It is an occupational hazard of my life as a book cover designer to almost never be able to read the books that I am covering. Whether because of time or timing, I always seem to rely on our felonious publisher to give me an idea of what a book is about and what the right feeling for the cover needs to be.
Although it would be a great thing—to be able to step out of time and read a book—and then turn the clock back on and design its cover, in reality, it probably works better this way. The job of the book cover designer, says, Chip Kidd, the award-winning associate art director for Alfred A. Knopf and patron saint of the profession, is to ask the question, “What do stories look like?” So someone in the process has to approach the book purely in visual terms, unencumbered by actual details.
In the case of Unnatural Fire, by Fidelis Morgan, the original direction included, “It’s very funny, it’s very bawdy…Bjorn Wiinblad did a lot of line-drawings of ladies in vaguely Regency-era clothing—bosomy, elaborate hair styles, Empire waistlines, big eyes, sharp chins, merry faces.” So off I went to research Bjorn Wiinblad, a Danish artist and designer whose work was popular in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s, did indeed include, “whimsical round-faced people,” to quote Wikipedia, but they were all “dressed in vaguely 19th-century costume.” So, right feeling, wrong period. That ruled out repurposing actual Wiinblads.
We often dip directly into art history for our covers, for instance the finely rendered figures of Ingres for Kate Ross’s Julian Kestrel Series or the Fauvist fantasies of Redon for the Sheila Radley’s Inspector Quantrill Series. But sometimes literal quotation is not up to the task. I often have to remind myself that every period of history was once contemporary—was a now. So I went looking for an artist who had the whimsical line of Wiinblad, which I took to be a visual representation of the author’s amusing prose.
The first person I though of was the great editorial illustrator Edwin Fotheringham, who I had worked with occasionally but was mainly familiar with from his work in The New Yorker and other high-quality publications where he signed his illustrations, “Mr. Fotheringham.” Apparently you can call him Ed. Of his style, Ed says, “I continue to enjoy solving visual problems with blotty lines.” Perfect, I thought! When I contacted him and explained the direction, he wrote back, “We own a couple of illustrated plates by Bjorn Wiinblad. Funny.” So I knew right from the start that we were in the right hands.
Ed’s first instincts about the drawing were right, as well. The “fabulously bawdy” Countess Ashby de la Zouche, is full figured and amply bosomed, curious and endearing. Her gesture tells you not only that she is a detective (the magnifying glass!) but what kind, a snoop, a voyeur—a gossip columnist! Alpiew is clearly subservient, and the lock of hair over her eyes makes it clear that she’s not the brain power here. And in overall composition we know immediately where we are (thank you, Big Ben) and what is going on. When he got to the color, the blue on blue night scene set the stage and the slash of candle light through the window indicates that there are secrets to be had here.
As Chip Kidd says, “Really, what the cover should do is get you to open the book and start to read it and investigate it. And at that point, the book is going to sell itself to you, or not.” What Ed has done for Unnatural Fire is to create that intriguing invitation to start reading. Fidelis Morgan can take it from there.
Anthony, Art Director
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