Considering the versatility and precision in Helen Yentus’ book covers, one might see a master in absolute control. Yentus, art director at Riverhead Books, chuckles at the thought.
“I’m only laughing because my process is a disaster,” she says. “There is no science, just total chaos.”
Every time she begins a new cover, she feels doubt—can she pull it off? Away from her regular duties as an AD, can she still design? She has a thousand jackets behind her to prove that, yes, she certainly can, but when she starts a new project, she’s still skeptical.
She starts, naturally, by reading the book, and emerges not with a definitive concept, but rather, with a feeling.
Then she procrastinates gets lost in research before sitting down to hammer out an idea banging around in her head—and it doesn’t work. But it shifts. And it’s that unexpected twist or turn in direction that ends up being the solution, as she moves things around, discards them, picks them back up, starts, and restarts.
Yentus seems to thrive on this uncertainty. And her output is a testament to the power of her methodology, or lack thereof.
“I have never reached a point where there is a way to get to the end without going through the struggle first,” she says. “The struggle is the design process.”
Design runs deep in Yentus. The daughter of an exhibition designer, she arrived in Brooklyn with her family via the Soviet Union, and was raised on a diet of books about the Constructivists (which Yentus jokingly acknowledges may seem clichéd, given her background) and the Bauhaus. Growing up, she pored over type specimen books, tracing letters until the books were ruined.
“I think having been influenced so much by graphic design, I don’t know that I had a chance of being anything else, to be honest.”
Here, Yentus discusses four cover projects born of her unique brand of chaos as well as one that she art directed, revealing a different insight into some of her well known book cover work.
The Albert Camus Collection
By the time Yentus began working at Vintage , she had already built a bit of a reputation. Still, with the likes of John Gall, Carol Devine Carson, Chip Kidd, and Peter Mendelsund as office mates, Yentus recalls making covert runs to proof her work, “because god forbid one of those people were at the printer when I printed out my failed attempts at a jacket.” Up until that point, her work was sculptural in nature, such as her famous pasta and petal work on Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. In reaction, she decided to make a 180 for a redesign of Albert Camus’ catalog.
But the direction didn’t come easily. At first she was simply daunted by the thought of taking on the high-minded Frenchman. She needed parameters to focus the project and tie the covers together, and she found those in geometric shapes and a monochromatic palette. A slew of late nights followed as she fought to get things right. She believed photographic elements could be key to the project retaining a modern air—until her art director suggested she try stripping them away. She did, and was left to refine the stark brilliance that would define the covers, from the spore-like dots of The Plague, to the ratcheting repetition of The Myth of Sisyphus, to the all-encompassing sun of The Stranger on which Meursault blames the murder that defines the book.
“You are tasked with packaging art, and so how do you rise to that occasion?” Yentus asks. “That’s where the pressure comes from: you have to make art to package art, and how do you make something that’s worthy? That part is exciting. It’s still exciting.”