Last summer, while browsing the fiction aisles at Powell’s Books in Portland, a fat black spine caught my attention. At the top, the book’s title was typeset in tapering white capitals. An image of a rainbow sprang from the bottom of the spine and over onto the back cover. The rainbow’s simple, bright strokes offered an unexpected and pleasing contrast to the elegant type, and both stood out vividly against the dark background. I slid the book out. The cover echoed the spine, with similarly set type, a full rainbow, and the addition of a silhouetted photograph of a Susan B. Anthony dollar coin floating at the top like a cold silvery moon. The cover’s disparate elements sparked off each other, mysterious yet loaded. It was a hardcover edition of John Updike’s mid-career masterpiece Rabbit is Rich (1981). I’d never been much of an Updike fan, but this cover was a knockout. I flipped to the back, searching for the designer credit. And there it was: “Jacket design by John Updike.”
John Updike was one of the most celebrated and prolific American writers of the twentieth century. He is best known for his Rabbit series: four novels and a novella tracing the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a middle class white man who feels alienated from the modern world. Rabbit is Rich, the third book in the series, was also its most decorated, winning the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. Updike also published more than fifty other books, including novels, short stories, poetry, children’s books, and collections of art and literary criticism. His prominence as a writer has mostly eclipsed the other role he played in the publication of his work: designing the covers for several of his books and heavily art directing almost all of the rest.
Updike was deeply invested in the form his words would take. In a speech accepting the National Book Foundation medal, he described the dizzy happiness of seeing his words in print and credited Harry Ford, the designer of his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, for the “delicious striped jacket and an elegant page format, in the typeface called Janson, that I have stuck with for over forty books since.” (Like Updike, Harry Ford was a protean talent at Knopf, an American publishing house known for beautifully designed editions of contemporary literature. Ford started as a design director there in 1947 and became a legendary poetry editor.) Janson is a crisp, serif typeface in the Dutch Baroque style of the seventeenth century. In a note at the end of Rabbit Run, Updike praises the typeface for a “sturdiness and substance quite different from its predecessors.” Janson has remained popular into the twenty-first century, especially for longform text, because of its readability and high-functioning elegance.
Updike’s interest in typography and printing was born from his experience working as a hot metal typesetter, studying art during and after college, and drawing cartoons for the Harvard Lampoon. Early in his career, Updike abandoned drawing to focus on writing, but he never lost his passion for print. “I drew not for the sake of drawing,” Updike recalled in a New Yorker essay, “But to get into metal—to have the work of my hand be turned into zinc cuts and by this means printed.” His obsession with print did not go unremarked. In his book U & I, Nicholson Baker lovingly slams Updike as a “Jansonist Knopfer who thinks he is canny about bookmaking because he once worked a Linotype machine and knows about widows and orphans.” Can we take a moment to appreciate the print nerd zinger, “Jansonist Knopfer?” Count on a novelist to conjure a typesetting burn for the ages.
Updike designed the original jackets for all four Rabbit novels, and I think they’re terrific. Three of them riff on Ford’s iconic striped design for Updike’s first novel. The fourth is the rainbow cover for Rabbit is Rich. To learn more about Updike the art director, I revisited Chip Kidd’s 2005 monograph, Book One. Kidd is an acclaimed book cover designer who created many jackets for and with Updike at Knopf. Kidd and Updike’s relationship was rooted in an uncanny shared history. They were from the same tiny town in Pennsylvania. Updike’s father was Kidd’s father’s high school math teacher. Both men were both obsessed with comics and had once aspired to be cartoonists. In his introduction to Book One, Updike praises the “playful thinginess” of Kidd’s work, noting his talent for designing jackets with “edge, zip, and instant impact” and pronouncing him “edgy but deep.” The men clearly respected each other, but they had different design sensibilities. “I would call Updike’s design taste very conservative,” said Kidd in a recent conversation, contrasting it with his own aesthetic, which was deliberately “just completely all over the place.” They occasionally butted heads. Kidd still smarts from a letter Updike wrote to his editor Judith Jones requesting “no Kiddian theatrics, please” for an upcoming title.
Kidd connected me with renowned Knopf art director Carol Devine Carson, who also worked with Updike at the height of his fame. “He was very hands on,” she told me, “You had to learn what he liked in order to get anything approved.” What did he like? For body copy, Janson of course. For jackets, Updike favored Albertus, a craggy Depression-era display face with tapering serifs resembling letters carved in metal, centered and in all caps. He loved certain shades of blue. He preferred 18-point type. Original art, yes. Contemporary photography, no. “He didn’t want to see too much letter spacing or type used in any kind of bizarre way,” recalled Carson, “It was very straightforward.”
Like Kidd, Carson’s design tastes are varied. “I wanted each book to stand on its own,” she explained, “Sometimes I loved lots of colors, sometimes black and white. Sometimes I loved all type, sometimes a huge picture. It was always something different.” As jacket designers, Carson and Kidd’s bodies of work benefit from their diversity. As a writer, Updike might have preferred for his wide-ranging body of work to be unified in appearance and for his books to take precedence over their covers. “A good cover should be a bit recessive in its art,” Updike opined in a New Yorker book review, “leading us past the cover into the book itself.” Unsurprisingly, Kidd protested, “Book covers should flag you down!”
Kidd and Carson’s critiques of Updike’s design sensibilities and how they influenced his book jackets are fair. Many of the covers Updike designed and directed are just kind of boring—stuffy, literal, and formulaic— but the Rabbit covers are iconic examples of American modernist form. The front of Rabbit Run sports a handsome pattern of thin yellow, green, and blue stripes, with a large circle in the center. The circle’s bottom half is black with the book’s title and author knocked out in white (Albertus, centered, all caps). The top half is formed by an op art-like color shift in the striping. Formally it’s a stunner, but Kidd has questions. “What about that cover suggests middle class suburbia?” he critiqued, “Unless I’m missing something, conceptually it doesn’t mean anything.”
He has a point, but my love for the Rabbit covers is impervious to reason. For many, the Rabbit covers are classic because the Rabbit books are classic. For me, it’s not really about the books. Rather, the Rabbit covers are a guilty pleasure—they remind me of a style I was taught to worship in graduate school in the late aughts, one that I have tried—and failed—to shake ever since. Our critics were cool Dutch formalists like Karel Martens and Linda Van Deursen. Our dream studios were 2×4 and Project Projects. We post-ironically embraced Times New Roman and Optima. We made hyper formal, typographically rigorous, conceptually cryptic work from our cloistered New England hideout. Many of us went on to become designers of beautiful books in an era where most designers no longer touched print. Like Updike, maybe we were just a bunch of Jansonist Knopfers.