at 33, Mendelsund had the confidence to abandon his career as a classical pianist (“Eventually, I realized that I’d never truly be world class”) and reinvent himself. His wife suggested he try something visual—he was always drawing; he had designed their wedding invitation. “Sometimes the obvious things take a long time to see.”
So he finagled a job interview—his mother had a connection to Chip Kidd, the Knopf art director behind Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, as well as books by Donna Tartt and David Sedaris—and though his modest portfolio mostly included designs for his own CDs, a week later he had a job at Vintage. Eight months after that he joined a team of seven designers at Knopf, perhaps the most venerable publishing house in Manhattan.
Fourteen years and about a thousand covers later (including Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, a fictional chivalry guide by Ethan Hawke, most of James Joyce’s works, and the entire oeuvres of Italo Calvino and Franz Kafka), he sits on his living room sofa drinking coffee as a man tunes the piano. At 48, dressed in jeans, a shawl-collared sweater, and wool socks, he still exudes the puckish charm of Tom Hulce’s Mozart in Amadeus; it’s hard to believe he’s the father of two teenage girls.
On the coffee table are two copies of one of his latest jackets, Tom Vanderbilt’s You May Also Like, a Malcolm Gladwell–like study of why certain choices appeal to us. One cover is blue with a chocolate ice cream cone; the other is red with a vanilla one. “The jackets become part of the story,” he says. “It’s like a Möbius Strip.”
He chose those particular shades—“warm red and reflex blue”—because they felt au courant. “But colors go in and out of style,” he says. “There was a period where you’d never use purple. Those are the times when I say, ‘It’s time to do something purple again.’” He pauses, considers this. “In a way, though, the background could be any color. What’s important is to have balance, order, these Aristotelian qualities. Timeliness and chicness and hipness—they’re symbiotic to the bigger concerns: Are you selling the book properly? Is the book pretty?”
Books, he believes, should always be pretty—unless they’re ugly. “There’s a kind of ugliness that is a breed of prettiness,” he clarifies, pointing to his living room’s floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, which displays many of his greatest influences alongside several favorites of his own covers. Those include his fuchsia edition of Simone de Beauvoir’s 1969 short story collection, The Woman Destroyed, its only image a pair of parakeet-green lips with a dangling cigarette, the title a drunken scrawl across the page. “That’s an ugly cover,” he says. “But that ugliness has a style to it,” what he’s called a jolie laide quality. “There’s something great about making the staid population uncomfortable.”
It can be challenging for Mendelsund to achieve the right degree of crudity. “Sometimes I’m so sick of my own handwriting, I’ll ask the production people, or someone in editorial, ‘Can you just write this out for me?’” The handwriting on Woman Destroyed, for instance, is by his younger daughter. “I can do crude,” he says. “But I can’t do crude in a way that straddles the male-female axis in the way that she could. It’s very hard to tell whether a man or a woman wrote it.” That ambiguity, for Mendelsund, is essential. “When designing a book by a writer who’s female, I’m very conscious of not falling into the trap of making sweet curlicues and the heart above the ‘i,’” he says. “I just told a designer I was art-directing, ‘Let’s say the book is by Jane Doe. When you’re setting the type, make it Michael Doe. I do not want this to come out as a cover that’s sexed.’”
Another challenge is genre fiction. “You hit the tropes in the smallest way possible,” he says. “You merely tip your hat to the fact that there’s going to be violence.” His latest is The Crow Girl, by Erik Axl Sund, the pen name of Swedish crime-writing duo Jerker Eriksson and Håkan Axlander Sundquist. “It’s pretty violent Swedish crime,” Mendelsund says, “so I wanted something intentionally ugly, with an inherent violence to it.” His black cover features a girl’s orchid-white face, her eyes, nose, and mouth cut out, the title nesting in her empty sockets. “Defacing always feels criminal,” he says. “It’s almost Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” But Mendelsund is particularly restrained in his use of the sanguine. “When I did Jo Nesbø’s covers, I did them black and white, and red was the only color,” he says. “I didn’t want to do that again. It’s kind of a cheap trick.”
Perhaps the cheapest design tricks, for Mendelsund, are those employed to exoticize certain covers. He recently spoke with a group of booksellers at an event for Homegoing, a debut novel by a 26-year-old Ghanaian-American woman named Yaa Gyasi that Knopf will publish this month. “I showed them a printout for all kinds of books that contend with Africa, and they all have the same cover: a sunset, an acacia tree, that tree-where-man-was-born kind of bull****. And I was like ‘**** this.’” The golden, linoleum-cut cover Mendelsund devised does have a sunset, but there are no acacia trees, and if there’s an artistic debt, it’s to the primary-colored cutouts of Matisse—an homage that extends to the shapes of the stars.
His affinity for vibrant collages is also evident in his reissues of three novels by W.G. Sebald that will be published this fall by the independent house New Directions. The novels’ hallmark is the gradual and oblique manner in which they contend, through a composite of characters’ memories, with the Holocaust, and Mendelsund’s designs are equally oblique: scraps of images—ships, immigrants, butterflies, glaciers, train tracks—surrounded by seas of negative space. “Sebald’s themes emerge from those spaces,” he says. “There’s an accumulation of hints and asides, so that you can work backward to the conflagration—this person was in this camp, everyone’s a refugee—but it’s never explicitly stated. It’s all implication.”
Freelance projects comprise about 20 percent of Mendelsund’s output; the rest is in-house for Knopf and its fellow Penguin Random House imprints. Sometimes authors request to work with him, and sometimes Knopf editor in chief Sonny Mehta specifically asks that he work on a project. But typically books come to him the old-fashioned way: Several times a year, editors present their acquisitions at staff-wide meetings, and afterward the art department divvies up the titles over lunch.
Mendelsund’s most challenging cover was for his own book, What We See When We Read, a treatise on how we make sense of visual cues when we’re reading, published in 2014. (He settled on an all-black jacket with a golden keyhole at the center.) Now he’s writing a novel, an undertaking that has brought its own revelations. “I’ve learned the most important part of the process is the fugue state you have to allow yourself to go into, blinkered, mid-marathon,” he says. “It’s this fog you have to be comfortable in. You have to be confident that it’s going to come out, one way or the other.”
When he’s designing, though, often the hardest thing isn’t producing the work, but stopping the production line. “Sometimes I wish you could have one book and 10 covers,” he says. “All of those visual possibilities are swimming around in your mind’s eye. It’s always a shame to say, ‘Here’s one cover.’ I imagine with a work of fiction, you’re living in your world by yourself, it’s a very privileged place, then all of a sudden someone says”—he slips into a nebbishy voice—“‘Here’s what it looks like.’”
So, out of the dozens of covers he designs for each book, how does he settle on just one? He takes a sip of his coffee and looks out the window; you can just glimpse a sliver of the Hudson. “You have to be a futurist,” he says. “It’s not just trendspotting, picking out what will look good a year from now. It’s being able to be comfortable with something that might be ugly. Anything new, there’s going to be this frisson until you adapt to it, and it becomes the new normal. Sometimes an editor says, ‘I’m not sure I like this,’ and I’m like, ‘You’re gonna. You’re gonna get there.’” He smiles. “‘Just believe me.’”