Book-jacket/graphic designer and — with the publication of The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel In Two Semesters — novelist, Chip Kidd lives in New York City and works for Alfred Knopf. His work has been featured in Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly, The New Republic, Time Magazine, The New York Times, Graphis, New York and ID magazines. Among his growing list of accolades is the International Center of Photography’s award for Use of Photography in Graphic Design. He has contributed to the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, Vogue, The New York Observer, Details, Arena, 2WICE and the New York Post. He is the design consultant for the Paris Review and a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationalle.
If a list existed of the almost 800 covers Kidd has designed — at the moment no such list exists — it’s a good bet that a very large number of the major novelists and best selling books of the last decade have had covers designed by him. From Dean Koontz’s Intensity and Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy to David Sedaris’ Naked and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, Chip Kidd has been credited with being at the forefront of the revolution in US book design.
His designs have been described as “Monstrously ugly” (John Updike), “apparently obvious” (William Boyd), “faithful flat-earth rendering” (Don DeLillo), “surprisingly elegant” (A.S. Mehta), “a distinguished parochial comic balding Episcopal priest” (Allan Gurganus) and “two colors plush sash” (Martin Amis). Chip Kidd’s first authorial effort, Batman Collected, was given the Design Distinction award and Batman Animated was lauded by the Comics Industry. He is also very much involved with Pantheon’s comics “imprint,” working with graphic novelists Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes and having recently produced a wonderful compendium, Peanuts: The Art of Charles Schulz.
The Cheese Monkeys, Kidd’s first foray into fiction, is set at a large Mid-Atlantic University in the late ’50s. The protagonist ends up, accidentally, taking a new course called “Introduction to Graphic Design” taught by Winter Sorbeck, a compellingly complex man who tests his students in the best — and arguably — most demanding ways. In the five assignments that comprise the course’s semester Sorbeck manages to introduce his pupils to a brave new world. Their discoveries are, as they say, what this novel is about.
Robert Birnbaum: The log-rolling aspect of the book blurb aside, there are an interesting assortment of writers quoted on your book’s cover, about your book.
Chip Kidd: Uh huh.
RB: James Ellroy.
CK: Uh huh.
RB: Are you just going to say, “uh huh?”
CK: (Laughs.) And what do they all have in common? And don’t forget the front flap.
RB: …Bret Easton Ellis.
CK: So what do they all have in common?
RB: Okay, I’ll bite.
CK: They all blurbed my book.
RB: Have you designed all their book jackets?
RB: You didn’t do George’s book?
CK: Well, I did do George but no one will ever see it. I did Pastoralia…it’s a long, not very interesting story. Basically, he ended up insisting that the Brits use my cover for Pastoralia. They were just doing a paperback edition, so they did use it. But Lorrie Moore I’ve never had the pleasure and Laura Zigman, I’ve never had the pleasure.
RB: Lorrie Moore is with the Random House.
CK: She’s with Knopf.
RB: I look at it now as one big …
RB: Nice image.
CK: Infected as I am, I am so small that they have never seen fit to stare in the mirror and squeeze me out. So, I try not to think of the big picture there as much as I possibly can. I’ve always flown under the radar.
RB: Really? How is it possible that someone who is a highly celebrated artiste would fly under the radar? You’d think they would tout you?
CK: Do you think Peter Olson knows who I am?
RB: Who is Peter Olson?
CK: He’s the head of Random House. He’s over all but there are so many subdivisions. But in the Knopf Group — which is Knopf, Pantheon and Vintage — I like all those people and work very well with them and Sunny Mehta.
RB: Do you make it into the corporate report?
CK: See there’s not a corporate report for Knopf per se. There’s a report for Bertelsmann — in which they are too busy trying to get Whitney Houston out of rehab.
RB: That’s a project. This is obviously a new turn for you, at least publicly. writing a novel. Are you being taken seriously as a writer?
CK: I don’t know if I am. So far, at least, people seem to have read it. Which is a big step.
RB: Real big.
CK: And surprising. No one can ignore the whole design thing, and it’s about design, too. So what’s the difference between designing something and all this kind of stuff?
