What makes an outstanding book cover? The Book Jacket Designers Guild of the 1940s and ’50s defined the art as the “successful integration of concept with graphic means … and expression of the spirit of the book.” In other words, a great book cover translates its contents into an entirely different, visual language. It draws you in, inviting you to pick that particular book off the shelf.
A new book showcasing beautiful midcentury cover art, “The Illustrated Dust Jacket, 1920-1970,” contains dozens of outstanding hand-drawn or painted covers. It’s a colorful guide to the advent of the illustrated jacket as integral to the book as object and artifact.
It also provides a parallel lesson in 20th century art history. “As in most areas of the commercial arts,” writes author Martin Salisbury, professor of illustration at the Cambridge School of Art at Anglia Ruskin University in Britain, “the graphic style of dust jackets through the twentieth century generally mirrored the fashions and movements of the times.” The dust jackets featured are geometric, graphic and sometimes stark — prime examples of the period’s movement from realism to modernism, shades of Art Nouveau replaced by cubism and abstraction.
A colorful 1955 cover of Graham Greene’s “Loser Takes All” uses “the graphic idioms of the period,” while Barbara Jones integrates the title of “The Unsophisticated Arts” into her illustration, a tenant of seamless graphic design.
Organized alphabetically by artist, “The Illustrated Dust Jacket” provides short biographies, and while it’s easy to flip through the book solely for the images, the discussion of the illustrators’ lives and work is worth a read. Susan Einzig was “one of the last children and teenagers to be brought out of Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport in the months running up to the outbreak of the Second World War” and went on to create dust jackets for children’s literature, including the Carnegie Medal-winning “Tom’s Midnight Garden.”
Milton Glaser was the first graphic designer to receive the National Medal of the Arts, presented by then-President Obama in 2009. Glazer’s groovy cover art for Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” is iconic, although not as instantly recognizable as his most famous design, the “I ♥ NY” logo, which has been referenced and copied all over the world.
New York designer Arthur Hawkins Jr., who created roughly 1,500 dust jackets over the course of his career, was adept at capturing atmosphere and visual metaphor. A bookseller once told his son, “I bought more bad mysteries because your dad’s covers were so good!” Like the other artists in the “Illustrated Dust Jacket,” Hawkins knew what ultimately makes a great book cover: It makes you want to read what’s written inside.