How Book Covers Became Artful Marketing Devices

Jackets Required:

An Illustrated History of American Book Jacket Design, 1920-1950,

By Steven Heller and Seymour Chwast

Chronicle Books,

San Francisco, 1995

144 pp., $19.95

'Jackets Required" celebrates the practitioners of book-jacket design, rather than the authors and their editors. The color reproductions help affirm that the jackets illustrated actual books, and are inextricably tied up in the march of ideas expressed in published works of fiction and nonfiction.

But they also helped sell books, and it is in the cross between literary evocation and marketing requirements that these jackets tell a compelling cultural history. The book features reproductions of scores of book jackets. Some are shown in three dimensions, in a spine-wise view that reveals the splayed pages of the book.

Often one wishes there was an explanation in the caption about the book itself. It is a testament to the designers' talents that one even wishes to reach out and leaf through the book, perhaps take it home for a read!

In one essay, the authors explain why fiction jacket design was typically more extravagant and artistic than that of nonfiction: "Publishers placed more emphasis on promoting fiction because novels were issued at a prodigious rate ... they filled the bookseller's shelves and fought for precious window display...."

Today the balance in the marketplace may have shifted, but the equation remains the same: The innovation, expense, and luxuriance of book jackets are very much a measure of commercial forces and trends. With this in mind, "Jackets Required" becomes more than a nostalgic stroll through the bookshops of our memories; it is an elegant study of the period that set the metronome for today's sometimes-frenzied publishing marketplace.

Prior to the 1920s, the dust jacket, then already a 90-year-old invention, had only occasionally been used for anything more than a protective wrapper for what designers and bibliophiles considered the "real" book - the hard binding itself. Around the turn of the century a few publishers borrowed the binding's embossed art and repeated it on the dust jacket. But it was the "blurb" that finally catapulted the dust jacket into prominence as a marketing device worthy of more design attention.

The ad copy on jacket backs and flaps, often listing the publisher's other offerings, "was the most effective means to establish contact with the reading public." As the United States entered the Great Depression, books competed fiercely with magazines and then movies. In 1933, Helen Dryden, an illustrator and design commentator, was led to write, "A bookseller's window is now one of the gayest sights, next to florists', these sad times afford."

"Jackets Required" continues with a synopsis of the design trends in the decades covered by this book, of great interest to designers or design enthusiasts if not to a lay audience.

Authors Heller and Chwast sketch the rise and fall of art moderne, various illustrative styles, calligraphic and typographic approaches; and then conclude with a short summary up to the present. Both eminent designers and design teachers, they are quite qualified to write: "The best vintage work reprised in "Jackets Required" reveals a surprising lack of pretension. Although not to be confused with art for art ... they reveal the struggle of how art and design were reconciled with commerce, and how literature was reconciled with mass culture. ...They are masterpieces of interpretive packaging."

There is another treat here for student designers: a final section on "The Great Designers" - groups the work of E. McKnight Kauffer, Alvin Lustig, Paul Rand, and others for ready analysis. The rest of the book is a riot of color and type that draws one into the conceits, fashions, and drama of the Jazz Age and the war years, and in many cases prefigures whole genres of book design as you'll now find in your local bookstore.

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