I remember the first time I bought a hard copy of The Paris Review. I was at a sleek coffee shop in Brooklyn; the kind that has polished oak chairs and sells vegan doughnuts. The magazine cost me more than $20 after tax, but it seemed like a worthwhile purchase. It was physically full, packed with the bylines of writers whose work I admired, and thoughtfully designed. It looked more like a book than a magazine, and I knew it would live on my mantel forever.
The revamped Paris Review, which received a fresh visual identity to coincide with the introduction of Emily Stokes as its editor-in-chief, takes this book-like quality to the next level. Donning a modish, minimalist look, the new aesthetic respects contemporary design elements without compromising a classic, timeless edge. It’s a look that, while feeling modern, is actually deeply rooted in the history of the magazine.
Over the course of The Paris Review’s 68-year lifespan, the iconic literary magazine, which has published writers from Adrienne Rich to Jonathan Franzen, has gone through several design iterations. The very first issue, produced under George Plimpton in 1953, used a serif typeface, and featured the emblematic eagle logo in the top left corner. The most recent iteration of The Paris Review, pre-redesign, didn’t stray from this original concept: it sported similar elegant serif type and a copy-heavy cover. At a juncture between those periods, between the late 1960s and early ’70s, the design went minimal, with sans serif type and lots of white space on the front jacket. This is the look Matt Willey, the Pentagram partner who led the Review’s redesign, was most inspired by when he started on the project.
Growing up, Willey’s father had a big collection of Review issues on his book shelf, and the designer always admired the magazine. When Willey met up with Emily Stokes, who he had overlapped with at The New York Times, they both felt inspired by the 70s-era Review, and the stars aligned when everyone, including art director Na Kim, felt drawn to Issue No. 56, which embodied an aesthetic everyone was excited about. No. 56 is an issue from 1973, which features dark, mossy geometric cover art by Mel Bochner, and the minimal typeface. “My argument,” Willey said, “was if you saw those issues now, they would stand out and they would feel sort of interesting, and unusual, and useful, and collectible.”
The new Review, which just hit the shelves with issue No. 238, heeds to No. 56 in more ways than one. The most overt similarity is the minimal cover, which eliminates much of the text from the previous design, allowing the cover artwork to sing louder than it did before. The piece the team decided on for the newest issue—which they selected after almost 70 tries, Kim told me—is a watercolor called The Two Red Cherries by the British artist Rose Wylie. As she told Stokes in a recent interview, Wylie painted this piece after being inspired by the fruit growing in her garden, which made her think “of those sixteenth-century Spanish still life paintings.”
“If you saw those issues now, they would stand out and they would feel sort of interesting, and unusual, and useful, and collectible.”
Willey calls using cover art that has nothing to do with the magazine’s content “a bold and brave thing” for The Paris Review to do. It’s something the magazine has nearly always done, working with artists like David Hockney, Andy Warhol, and Ellsworth Kelly for various cover and poster projects. “Art and literature have always had this sort of wonderful relationship,” Willey said, and he feels putting art on the cover is a way for The Review to gesture at this principle. For the inaugural issue of the new Review, the team selected a piece of art that already existed, because it aligned best with the minimal aesthetic of the new design. In the future, however, Kim says she hopes to work with director of White Columns and Review contributing editor, Matthew Higgs, to commission new work.
For Issue No. 238, Willey and Kim chose a typeface that nods to the sans serif from the Review’s 1970s covers. Klim Type Foundry’s Founders Grotesk is bold and blocky—the kind of typeface you might see on a startup’s website. When I mentioned to Willey that the new type looked modern, he suggested that that is mostly a coincidence. If he considered that element of it, it was only subconsciously, he said.
On the cover of the new Review, most of the text has moved from the front of the jacket to the spine, where it displays the issue number in large boldface, and the names of the writers in smaller font. The idea here is that when it sits on your bookshelf, you know who is in it before you pull it out. “Ninety-five percent of this is about the reading experience,” Willey told me about the new issue over a Zoom call, during which he turned a copy of No. 238 over several times in his hands.
While the previous magazine was sized somewhere between a traditional glossy and a book—a convention that bothered Willey—the new magazine is smaller, again mimicking No. 56: “small enough that you could hold it open in one hand,” Stokes says in her launch note on The Paris Review website. The smaller size means smaller margins, too. “The fact that the margins are so tight is personal,” Willey told me during our call. Referring to himself as a poor reader, the designer explained that fewer words in a line was an easier convention for him to follow. (For those curious, the body copy used in the new Review is Heldane Text, also from Klim Type Foundry.)
“Ninety-five percent of this is about the reading experience.”
On the page, the black ink looks softened thanks to the use of recycled paper that resembles paperback book stock. The paper is both physically softer and visually yellower than the stock found in previous contemporary issues. “It’s less full-on white, which, in my opinion, makes it a slightly more comfortable; a softer reading experience,” Willey said. “It’s more intimate now. I think there’s a format, and it feels more like reading a novel and less like reading a magazine.”
The new design is reflected on the front of the Review’s new tote bag, which Kim conceptualized to accompany the new look. On the face of the tote, a recreation of the magazine, exact dimensions and all, falls obliquely across its front, as if its owner dropped it into their bag right as they jaunted through the subway doors. “I loved what Matt did with the [magazine] design so we wanted to kind of use the strengths of that,” she told me during a phone call. When I saw a photo of the tote the first time, I recalled what Stokes had written in her announcement: “we want you to have no qualms about stuffing [the new Review] into a pocket or handbag.”
In a photoshoot for the new merchandise launch, models (who happen to be current staff members of the Review) show off starkly designed t-shirts and sweatshirts, some featuring the new logo or a bubbly illustrated character called “Nancy,” designed by cartoonist Joe Brainard, who showed up in house ads from the 1970s issues of the Review. The team kept coming across Nancy while flipping through old issues and decided to make it official, filling out her adoption papers and slapping her onto a new t-shirt.
The photos, many of them taken on film, are highly saturated, grainy, and organic looking, as if taken at a friend’s house, or for a direct-to-consumer brand campaign. Their sensibility seems to indicate that The Review is trying to appeal to a younger, hip audience—not exclusively, but undoubtedly. That the shoot echos an old photo of the original Review staff, George Plimpton and all, is a lucky result of historical good taste: what might have gone unnoticed then, is particularly extolled now. The Paris Review, it seems, has found a way to both stay true to its heritage, while tapping into something that feels indomitably contemporary. As William Shakespeare, and more recently, Matt Willey said, “what’s past is prologue.”