Author/designer Chip Kidd has a new novel and a long resume of impressive artwork

[27 February 2008]

By John Mark Eberhart

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Interviewing Chip Kidd is no easy task—he’s done and is doing so much that making a linear story out of his career is a crazy proposition.

The journalistic solution appears to be the old standby, the Q&A. Its rangy but vivid approach sort of reflects the subject’s career.

Kidd’s new novel, “The Learners,” was published last week, but fiction writing is just one of his talents. He started out as a designer and remains best known for that work. He has designed dozens and dozens of books or book covers for literary icons and institutions alike, from fiction writer John Updike to poets Mark Strand and Marie Ponsot to a “Peanuts” retrospective to various book projects involving superheroes like Batman and Superman.

How famous is the 44-year-old Kidd? Crime novelist James Ellroy, not a man prone to exaggerate the talents of others, has called him “the world’s greatest book-jacket designer.” Some writers are so enamored of Kidd, including “Musicophilia” author Oliver Sacks, that their contracts stipulate he will design their books.

Kidd calls himself the “luckiest man on Earth.”

How well-connected is he? Updike wrote the introduction and humorist David Sedaris contributed prose to “Chip Kidd: Book One,” a retrospective of work from 1986 to 2006.

As for me, I regard my copy of “Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz,” which Kidd designed in 2001, as indispensable to the graphics shelves of my personal library .

Kidd, who splits his time between New York City and Stonington, Conn., recently answered some questions about his work.

“The Learners” is about a man who designs a newspaper ad that seeks participants in a psychology experiment. But he gets caught up in the experiment himself. We see sides of human nature some of us would rather not face.
Yes, it’s a bit hard to explain and wrap your head around. It starts out as a frothy office comedy set in 1961 New Haven, Conn., and while the setting doesn’t change as it goes along, the mood definitely does. It gradually grows darker and more desperate as various plot points unfold. It ultimately comes down to solving the ultimate problem—how do you commit suicide and live through it? I’ve been something like obsessed with Stanley Milgram’s “obedience” experiments at Yale and have used them as the central event of “The Learners.”

Those were chilling: Milgram proved many people would inflict harm on someone despite their personal beliefs. Let’s address a cheerier subject: You designed “Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz,” but you didn’t gussy it up. The primitivism of Schulz’s early work came through.
I wanted the reader to experience the Peanuts book exactly as I did while putting it together—as if they’re sifting through his personal papers and scrapbooks and records, etc. I wanted it to be very, very personal. Not in any sensational way, but in the way that the strip itself is so uniquely affecting and yet so universal.

Do you still have a day gig doing work for the Alfred A. Knopf imprint of Random House?
My official title is “Associate Art Director in Charge of Special Projects,” which is quite a mouthful. I would prefer “Luckiest Man on Earth.”

Being creative all the time can be draining. What do you do to recharge the batteries? Does any recreation help? I know of writers who hike away their creative conundrums, for example.
My batteries get recharged automatically by living and working in New York City. There are all sorts of great outlets to blow off steam—plenty of physical activity does wonders, but I especially enjoy the sort that can’t really be discussed in a family newspaper.

Moving on, then: Of the books you’ve designed, do you have a favorite?
There are too many at this point to choose a favorite. I would narrow it down to books that I have written/conceived and books by authors I greatly respect—John Updike, Cormac McCarthy, David Sedaris ...

One interesting thing about your career is that there has been work in all levels of the “brows”—low, middle and high. In fact, I was not aware until recently that you’ve done poetry book covers.
I’ve done a ton of them. I’m just now putting the finishing touches on John Hollander’s latest and last year did two covers for Mark Strand. There’s been plenty more over the years for James Merrill, Anthony Hecht, Marie Ponsot and, of course, my boyfriend, J.D. McClatchy. I also co-designed the American Poets Project series with Mark Melnick for Library of America.

Writing and designing we’ve covered. Is there anything else you’re up to these days?
Well, since you asked, I’ve started a band, writing and recording music under the name Artbreak: myspace.com/artbreakwonderground. Right now it’s just a hobby, but I’d like to take it further.

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