The reason my shelves are stocked with Criterion Collection editions of my favorite films—yes, even ones that are readily available on Netflix and Amazon Prime—is because it’s not just about what titles Criterion puts out, but how they do it. In addition to the never-before-seen extras and in-depth essays, it’s the way those goodies are packaged and presented that makes Criterion films so darn collectable. From the striking covers to the paper stock used to print the booklets, stellar design and art direction have been at the forefront of Criterion’s business model since it was founded in 1984. And now, to celebrate its 30th anniversary, the company is taking a moment to reflect on the some of the best projects in its own very impressive collection in their first book, Criterion Designs.
“You can say what you mean about a film, but to body that out in graphic terms requires a leap, abandoning the security of language and logic for the open water of pure potential expression,” says president Peter Becker in the book’s introduction. “It is possible to go very far wrong, to commission something beautiful only to realize it doesn’t say the right thing about a film. But when it works, when an artist comes back with something elegant and smart and original, something unexpected but right on the mark, it really is exciting.”
Capturing each film’s essence with the right combination of type, image, and color starts, as you might expect, with the film itself. Before the art and editorial teams are briefed by the project’s producer, they all get together and watch it (cue the job jealousy). From there, designer and art director Eric Skillman, who wrote and edited Criterion Designs and is going on his 15th year with the company, describes his job like that of a casting director. Once he knows how he wants to interpret a film—what to play up or play down—as well as other factors like how much the director wants to be involved, it’s a matter of finding the right artist or designer and steering the project throughout the approximately three-month long process.
The level of Skillman’s involvement, or of any other art director on Criterion’s small in-house team, varies from hands-off project manager to in-the-trenches hand-letterer. For Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15-hour epic Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), Skillman came up with the woodblock-inspired type first, but after over 30 rounds of photographic designs he found it dwarfed the film stills selected for the cover. So in a style Skillman first used in his college days, he hand drew the film’s “lumbering behemoth” of a protagonist, Franz Biberkopf, with a “monumental, iconic weight [that] suited both the imposing presence of the character and the stature of the film.”
Skillman had to contend with a totally different set of issues for The Sweet of Success (1957). Outdated contractual obligations stipulated that not only did the cover need to feature both of the film’s leads, Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster, but that “their heads must be exactly equal in size,” even though this is in direct opposition to the power dynamic between the two characters they play. Still, not only did painter and comic book artist Sean Philips lend the cover a certain mid-fifties flair, but he managed to give both stars ample—and equal—head space.
For film fans the 300-page book is full of anecdotes like these, and for design lovers almost every cover is supplemented with sketches and original layouts lifted from the cutting room floor. Scroll through the slideshows here for a few more of our favorites.