How Limitations Can Be a Designer’s Best Friend

Speak, Memory, designed by Michael BierutBy Peter Terzian, Contributing Editor, Print

Publishers routinely outfit their backlist titles—the books that have been kicking around for years but still sell—with new jackets, hoping that an updated design will keep a classic book afloat in an easily distracted market. But Vintage Books has done something altogether different with the works of Vladimir Nabokov, timed to coincide with the posthumous release of his last, unfinished book, The Original of Laura.

Vintage art director John Gall asked a roster of jacket designers to create new covers for the twenty-one Nabokov titles that the company publishes, including such masterworks as Lolita, Pale Fire, and Pnin. (The existing Nabokov design scheme dates back to the late 1980s.) Gall gave the designers one stipulation: each cover would be a photograph of a specimen box, a nod to Nabokov’s passion for butterfly collecting. Within the framework of the box, and using layers of paper and insect pins, the designers were free to create more or less what they wished.

The new versions have been rolled out as existing back stock of old editions are depleted. “I thought that using the different designers would be a way to keep people interested in what was coming,” Gall says. “People stop paying attention after the major books are issued. I wanted them all to be important. So many backlist redesigns just slip themselves onto the bookshelves barely noticed.”

We asked seven of Gall’s selected designers to discuss Nabokov’s books, their cover art, and just how tricky it was to work within the confines of a butterfly box.

Michael Bierut on Speak, Memory:
“Most of the books on the list are novels. Speak, Memory, however, is a memoir. And it’s illustrated with photographs, mostly of Nabokov’s family and from his childhood. I brought my copy (a beat-up first edition) to the office, and we scanned the pictures. My idea from the start was to make the box look like a repository of old photos. Then I decided that the photos were too literal and we needed something to sort of filter them, to make them feel a bit more nostalgic, so we tried them with a piece of yellowed vellum on top. I liked this effect, and we started preparing the final version. While the assembly was underway, Katie Barcelona, the designer in our office who was helping me put it together, took a picture of the box with only the vellum in place, no old photos underneath. This version was surprisingly effective, and John agreed.”

Despair, designed by Jason Fulford and Tamara ShopsinJason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin on Despair:
“We had a few ideas and were playing around with cut paper, and then it just came together. There’s a line in the book where the narrator sees a paint company’s truck go by. There is a rainbow on the side of the truck, and the colors are in the wrong order: RGOYBIV. The narrator meets a tramp who appears to be a mirror image of himself. I don’t want to give away the story, so let’s just say that our double flawed rainbows slide down into the black. … Sometimes restrictions make things easier. I read this quote the other day by Kierkegaard: ‘The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes. A solitary prisoner for life is extremely resourceful; to him a spider can be a source of great amusement.’”

Click here to see and read about the other redesigns by Peter Mendelsund (King, Queen, Knave); Sam Potts (The Real Life of Sebastian Knight); Paul Sahre (The Luzhin Defense); Martin Venezky (Glory); and Megan Wilson (The Enchanter).

[This article was originally published by Print and has been excerpted here with their permission.]

Peter Terzian is a Print contributing editor. His most recent book is Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums that Changed their Lives. His Print article “Kill Your Darlings” featured book designers talking about their favorite cover designs that never made it to the shelf. He also recently interviewed David Pearson as part of his ongoing series on book cover design for

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