Chip Kidd on VN Covers

Brian Boyd and Martin Amis weren’t the only ones working the podium at “A Celebration of Vladimir Nabokov” at the 92nd St. Y in New York City on 16 November. The third one was Chip Kidd. Kidd (see his website at is a prolific designer—of, among other things, books and book covers—and a writer. The look of objects, two and three dimensional, obviously mean a lot to him. At the 92nd St. Y he wore striking glasses (from Walter Gropius?) and a jacket of black, white, and (I think; I’m terrible with colors) maroon vertical stripes that appeared to proceed him on the stage and, before he had even spoken a word, electrified his presence.

Kidd began his turn by reading excerpts from published letters in which VN excoriated publishers, editors, and their scuttling assistants with his reactions to their jacket and paperback cover submissions. Sometimes VN fired after his quarry had taken flight and was already sitting on store shelves. He hated, with good reason, the cover of the already published paperback Pnin (three bobby-soxed coeds in the foreground, a rumpled, diminished Pnin in the background) that Avon issued in 1959. Kidd went on to read VN’s remarks on other book covers. VN’s main points were, in so many words, “be biologically accurate”, “be textually accurate”, and, when inspiration or knowledge fails, use simple black type. I have to say that one publisher, Putnam, seemed to catch on.

VN would have enjoyed the edgy covers Kidd designed for the Portuguese publisher Companhia Das Letras. Kidd showed images of them as they were meant to be seen by the prospective book buyer: With their belly bands on and then with them off. The covers were witty, strongly graphic, in-your-face, often juxtaposed images causing us in the audience first to feel the neck snap of recognition and then to laugh. (I’ll show you some of those covers in another posting.) Kidd also participated in John Gall’s project to redesign almost all of the covers in the Vintage paperback issues of VN’s works (see The Nabokov Collection at The Design Observer Group). Kidd himself designed the Ada cover.

Kidd obviously relished getting the chance to design his first Nabokov first edition. And not just the jacket for Laura, but the whole book, with the need to solve the problem of how to present 138 pencil-written index cards. We have all seen it, an absolutely original, and memorable cover. (Isn’t that what Prof. Sorbeck of The Cheese Monkeys was after in his students?). Kidd spoke of how Sonny Mehta, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Knopf, called him into his office and presented him with the job. An early draft had a background-foreground gradient, a left-to-right fade of the text into the background, but with the text in black and the background in white. Some of the staff felt no one would be able to decipher a cover that said “Vladi | Nabo | The Ori | of Lau”. But Kidd pointed out that since a giant campaign was planned for the book, everyone would know what it was. Sonny liked it. But he suggested that Kidd try inverting the foreground and background. Kidd liked that.

As for the other elements of the book design, Kidd felt he had to avoid mating a separate container of cards somehow attached to the book. He didn’t want to create a kind of boxed gift set. The punch-out cards were inspired in part, he said, by an old set of superhero punch-outs he owned. In fact, Kidd pointed out that if you take Laura and “actually punch out all of the cards, you get a surprise”. He didn’t reveal what that surprise is. And, insane bibliomaniac that I am, I haven’t had the guts to desecrate my copy of the book and actually do the punching out. I’ve examined the book carefully and still can’t figure out what he meant. Kidd went on to point out other aspects of his book design, including his use of extra-heavy paper, of images of the first and last cards on the book’s binding, and of fading backgrounds and type on the flaps and endpapers.

When you look at your copy of the book, you quickly notice Kidd’s use of red for highlighting, dotted lines for outlining, an implied playing card-like design with Nabokov’s initials on the book’s last page, and the very quirky placement of the dust jacket’s “Printed in …” and copyright statement. You may also notice a mistake: The date on the title page is wrong.

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  1. Vincent McDonough’s avatar

    On page 437 of VN’s Selected Letters, in a letter dated Nov. 25, 1968, Nabokov attacks the proposed design for the new UK Penguin paperback of Pnin as being “badly drawn and repulsive”, and recommends that they use the “very charming” cover design from the paperback edition published by Avon. I’m assuming this is the drawing with the three bobby-soxed coeds.


    1. Michael Juliar’s avatar

      Yes, that’s right. Kidd had it projected on the screen behind him.



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