• Responses
  • by Ken Ames
  • January 8, 2015
Book Jackets

I’ve been struggling lately trying to write a review of an art museum publication that is not very good. One of the problems is that the jacket seems to promise something that the book doesn’t deliver. Or maybe it’s just that the contents don’t live up to the jacket. Whatever the case, the two don’t work together. This is probably not so much an instance of bait-and-switch as evidence of insufficient managerial oversight at that museum. But that is not the point here. What I want to say is that contemplation of this particular book jacket—tolerable enough on its own terms—prompted me to look with fresh eyes at book jackets more generally. And so I discovered what many others already know: the design of book jackets, the matching of covers to contents, is an art form worthy of far more recognition than it typically receives. There is wonderful work to be savored out there.

Yes, I know that I come late to this particular feast. I recognize that people have long gone to school to learn the art and mystery of this craft and that it rests on a substantial body of both sophisticated theory and on lived experience and experiment. I realize that collectors have long been attentive to the materiality of books and thus to jackets and covers. My interest is not that of a practitioner or of a collector, however, but merely of an appreciative spectator. I find it intriguing to observe designers’ varying responses to the problems and possibilities posed by different classes of subject matter and authorial intent. Once one becomes attentive to book jackets, the prevailing high level of accomplishment becomes apparent. And impressive as well, considering that most design takes place within a social context. Only insiders know how many players with egos and opinions had to be placated before a given cover design could be approved. We outsiders, on the other hand, can just sit back and admire the outcome.

Most book jackets involve some balance or words and images or, if not images, graphic devices of some sort. Not surprisingly, the covers of art books, by which I mean books about the visual arts, tend to privilege image over text but they do so in different ways, depending on the emphasis of the volume. Consider a couple of the strategies used for jackets on books that take the format of the catalog, whether of an exhibition or a collection. One of the most common exploits the synecdoche effect, where a part of an object may stand for the whole and/or one object for many. The jacket for Jared Goss, French Art Deco (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014; cover design by Susan Marsh) offers a recent example of this formula. The book is a catalog of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s French Art Deco holdings, which number many objects in varied media. The entire jacket—front, spine, and back—is given over to a continuous image of a single object, in this case a detail of an extraordinary—and enormous—églomisé glass panel by Jean Dupas and Charles Champigneulle, originally part of the furnishings of the ocean liner Normandie. The image is dominant—and absolutely arresting; text is suitably minimal.

This jacket image actually engages a double synecdoche. First, the image on the jacket depicts a part of a larger object, seen in its entirety inside the book. So far so good.  Second, however, this one glass panel is used here to stand for the whole of the Metropolitan’s collection of French Art Deco, or at least that fraction included in this book. Strictly speaking, however, it cannot do so, since every object is specific and can only represent itself or an exact replica of itself. The Metropolitan’s volume includes well over twenty-five different classes of objects, the most numerous of which are vases, pieces of furniture, and textiles, in that order. A glass panel twenty feet high can in no sense represent any of those if we interpret “represent” narrowly. One could argue that the image on the jacket of French Art Deco actually depicts the most spectacular object in the collection and is decidedly not representative. And yet the portion of the object depicted is highly effective, in part because of its design and color and in part for its ambiguity. To anyone not familiar with the glass panel, the image is mysterious (what, exactly, is this thing?) and at the same time stylistically quintessentially French Art Deco. So, representative it is not but successful in attracting attention and piquing curiosity it most surely is.

Electing a single spokes-object for a book’s jacket is a reasonable approach but sensible people may well disagree about which object that should be. The question is not wholly—or merely—academic. Part of the function of the jacket is to attract the attention of potential buyers and to serve, along with the text and imagery within, as part of a composite artifactual ambassador for the author or authors, sponsoring institution, or publisher. Book jackets are no simple things.

Another example of the synecdoche strategy appears on the jacket for Ellenor Alcorn, English Silver in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Vol. I (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1993; design Cynthia Rockwell Randall). Instead of a detail of an object, here we see the entire object—two objects, actually—an intricately engraved sixteenth-century parcel-gilt ewer and basin, photographed against a black background. The image stretches from the front cover to spine to back. Five very short lines of text, elegantly understated, appear in the upper right corner. While here too the objects selected are arguably the most spectacular in the collection, showing them in their entirety rather than as details eliminates cognitive ambiguity. No need for uncertainty about what we are looking at. Where the French Art Deco cover trades on ambiguity, this one succeeds by eliminating ambiguity. Both jackets exploit the wonder that powerful objects can evoke but they do so in different says.

Randall also was responsible for the design (and, presumably, the jacket) for Volume II of the MFA English silver collection, published in 2000. In this case, she opted to use two views of the same object, a wonderful chinoiseriesugar box dated 1747/48. A greatly enlarged detail of the sugar box’s elaborate and fanciful decoration entirely fills the front over. There is no text whatsoever (the title is on the spine). The back cover carries an image of the same sugar box at about its true size, setting up an intriguing and effective visual dynamic between the enlarged portion and the whole.

