If you talk to Matt Dorfman, there’s a solid chance music might come up—from his solo design practice, Metalmother, named after a Guided by Voices song, to his love of Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye to what might be the roots of his talent in the realm of visual culture: the LP covers laying around his house that he pored over as a kid. There was The Concert for Bangladesh and its elaborate packaging. A Rascals album, the cover of which “looks like a museum exploded.” Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon, with its illustrated brilliance.
There was also a book that made an impact: I Seem to Be a Verb by R. Buckminster Fuller, Quention Fiore and Jerome Angel, which a young Dorfman stole from his father. The innovative cult classic plays with design and structure in ways that few books had before it. Dorfman was drawn to its beauty—and coming from a traditional reading background consisting of what he was assigned in school, “This was really, really oxygenating because at the time that I saw it, I wasn’t aware that books could really do that,” he says.
He loved that he didn’t understand it all the way. “It was the kind of thing that I wanted to sit and make sense of. That’s one of those books that I can go back to and freely admit that I still don’t feel like I’ve mastered it,” he explains. “It’s kind of what keeps me personally interested in doing a lot of this stuff. I guess, ironically … that is precisely the kind of thing that gets me into trouble as a designer.”
Long the kid who loved drawing, Dorfman went to Syracuse University and majored in illustration. After working a data entry gig at TV Guide, he landed a production job at Universal/Motown records in New York City and planned to eventually transition to the creative team. Yet over the years, he found himself as the person who came in after all the creative work had been done, tasked with, say, adapting a CD cover design … to a cassette package. (And he did it all in the least creatively romantic of places: “I would go to work in a skyscraper, but I would go into the basement.)”
As a poultice, Metalmother was born by night, and Dorfman freelanced for an array of brilliant clients. In 2011, he landed a job as art director of The New York Times Op-Ed page. (“It was wild,” he says. “You hear Thin Lizzy blaring in your head when you realize, ‘I can finally quit this job and go someplace else.’”)
Today he’s art director of The New York Times Book Review, and Metalmother plays on. (“When somebody offers me something to work on,” he says, “The question that I always ask myself is, ‘Do I think I can remain marginally interested in this at 1 a.m.’”)
As for his significant work for publishers, to Dorfman, the book cover has in many ways occupied the pictorial play space that LPs once did. His designs harmonize with the melody of a book’s prose, riffing, complementing, adapting—and on the whole, merit a deeper look, which is a rare, if not critical thing in today’s cultural landscape.