RB: In designing this book you certainly took some liberties, elements you haven’t employed in other books. The way you ended it, the copyright page…
CK: You know it’s all just kind of gimmicks — things that I always wanted to do on other people’s books.
RB: Do you normally do the actual book design?
CK: Only in rare cases where I really like the book and I have a really good approved jacket. Then I’ll file a petition within Knopf or wherever it [the book being published] is and say “Please let me follow this through in the inside.” But it’s a lot of work. It’s like designing under a microscope. You have to love it. It’s very thankless. I did it on Secret History by Donna Tartt, on The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami and that was one my favorite books to do.
RB: You did your own book? There is no colophon [inscription placed at the end of a book or manuscript, usually with facts relative to its production]…
CK: The printing on the end-papers is very deliberate. At the end of the book, the students sort of get spit out into the world, like they just went through some crazy funhouse. Tumbled out and there they are and they are on their own. I wanted the reader to go through the same thing…no blank comfortable expanse. You are just shoved out of the book. The colophons, Knopf still does that, a lot of them [publishers] don’t. I think it’s very nice and charming and sweet and should be carried on.
RB: Aside from cover design, how much attention do you think people pay to the design of the rest of the book?
CK: You have people like Dave Eggers who pay wonderful attention to it.
RB: In the McSweeney’s books…
CK: That’s sort of an island of attention and caring to the work as opposed to the corporate publishers. I couldn’t really single anybody out. But the squeeze on the production budgets…it just gets smaller and smaller. And good design does not have to cost a lot of money, but if you are going to print on the end-papers [as is done on Cheese Monkeys] that’s going to cost more no matter what you do. Finally, because of the way it is and because all the sleeves had to be slipped on by hand, Scribner, who was game for all this, said, “Something’s got to go.” It was a little bit at the eleventh hour to be hearing this. So, I got on the phone to my agent and we renegotiated my royalty.
RB: You reduced your royalty so you could produce the book you wanted?
CK: Yeah, yeah.
RB: Will the paperback look like this?
CK: I don’t know, I have a couple of ideas. I would like to essentially keep it the same. At least on the interior. But again, whoever it is going to have to agree to print on the inside front cover and back cover — which they will gripe about.
RB: Any special editions planned?
CK: Not that I know of.
RB: I’m thinking of the novel Pantheon published by Mark Daniel—
CK: It’s unpronounceable. House of Leaves, yeah.
RB: That was a first novel that had a number of different special editions.
CK: I respect it as…it’s practically ‘novel as outsider art.’ He knew what he was doing and it’s intensely complicated. I think in some way he must be in control of it. I find it interesting as an object.
RB: I read it and I feel like it was one level above private language. It just about tipped in to something that was incomprehensible. Or flirted with it. But now the book has become something else.
CK: Yeah, like a cult object.
RB: I noticed that some editions were going for $125.
CK: I didn’t have anything to do with it but I was watching it as it was happening. Pantheon did a very small number of hard covers, maybe 3000 and it was $40. Something crazy. The real run was paperback. But I don’t have any plans like that for this [book]. This is strictly a dream, and I will probably never get around to doing it. But there is a sizeable scene that my editor very much wanted to cut…
RB: Who is your editor?
CK: Sara McGrath, who’s just the best. I was really, really lucky. Anyway, there is a sizeable scene in the first semester of the book that was a comedic set piece and she thought it was funny, but that’s all. It didn’t really advance the plot. And she finally convinced me to cut it. It was 120 pages. It would be fun to print that privately as a chap book. Not for any crazy amount of money but just so it would exist. But that’s just a wish list thing.
RB: As you are writing do you think about how you are going to present the book?
CK: I wrote this in Quark. Do you know what Quark is?
RB: Yes. I know English too.
CK: I’m sorry. It was weird I was seeing how it was going to look as I was writing it, which is a potentially very dangerous thing.
RB: Is that why it took you six years to write it?