A reversal of this arrangement appears on the jacket of Wolfram Koeppe, Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012; designers Miko McGinty and Rita Jules). Here the front cover carries the image of the upper two-thirds of one of the Roentgens’ lavishly complicated cabinets, while the rear offers a close-up of a sumptuous miniature interior, revealing just how imaginative and finely wrought these extraordinary objects are. Here too words are sparingly employed; the images carry most of the weight of communication.

The synecdoche, of course, can work well for any study dealing with multiple objects and is not limited to catalogs. One particularly striking example adorns the jacket for Wayne Craven, Gilded Mansions (Norton, 2009; jacket by Robert L. Wiser). Wiser opted to use images of three different Gilded Age mansions to convey the contents of the book. The back carries a full-color view of the library at Biltmore. The spine (a mere three 3 cm wide), offers a slender vertical slice of the dining room at Kingscote in Newport, a sly trick on Wiser’s part, I think, to test reader visual acuity and architectural knowledge. The front cover comes closest to realizing the book’s title, offering a detail of the upper corner of the dining room at Newport’s Marble House, about as gilded a mansion ever built on this side of the Atlantic. The books’ title and the author’s name are identified in subdued white lettering that is part of the jacket yet somehow, and appropriately, apart from the image itself.

There are probably thousands of capable uses of the synecdoche device on book jackets that might be mentioned here but I wanted to single out one additional cover in particular, in part because I was so taken by it the first time I encountered it. I am talking about the jacket for Mark Wilson Jones, Origins of Classical Architecture (Yale University Press, 2014; Gillian Malpass designer). The three surfaces of the jacket are treated differently. The spine bears white lettering on a black ground identifying author, title, and publisher. That is all. On the back, an image of a red-figure krater from the Museo Archeologico in Agrigento emerges from its own black ground, signaling that Jones’s inquiry reaches beyond conventional boundaries of architectural history. (What might a krater tell us about a temple?)

The front carries the most powerful image, a view of the entablature of the so-called temple of Concord (also) at Agrigento, once crisp and possibly polychrome forms now worn to a uniform soft ochre. The Doric order is one of the most familiar idioms of western architecture but this image re-enchants the form, making it both completely comprehensible at one level yet equally incomprehensible on another. Seeing, even seeing very clearly, does not necessarily mean understanding. Appropriately, Jones ends his far-ranging study of origins with ten pages of questions both answered and unanswered. But I digress.

A second common strategy used in designing jackets for art books plays with the idea of the sampler. This can take a couple of different forms. One involves what we might call the group portrait. An excellent example appears on the front of the jacket for Charles L. Venable, Silver in America 1840-1940: A Century of Splendor (Dallas Museum of Art/Abrams, 1994; Ed Marquand and Tomarra LeRoy designers). Save for a small rectangle of text, the entire surface is given over to a single image of what looks to be a random and disorderly assortment of twenty or so pieces of silver flatware of various styles, forms, and periods. The splendor is obvious, so also profusion and diversity. Points well made.

Clustering images of several individual objects is a different way of creating the sampler. An effective example adorns Annette Carruthers, The Arts and Crafts Movement in Scotland (Yale University Press, 2013; Emily Lees designer). Here front and back are laid out identically. Each bears seven object portraits arranged in a lateral 2-3-2 format, which puts one image in the middle of the composition while allowing for lively visual interplay among all seven objects. This approach works well when objects are in diverse media as they are here (architecture, stained glass, textiles, jewelry, etc.) and no one object or medium can represent all. On the other hand, it may not be easy to locate seven objects that will play nicely with each other on the same page. Each solution generates its own problems.

I have noticed that all of the jackets discussed here have been dependent on excellent photography. So, by all rights, I should have credited photographers. But photographers are dependent on printers to make the most of their images. And so we should acknowledge printers. Printing looks best, of course, on well-chosen, quality stock, thus paper and its manufacturers deserve recognition. And so it goes. The traditional tangible art book is a very complicated artifact, a product of the work of many and inviting engagement and pleasures both intellectual and sensory. To my mind, the currently trendy e-book can’t hold a candle to it.

Considering their artifactual complexity, it might be worth rethinking the way we review art books. Rarely these days does anyone reviewing a movie comment only on the acting.  Cinematography matters. So too the script, the score, the sound effects, the sets, the costumes, the casting, and all the rest. Movies and books are very different artifacts but like movies, books are also group creations. Key participants are usually listed in the small print fore or aft of the main text. The average review typically focuses on the contribution of the author and less often on the totality of the book as object (or work of art). Many of the books in our field (and all of those mentioned above) can be understood as forms of material culture that comment on or assess material culture. In other words, the entire package is the message. Recognizing that, we might want to be more attentive to the whole. Closer examination of the jacket would be a good place to begin.


Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.


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