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A Lesson in Making Your Art Hobby Part of Your Design Job

Or, how anonymous Tumblr helped book cover designer John Gall bring his late-night passion for collages into the light

For John Gall, one of the most revered book cover designers working today, it wasn’t a love of tomes and typography that led him to his first publishing house and his first professional jacket—he just needed a job. Put more eloquently, “It was a desire to be employed in some way,” he says.

Gall almost didn’t find his way to the field in the first place. Growing up in New Jersey, he took basic art courses, he drew, and he loved it. But he was raised in a blue-collar household, and as he got older he just didn’t see a future in fine art.

But there were hints at the prolific career that would follow, like when he had to do book reports for school. “I remember I would spend more time on the cover of the report than the actual report,” he recalls.

Gall went to Rutgers with the intention of studying architecture. Once there, he eventually took an introductory design course. He recalls an assignment in which he had to use letterforms to create a piece out of their positive and negative space. When all the student work was hung on the wall for the crit, the professor ripped everyone’s down but Gall’s.

It didn’t take him long after that to realize design could be a career.

After graduating, Gall made the rounds interviewing and dropping off his portfolio wherever he could. Eventually, he landed a job he found advertised in the paper for mass-market book publisher, New American Library, and he was soon churning out his first cover design for a Young Adult novel he can’t remember the title of. (“Oh God,” he recalls. “We should never speak about this.”)

A year later he went to Landor, but found his way back to publishing at Grove Atlantic press, where he worked as an art director, followed by 15 years at Vintage Books, and a creative director gig at Abrams, where he remains to this day—and where, beyond book covers, his work has expanded to include designing book interiors and even editing.

Here are five covers from Gall’s unexpected life in publishing—including two that showcase his passion (obsession?) for the art of collage.

1
1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

At Vintage, Chip Kidd was in charge of the Murakami hardcovers, and Gall was responsible for the paperbacks. Kidd and Gall had developed a look and rhythm for the books, but for the blockbuster 1Q84, Gall wanted to try something new. When 1Q84 was originally released in Japan, it came out in three separate volumes, one at a time. So the team at Vintage broke the book up into its three original manuscripts, and packaged them within a translucent sleeve featuring the title on its front and back, and the author traversing the set’s head, fore edges and tail.

Gall numbered each volume within and utilized key imagery from the book, such as the two moons, which merge with the slipcase art to create a single striking image. As for the compelling portrait just beneath the moons, it comes from Gall’s sizable collection of vintage Asian catalogues and graphic prints.   

“If you look at the whole [image] it would look like it’s from another era, but if you can go in and isolate it a bit, it has a kind of beautiful quality to it that you wouldn’t get from a contemporary photo or anything,” he says.

2
The Frolic of the Beasts, by Yukio Mishima

About 10 years ago, Gall was hitting creative roadblocks after working in the same format with the same constraints for so long. So as a creative challenge, he began taking old books that had been discarded, cutting them up and trying to piece them back together into new covers.

“I realized I really just want to be doing more book cover stuff late at night,” he deadpans. “So I started expanding to doing other things and keeping things in notebooks and just kind of playing around. The key there was giving myself permission.”

Finally, he had allowed himself to create without having a concrete reason for doing so. He figured no one would ever see his collages, and his hobby “just sort of became its own beast.” He began posting them anonymously on Tumblr, and soon enough he was being approached about creating some for the New York Times Book Review, which he does to this day. (He also has a new book of this work, John Gall Collages 2008–2018.)

Gall recalls how, when he started working at Knopf, Barbara deWilde was working in-house and branding books using artwork she had made with, say, a Photostat machine.

“I just thought it was so great how she could make her own personal experiments connect to the work and make that piece of art a cover. To me, it gave a whole new level to meaning of what a cover could do.”

It was only a matter of time before his own experiments spilled back over into his day job. Vintage art director Megan Wilson suggested Gall use one of his collages for the cover of a book in a Japanese literature series. The Frolic of the Beasts takes place in a rural shore town and involves a love triangle, so Gall selected this piece, which he says invokes a rock garden and a burning element that’s beginning to affect the larger whole.  

3
The House of Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories, by Yasunari Kawabata

Contrary to the art on The Frolic of the Beasts, this collage was created specifically for this book. Does Gall find it challenging to use his creative escape for commercial purposes on the job? Not at all. In this case, he says that given the source material, he realized he wouldn’t have to be too literal with any devices.

“I knew I could do something with minimal means and be really expressive with it,” he says.

The title story involves a house where old men pay to sleep next to young women, so Gall riffed off of the concept with hints of the abstract, playing off the surreality of it all using imagery from his collage archive—a “teeny little room” on the third floor of his house stocked with the accumulated raw materials of his creations.

4
Investigations of a Dog, and Other Creatures, by Franz Kafka

Speaking of that cache: “Doing a lot of collage work, you end up with just a lot of source and reference materials,” Gall says. “So I probably have 20 books about dogs.”

And they came in handy for this lesser-known Kafka work. Combing through his canine literature, he discovered a painting from the 1950s or 1960s that he believes might have originated in an old National Geographic volume. He married it to the title tale in Kafka’s story collection, which is told from the point of view of a dog conscious of his existence, who is trying to decipher the world around him. A key moment in the story involves a memory of a group of dogs creating a beautiful collective music—which Gall invokes through the subtly presented musical notes on the cover, which also afford a housing for the considerable cover typography needed for a translation like this.

5
Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan

Manhattan Beach is a high-profile novel by the bestselling Egan, and thus Gall, who did the design on a freelance basis, went through a fair amount (“a ton, a ton, a ton”) of sketches and ideas with the team at Scribner.

“Of course it gets frustrating and tiring, but it’s also like, Why am I not getting this right? And then you realize you might not be thinking about it in the right way, or you’re listening to too many people as opposed to listening to what the book is.”

Manhattan Beach takes place during World War II, and the protagonist becomes the first female professional diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Since it’s a New York story, some covers focused on the city. Others focused on the diver herself. So Gall was surprised when the publishing house chose his more abstract cover featuring a fine art photograph by Heli Hiltunen, envisioning what the protagonist might see, isolated in a diving helmet, submerged, her only connection to the world a tube through which she breathes—a concept Gall latched onto typographically in the linework present on the cover.

In the past, Gall has described how the highest aspiration a cover designer can have is for their work to be seen as a key part of one’s time with a book.

“When you can complement the writing in a way that makes it a bigger, more enriching experience for the reader,” he says, “that’s the best thing you can do.” Anyone with a copy of Manhattan Beach on their shelf would likely agree.

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