CK: No. It took me six years to write it because I didn’t know what I was doing and I’d set out to write a completely different book, in the first place. And I have a day job and I have a second day job…
RB: Is that the Pantheon imprint?
CK: Editing the comics stuff. It started in earnest about three years ago. And I freelance to supplement my income.
RB: That would be a third day job.
RB: So when do you write?
CK: Weekends and evenings.
CK: No. Very irregularly.
RB: So now that you have announced to the world that you intend more fiction, what happens? Are you going to be like Fran Liebowitz, where people are going to be asking where the next book is, for next 15 or 20 years?
CK: I don’t think anyone will give a shit. Frankly.
RB: You know that’s not true. You are, in fact, a celebrity.
CK: I have no illusions to that whatsoever. That’s nonsense. I’d love it if they asked me to be a judge on Law & Order.
RB: You’re never going to finish your work if you watch TV.
CK: My BF, my boyfriend got me hooked on it.
RB: Law & Order?
CK: I’m not big on prime time TV or cop shows but what a…do you watch it?
CK: They could re-title that show, “How to Construct a Plot.” In that sense, consciously or unconsciously, it helps me to figure out how to plot something in an interesting way. Two of the great enemies are cliches and predictability. And it gets harder and harder to avoid that stuff.
RB: Do you see book covers as narrative instruments?
CK: I think it’s more intuitive than that. Sometimes it’s perfectly obvious what you should do and then you have to decide if you should do that or not. And sometimes you should and sometimes you shouldn’t. But then it’s not obvious at all. It just sort of…if you are working on something you just have to be alive to every possibility, every moment, today. Like why is there scribbling all over that (points to a drawing by my four year old son)?
RB: My son’s work. Will The Cheese Monkeys become must-reading at design schools?
CK: I would love that. That would be cool. It’s so fundamental. Anyone who’s been to design school would read it and go, “No shit!” It’s really more for people who haven’t thought about this stuff before.
RB: Design patriarch Milton Glaser thinks it’s phenomenal that you are being noticed. Especially because there are so many designers…who are other book designers and why aren’t they celebrated?
CK: There aren’t any. There’s just me, actually.
RB: Archie Ferguson, Barbara De Wilde, Carol Carson Devine…before you came along who was designing covers?
CK: A famous Bostonian. Here [in Boston] you can go see the William Addison Dwiggins room at the Boston Public Library. In the 20th Century, he was sort of one of the first Renaissance men. He designed his own type-faces and did really, really interesting work — a lot of it for Knopf. He coined the word ‘graphic design’. He’s mentioned in The Cheese Monkeys. Rockwell Kent.
RB: The painter Rockwell Kent?
CK: Yeah, his edition of Moby Dick is the coolest.
RB: Do you study and research older books?
RB: When did books start getting dust covers?
CK: Mid 19th century, And that’s what they were, literally to keep dust off. They were like candy wrappers, just until you got the book home and then you threw away the wrapper. Many just had advertising on them, for other books by the same publisher. Until sometime in the early 20th century and then the thought was that they [dust covers] should be part of the book. Alfred Knopf was himself a great proponent of it as a part of the book and it should have an aesthetic sensibility to it that’s somehow appropriate to what the book is. This whole idea of the fact that I am even sitting here right now talking to you is a testament to the fact that book-cover designers unlike most other graphic designers, get billing, they’re names go on what they do. That’s the key. And that’s been almost from the start. More often than not you will see a design credit. Somebody like Paul Rand and even Glaser were putting their names on the front. Small, but there they were.
RB: Are there marketing studies to establish parameters for cover designs?
CK: No, and if there was I’d quit. In fact, most publishing house have what they call jacket meetings. These are by all accounts these little Nuremberg trials for the jacket. Where we all sit in a circle and put them up one by one and we all talk about how we feel about it. Somebody from marketing, somebody from editorial, etc., etc.
RB: And does the author have a say?
CK: Yeah, but that comes before or after. But this whole jacket-meeting process thing, forget it. We don’t do it [at Knopf]. If, God forbid, something were to happen to Sunny [Mehta] and somebody new came in who decided that this was the way they wanted it to be run, I’d probably have to start thinking about…
RB: Have you thought about going out on your own?
