This past Monday, designer Paul Bacon died at age 91. He was perhaps without par in his visual contribution to the world of publishing, creating 6,500 book jackets over 50 years. This makes Bacon not only one of the most prolific cover designers of all time, but possibly the most widely read.
The list of authors he designed covers for is staggering: Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, E.L. Doctorow, Robert Ludlum, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Michael Crichton, Philip Roth, James Clavell, John Cheever, and William Styron, to name a few. Bacon’s style of design and illustration was so chameleon-like that many assumed he had a large studio creating the work. Not so.
And his output didn’t stop there. Hundreds, if not thousands of hand-rendered typefaces were thrown into the mix. Every detail was handcrafted. Along the way he created the “Big Book Look,” that best selling combination of BIG title & BIG author’s name with small illustration, employed to this day. Add to that his ground breaking album covers for Riverside and Blue Note records.
I first met Bacon when I was working as a mass-market cover designer in the mid-’80s. My art director asked me to call Paul and request both the cover illustration and a Photostat of his type for a paperback edition we were working on. When it arrived by messenger I was enthralled. The type was a beautifully hand-drawn serif. The art director stopped by my drawing board, looked over my shoulder, and instructed me to “cut the serifs off.” Bacon, ever the gentleman and professional, never commented or complained. Rather we struck up a friendship and working relationship over the decades.
In his life outside design, Bacon was a jazz singer and comb player. Although he didn’t smoke, Paul would buy packs of cigarettes for the outer plastic wrapper and place it on a common comb, with which he would create incredible cadences. He sang and played in various bands throughout the years around New York was often sought after for his extensive, firsthand knowledge of jazz.
Bacon has over a dozen entries in the AIGA Design Archives. Still, some of his best known work, Catch 22, Portnoy’s Complaint, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and myriad other book jackets and album covers, don’t make an appearance there.
Born in Ossining, New York, Bacon graduated from Arts High School in Newark, New Jersey. Following a stint in the Marine Corps during WWII, he was asked in 1946 to illustrate a book jacket, his first. He never stopped. Yet jazz was really his first passion, so he simultaneously began designing album covers for Riverside Record,. His oeuvre can be viewed as one long improvisation, a solo, endlessly renewing itself, soaring above the chorus, continually searching for that higher note, hitting it, again and again, across the second half of the twentieth century.