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She Wanted to Open a Newsstand, But Settled for Designing Book Covers

For readers, thank goodness Elena Giavaldi’s childhood dream didn’t come true

 

As a book-loving child raised in Northern Italy, when Elena Giavaldi was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she had a quick answer to that ubiquitous question: She wanted to open her own newsstand.

She loved reading and drawing, and after discovering design she enrolled in Politecnico di Milano to study it. Pursuant to her love of all things paper, after graduating she got hired by the free city publication Edizioni Zero, but found the templated approach of design too constrictive. She then joined a design firm, but hated how so much time could be spent on the minutiae of a single ongoing project.

“That’s horrible for me,” she says. “Other people like it, but I need many different projects in a year. I can’t just focus on only one.”

Having never designed a book cover, Giavaldi randomly sent her résumé off to the large Italian publisher Mondadori, and when they saw that she had worked on a hip city paper, they called her in for an interview. They were on the hunt for someone to refresh the look of their book line, and cover experience be damned, they hired her. At Mondadori, Giavaldi discovered a craft seemingly tailor-made for her interests, obsessions, and process. With a medley of constantly changing projects, she could play with photos, illustration, typography—a freedom she hadn’t found anywhere else in design.

“I thought, This job is amazing. I can basically do whatever I want.”

As she worked, she looked to the U.S. publishing scene filled with design gurus and covers that were “so different and colorful and smart.” So when her boyfriend at the time moved to the States for school, she quit her job and they traveled there together. A typically nightmarish U.S. visa process followed, all in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis. Nevertheless, she obtained an artist visa and set her sights on working with book designer extraordinaire, Rodrigo Corral.

“I sent him an email. I sent him another email. I sent another email and then I kept knocking at his door and, finally, he opened.” In Italy, Giavaldi says, she was intensely focused on making something look beautiful. At Corral’s studio, she discovered how to imbue a cover with deep thought, twists, revelation. “I learned that I had to basically break my head on something before getting to the point where the concept was good enough.”

A gig with fellow Italian designer Matteo Bologna at Mucca followed, and she eventually found her way to Crown, where she works today an art director, reveling in the possibilities of her craft.

Here are five covers, in chronological order, from Giavaldi’s veritable newsstand, showcasing the brilliant results that can be found when a designer is given the opportunity to create in the rhythm that suits her best—in Giavaldi’s case, an ever-evolving staccato.

1
Artists & Art series

The Artists & Art series from Arcade presented a unique design challenge: It consists not only of books about specific artists, but entries from critics detailing certain periods and movements. As a result, Giavaldi couldn’t simply feature a work by a given artist on each cover. Instead, she developed a system for the series by homing in on palettes.

For books documenting a singular artist, she would sample prevalent colors from their work, and when faced with a book documenting, say, a period of time, she would decipher what the prevailing aesthetics and colors from that era would have been, and deploy those. When dealing with a book rooted in place—such as Paris Without End—she would get creative, and pursue solutions such as the colors found in the French flag.

“It’s very simple, but that’s the concept behind the series,” Giavaldi says, noting that she drew indirect inspiration from New York City’s McNally Jackson Books. “There’s a section that’s all about art books or artist books, and it all looks so beautiful and so clean. So you want to do something that would also look good there.”

2
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

In 2013, John Bertram and Yuri Leving released Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl, which features 80 designers offering their take on the perpetual literary design challenge. After rereading the book and rewatching Stanley Kubrick’s film, Giavaldi’s cover emerged quickly. She sought to avoid featuring a girl on the cover, the male protagonist, and anything that could be dubbed “sexy.”

“I wanted to just represent the feeling and the obsession of this man, and that’s where the repetition of the name comes from. And the shapes are so pointy, [and] also a little disturbing at times.”

While Giavaldi admits that the cover could never exist in the real world given how small the author’s name is, she nails the mood that haunts the novel—giving form to the endless ways Humbert Humbert turns the subject of his infatuation over and over and over in his mind and heart.

3
Feminism Unfinished, by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry

For this book that offers a fresh take on feminism over the past century, Giavaldi wanted to embrace a manifesto or protest poster look—but she didn’t want it anchored too heavily in a specific era, such as the ’60s or ’70s, which the book states is often wrongly assumed to be the dawn of the movement. So early on, she began experimenting by mixing type from the beginning of the 1900s with contemporary faces.

The final cover didn’t result in too drastic of a typographic clash, but the faces vary just enough to give the book a timeless feel rooted in the protest spirit Giavaldi was seeking, accented by the slightly askew background that provides visual interest and perhaps further hints at the notion of a movement incomplete and enduring.

4
Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkas

This book is a coming-of-age story focused on a private school, swimming and competition, so Giavaldi embraced the theme of water, and presented the editor with a wide range of options.

“Sometimes when the editor doesn’t really know what they want, I just try to show them contrast to really decide one from another.”

Her comps included a variety of concepts, from simple photographs of a person swimming (her least favorite) to the more graphic cover that was eventually selected—comprised of a photograph of a swimmer that she believes she either Xeroxed or aged in Photoshop, and water-representative linework mimicking the strands of buoys that separate the lanes of a pool.

Though this exacting, Randian piece might look like it was pulled off with confident ease, Giavaldi says it was a struggle—her father had died as she was working on it, and she had flown back to Italy for his funeral. Such stories punctuate how designed objects are, in their own way, timestamps of their creators’ lives.

5
Normal People, by Sally Rooney

The jacket for Normal People is a case study that might resonate with many a cover designer: Sally Rooney is an Irish writer whose notoriety seems to grow by the day. Her first book, Conversations With Friends, was a critical success that sold well, so her publisher didn’t want the cover of her follow-up be too drastically different from it. Normal People details a perpetually on-again, off-again relationship between a wealthy girl and the son of her family’s house cleaner, so Giavaldi deferred to a straightforward concept utilizing illustrations by artist Molly Bounds, and kept the typeface aesthetic consistent with the first book.

The publisher liked the comps. The author approved the design. But the publishing team wanted to push for a cover they felt better bridged the literary and commercial aspects of the novel. Giavaldi did another round. Other designers did other rounds. She went back to the drawing board, hired a freelancer to draw a scene from the book, and looked through the old designs, and then—

“We went back full circle to the very first one,” Giavaldi says. “This is the cover. I’m very happy that they picked my cover in the end.”

Viewed alongside the rest of her output, the result is a testament to Giavaldi’s versatility—which proves that she didn’t land entirely too far off from her childhood dream. Like a newsstand, there’s a little bit of everything in her oeuvre.

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