CK: All the time. All the time. It’s this sort of benign inertia. I came to Knopf and said, “Great, I’ll stay here a year and a half and pump up my portfolio.” That was fifteen years ago. It’s a great job.
RB: It’s a premier publishing house.
CK: I’m not the art director officially, so I’m not responsible for all this stuff. I get a couple of projects to work on, most of them really interesting. This whole Pantheon comics editing has been an effort for me to evolve there. The art director there is Carole Carson and she’s not going anywhere. I don’t want her to go anywhere. I don’t want that job. It’s too administrative and there’s lot’s of pressure. She’s going to have to deal with the Clinton memoir, which, frankly, I wouldn’t want to. She has to deal with Andrew Weil.
RB: Do you talk to writers about writing? And have any helped you in the writing of this book?
CK: I talked to [James] Ellroy about it fairly early on. This was my dirty little secret for six years. Other than Sandy [J.D.] McClatchy, my boyfriend, I just decided I was not going to talk to anybody about this until it was done and sold to a publisher. The biggest cliché on the planet is to go somewhere and have somebody say, “What are you working on?” “Well, I’m working on a novel.” Everyone is working on a novel.
RB: I’m not.
CK: Yes, you are.
RB: Do you really think your book is a coming-of-age novel?
CK: I hate cliches. At first I was talking to my agent, she said it’s really not design and then when I finished it, she said, “It’s coming of age.” How disappointing to have it pigeonholed in that way. If it is, fine. I’d like to think it’s a lot more than that.
RB: Bret Ellis asserts that you are a traditionalist. Are you?
CK: Compared to him, I am. It’s funny we have the same agent and she really shaped my book and it was good advice. It really made me think, “Does she have these conversations with Bret? With Cormac? Jay McInerney. Murakami?
RB: Who is your agent?
CK: Binky Urban, Amanda Urban.
RB: Does she have the time to have conversations with everyone she represents?
CK: She’s pretty accessible to me. It made me wonder if it’s a) because I am a first novelist, b) not known as a writer at all and is she trying to be over protective? Or does she say, “Bret I’d rethink…”? It made me wonder if I was getting a special kind of treatment or if they all go through this and finally say, “Thanks for sharing and I’m just going to plough ahead.”
RB: How serious are you about writing?
CK: Not very. I’m not a real writer.
RB: What’s a real writer?
CK: I live with a real writer. A real writer is someone for whom it is much, much more natural and doesn’t have to work at it nearly as much. And certainly someone who is much better read than I am. And [to] Sandy [Kidd’s boyfriend]…I’ll say, “I need an interesting way of saying ‘x’.” And he’ll say, “How about…?” It just falls out of his mouth and it’s perfect. It would take me days to think of something like that. Certainly ‘generating the content’ as they say, as opposed to figuring out what it’s going to look like is the difference between the service industry and the people who they are servicing. So yeah, I want to continue to do it. If I were in a financial situation where I could kiss the day job goodbye and just sit home and write all day that would be nice, and maybe I could work my way into it.
RB: In the time in which you were writing this book did the way you looked at the effort change? Did you get more serious, more committed and concerned about the perfectibility of what you were doing?
CK: I was always concerned about that. I think I got better at it.
RB: And as you got better at it, did you then think about pursuing it further?
CK: Uh huh.
RB: And with a couple of books under your belt, could you see it becoming addictive?
CK: It’s very addictive. In order for that to happen you have to focus and know. The one thing talking to Ellroy…he’s big, big, big on an extremely thorough outline. Which I sort of did. But he’s extremely thorough. I don’t want to spend that much time…
RB: Well, it’s apples and oranges. Among other things, he’s trying to be historically accurate.
CK: What I’m saying is to have a really clear goal. I felt I needed to know how this was going to end before I really got into…
RB: You know many writers will “drive past their headlights”… They don’t know what their characters are going to do, their characters tell them.
