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When Art + Math = Book Design (and a Really Ambitious Instagram Project)

Jenny Volvovski finds a solution to the big bad blank page

The infinite freedom of the blank page has always been a bit of a cage for designer Jenny Volvovski. Growing up taking art classes, this open white space felt too open, too prone-to-messing-up, and Volvovski would inevitably overthink herself into a corner.

But in figure drawing and portrait classes, things were different—she had a set of limitations, a subject, parameters. Volvovski, who is originally from Russia and came to the U.S. in 1991, hails from a family adept at math and programming. In other words: problem solving. In high school she enrolled in a summer program at The Art Institute of Chicago and took a graphic design course, and suddenly everything clicked; it was a blend of her artistic talents and the analytical side that ran in her blood, and it was a revelation.

From there, Volvovski followed a linear path, attending the Rhode Island School of Design, and forming the studio ALSO with classmates Matt Lamothe and Julia Rothman after they graduated. In their work, ALSO covers a broad scope of projects—websites, illustration, animation—but early on Volvovski wanted to design book covers, and that type of work wasn’t coming in.

“I figured I may as well just make them on my own if nobody was going to pay me to do it,” she says. “The book cover represented to me the purest of kind of a graphic design problem and solution.”

So in 2012 she launched From Cover to Cover, in which she set out to design a cover for every single book she reads. Naturally, there were parameters from the get-go: She imposed a palette of green, black, and white in the tradition of Penguin’s vintage viridescent series. (“I figured they all looked really nice together, so I just stole that idea,” she says with a laugh.) For the type, she settled on Futura Bold and Caslon Italic, and allowed for handmade titles and text from her typewriter.

One of the best parts about a self-generated project? “When you set the rules for yourself and then you realize you don’t like them, you can just break them and nobody is going to say anything. So slowly I’ve kind of added things on to the very strict palette that I started with.”

Volvovski is currently up to 99 covers. She’s inconsistent about the rate at which she produces them, sometimes going months without an installment before quickly banging out five in one week. But collectively, they form a mosaic of her reading life, and a brilliant bit of design output for the rest of us.

While she has no plans to stop—“I’m gonna do this for the rest of my life”—she also has no plans for an end goal… like, say, a book of the covers. But if she did do a book of them, does she ever dream about what its cover might look like?

That brings us back to the blank page.

“That’s a nightmare, actually,” she says.

Here are five of Volvovski’s covers from over the years, and her thinking behind them.

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

Volvovski tends to work fast, and sometimes design concepts for the books she reads emerge fully formed—and that was the case with Super Sad True Love Story. In the dystopian satire, a middle-aged, old-fashioned man falls in love with a young Korean American as the country falls apart, obsessed with consumerism, technology and media. In alternating chapters, the book captures the man’s perspective via handwritten diary entries, and the girl’s via digital communiques.

“The main idea was to kind of show the disintegration of language and communication just through the type—starting with the super fancy Caslon and then getting it more and more digitized,” she says.

Volvovski then veered a bit from her style guide and completed the design in a red, white and blue palette to allude to the fact that the book is about the United States—which is a character in its own right throughout the tome.

Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore

For Lorrie Moore’s dark yet often darkly humorous collection, Volvovski strayed from the existing published covers of the book that feature various birds, and instead utilized vintage illustrations of bird eggs.

“The eggs alluded to this idea of something non-final and the possibility of something happening,” she says, noting that the book also features the story “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” a somewhat autobiographical take on Moore’s experiences with her own son, who had cancer as an infant. “There was kind of some parallels between eggs and babies—and some hope and possibility.”

After settling on the illustrations, Volvovski divided the images up into panels, subtly conveying to readers that rather than a novel, the book was a staccato ensemble of short stories.

The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner

This novel, which was a National Book Award finalist in 2013, documents the life of a young art student who moves to New York City in the late 1970s and begins a relationship with an older man. He happens to be the heir to a legendary Italian motorcycle company, and after the pair travel to his homeland together he betrays her—and she finds herself suddenly immersed in Italy’s radical Movement of 1977 protests and riots.

For her cover, Volvovski broke a complicated and often philosophical story down to a simple design filled with life, reminiscent of the bright aesthetic of protest posters.

“Mostly I was thinking about kind of a way of subtly inferring tires and motorcycles and racing, but just doing it with type,” she says.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates’ bestselling nonfiction book is penned as a letter from the author to his teenage son, documenting his childhood in Baltimore and race relations in the U.S., and the gap between race and privilege. Bringing the book to life without invoking any cityscapes or other visual cues, Volvovski developed a simple gradient from black to white—and set the title and the author in opposite corners, in which they seemingly try to meet, but aren’t able to fully connect.

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho

A work of allegorical fiction, The Alchemist is the story of a shepherd who dreams of finding treasure, and his subsequent hunt for it.

One of the most interesting things about this cover, aside from Volvovski’s design: She hated the book. And yet not unlike in-house designers at publishing houses who have to take on the books to which they’re assigned, their opinions of the story be damned, she completed the cover. In the narrative, the protagonist sells his herd of sheep to embark on his journey, so Volvovski sought to anthropomorphize the title and make it part of the flock. She pushed the design and the shadows to lend abstraction to the illustration … perhaps subconsciously offering a visual solution to a book that has been criticized for being a bit too on-the-nose.

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