CK: It’s funny, I just did this big retrospective of Charles Schulz. And he was very much like that. I don’t think he was crazy, and I don’t think he was kidding or jerking people around, but interviewers would say, “It’s such a shame that Charlie Brown’s baseball team has never won a game.” And he would say, “Yeah that is a shame. Well, he keeps putting Lucy out in center field. I don’t know why he does that. She drops the ball all the time. I don’t think that’s very smart.” And he goes on to say, “You know what, I don’t even know who they are playing?” And the interviewer says, “Well, if you don’t know, we’re in trouble.” Of course, he’s working on an open-ended series of things where he doesn’t want any clear ending in sight for them. But he was very much guided by these characters as opposed to the other way around.
RB: Well, that makes sense for a serial that ran for 50 years.
CK: It’s so cleanly the second half of the 20th century, it’s frightening. It started in 1950 and ended in 2000. Visible evolution, decade by decade. Seasons of great relevance and seasons of great irrelevance. It started to get its bite back at the end. You can clearly tell when he was happy in his life and when he was not…
RB: Tell me about this Pantheon imprint? Did it start with Art Spiegelman’s Raw?
CK: It started with Matt Groening’s Life in Hell. In the early ’80s. And then Maus. Maus was brought to Pantheon by the art director at the time, Louise Fili. And it was a completely different place then. And then Art brought a bunch of his cartoonist friends…
RB: Is what you are doing at Pantheon a resurrection?
CK: It’s making it up as we go along.
RB: Pantheon published Charley Burns?
CK: Mark Beyer, Gary Panter, Charles Burns and that was it. And then Maus II and then he [Art Spiegelman] won the Pulitzer. And then they did a Raw Reader, Read Yourself Raw. And then that was the end of it [Andre] Schiffrin got the boot and Art took the Raw franchise over to Penguin and they did a couple of digest-size books and that was it. Three or four years ago — a different regime now — an editor named Dan Frank announced they were going to do Ben Katchor — of whom I’m a great fan. I went to him and asked, “Are we going to be doing this again?” He’s great because he has an interest in it, but he’s a novice at the same time. So I said, “Look, if we’re going to start doing this again I know who we should be doing. And frankly, I’d like an editorial role in it.” And he was all for it. I mean Chris Ware, how could we not?
RB: Wasn’t he a Spiegelman discovery, first published in Raw?
CK: Yes, technically. Which is fine. And then Dan Clowes. And the Peanuts is sort of part of that although it’s a different kind of thing. It’s part of what we are calling Pantheon Comics.
RB: This could lead to people taking ‘comics’ seriously?
CK: I would like to think so.
RB: Why aren’t fotonovellas done in the United States?
CK: DC just did one. I think they’re weird. I haven’t yet seen one that really grabbed me. Do you know a painter named Alex Ross? He is — this is getting off the subject — the Norman Rockwell of comics. [He’s] incredibly popular among main stream comic artists. He dresses these people up and paints them, hyper-realistically. That’s as close as what you are referring to…these are like movie stills of the greatest Superman movie that never got made. Because it all looks entirely plausible and it all looks realistic but like, “Wow, that’s how Batman should look in the movies, in real life.”
RB: What is your role at this Pantheon imprint? Editor?
CK: It’s not even an imprint. It’s project by project. We are going to do this guy Ken Deutch next. He’s a contemporary of [R.] Crumb’s who just never really got the recognition.
RB: So you are not looking to do a comprehensive series?
CK: You mean like Modern Library? I’m very much in favor of completely different formats for each of these things. And the Peanuts book is pretty much the same format as the Chris Ware/Jimmy Corrigan book. But not because I want one to be grafted onto the other but because it suits the strips so well to have this horizontal thing.
RB: More Ben Katchor books?
CK: There’s a couple of ideas on the table. Dan Frank is really his guy and I help him with design. I have found that Clowes and Ware are really good designers and my role in to shepherd them through the design process, to go meetings with the sales force and say, “This is who these people are and this is why it’s important, this is why we have to get excited about it.” Hopefully, that will get easier.
RB: Do they sell books?
CK: Ware was a huge success story.
RB: Katchor? The Jew Of New York doesn’t strike me as a commercial title.
CK: I think we did fine. It went into a 2nd printing and went into paperback. It didn’t lose money.
RB: Ben Katchor is a hard-working guy.
CK: Yeah, yeah. So we’ll see. Dan Frank says Ben has three separate ideas for stuff. We’ll just have to see. And Art has some ideas…
RB: Do you work all the time?
CK: I feel like the laziest person on the planet. More like in spurts, I guess. Intensified spurts. On Plasticman [with Art Spiegelman] I had an assistant and that helped. On Peanuts I didn’t. It was very intensive.
RB: Because you had to be an archivist?
CK: I had to be an archivist and it was amazing, the free hand they gave me.
RB: Are there other projects that you have in your back pocket that you are waiting to spring on some unsuspecting financial backer?
CK: If I told you, you would laugh at me.
RB: I’ve already laughed at you and you haven’t cowered…be brave.
CK: What logically?
RB: I have to guess?
RB: Star in a movie?
CK: Or make one. That’s my dream.
RB: Hmm, like Julian Schnabel…
CK: I must say I guffawed as much as anyone else…
RB: I was just thinking about someone who has no filmic background who made a pretty fair film [Basquiat] and a fabulous film [Before Night Falls]. So your dream would be to make Cheese Monkeys a movie? Anyone option it?
CK: There’s been a little sniffing around, but no…
RB: If not your novel, is there another movie you would like to make?
CK: A really good Batman movie. Which Tim Burton did for about five minutes. The opening scene of the first one is perfect.
RB: Am I missing a gene or something? I’m an American boy and I never got into Batman or Superman? I was more interested in Mad magazine.
CK: I don’t know, it’s a certain kind of guy thing. It tends to appeal more to, as Chris Ware says, “Men who have yet to know the touch of a woman.” And are abnormally close to their mothers, maybe.
RB: How long until you write the sequel to Cheese Monkeys?
CK: I don’t want to do the sequel next because that’s what everyone will be expecting. There’s this other thing I want to do.
RB: Are you going to say what this other thing is?
CK: Do you care?
RB: Yes, I no doubt will be reading it because somebody will be sending it to me.
CK: It’s based on something that happened to the mother of a friend of mine. It doesn’t sound very interesting but it could be. It’s about a recent widow. She has two kids. Grown. With careers and families of their own. She has lost her sense of purpose. Initially this takes place is in Pennsylvania and then she decides at the urging of a friend to sell everything and buy a condo in Sarasota. She reunites with this old friend who went through a similar thing with her husband. But she can’t help but notice how Nittie used to be such a wallflower and now she just glows. And literally there’s a spring to her step. And then she finds it’s not just the salt and the sea air and the sunshine. Nittie has joined a competitive ball room dancing club. And this woman [whose name is Dolly] soon is very involved in it. Happy for the first time since her husband died. And it dawns on her that maybe she is actually happy for the first time in her life and maybe Horace wasn’t the sweetheart she imagined he was. Actually, she was miserable for a while before he got sick…her children are thrilled that their mother is coming back to life. And everything is as it should be until the family financial adviser calls her daughter, Hope and says, “I know it’s none of my business, but it sort of is my business. But do you realize your mother spends upwards of $3000 to $4000 a month on dance lessons and ball gowns and shoes?” There’s this charismatic dance instructor who would have to be a major, major character. She’s taken out a second mortgage on her condo. So, the brother and sister who have an uneasy relationship to begin with have to unite and go down and retrieve her….
RB: This story is pretty far along.
CK: Oh yeah. Yeah. I have a handle on the beginning, the middle and the end. I think I know how it will end. But that’s like the first hundred pages and then it really starts…
RB: It’s an unlikely story coming from you. A 60-year-old widow as a protagonist…
CK: I’m really interested in ball room dancing. You could take ball room dancing as a gym class at Penn State and I did. And it was a total revelation. And that’s like a drug too. So it’s this kind of “if money can buy you happiness, does it matter how much it costs?”
Copyright 2001 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing