By its Cover – Part I

January 10, 2010

A new ECM recording of Schumann on the fortepiano has one of those irresistible covers that foreshadows the superb contents of the well designed package

A new ECM recording of Schubert (on the pianoforte) by András Schiff has one of those irresistible covers that foreshadows the superb contents of the well designed package

It’s next time again

So what is it like for you? Do you buy books or CD’s based on the cover? I do. Probably you do too. I think of it like a code. Of course, the best is when you already know what you want and have heard a good recommendation. But when you’re just browsing, do you get sucked in the way I do with good graphics? One designer I really like, Hans Müller, called the book he edited about ECM’s cover art, Sleeves of Desire. Isn’t that perfect? I really enjoy the creative decisions that have gone into really great cover art and more often than not, I feel as though I truly can judge a book by it’s cover.


ECM Records (headquartered in Munich) brings out the very coolest jazz, classical and contemporary music and compliments the music with gorgeous covers. Manfred Eicher founded the compamy in 1969. He is a genius at pairing visuals and music and he often features the graphic work of Barbara Wojirsh and Deiter Rehm. They define the most sophisticated of Europeaon graphic design.

I love it when a book just jumps out from the display and screams, “Buy me! You’ll love me!” It is one of the things I miss about all the reading I’m doing on the Kindle. But you and I have been through all this before. Even if you are too young to have bought vinyl you must love those big graphic covers on LP’s. There was so much to like. First the big square format. Already a timeless symbol – the circle in the square. Just like the paving stones in front of the Pantheon in Rome. The large format gave the designer so much real estate to fill with good decisions and meaningfully coded content.


The Pantheon in Rome is based on the geometry of the circle and the square. You find this motif on the floors both inside and out.

One of my first jobs was in a record store. I discovered, almost without fail, if I really loved the cover – there was a pretty good chance I liked the music inside as well. I remember we all held our breath when the Beatles brought out a new album. In the wake of the uproar that happened after the dismembered babies on the British version of the Yesterday and Today album, we were certain their next album was going to be a shocker. It was. In a defiant gesture of zen bravado we laughed our asses off when we unpacked The White Album. It was designed by an artist friend of Paul McCartney’s, Richard Hamilton, who had curated exhibitions on Marcel Duchamp.

The Beatles Yesterday And Today Rare First State "Butcher Cover" LP


The Beatles butchering baby dolls was too controversial and the album art was pulled. It is now worth a fortune. The White Album was designed by Richard Hamilton a collage artist and specialist on Marcel Duchamp. The white album on vinyl has also become a collectors item. One collector claims to have over 1400 numbered copies!

CD’s shrank the LP graphic experience, and now with digital downloads cover art has become even less fun. I am so obsessed with CD’s and good cover art I spend a huge amount of time making sure all my iTunes albums have good cover art to go along with. If I hate the original cover I sometimes make my own. But how is the package a code for what lies within?



Two more of my favorite covers art directed by ECM’s Manfred Eicher. These were most likely designed by Barbara Wojirsch and Dieter Rehm. The black and white photo is by master photographer André Kertész (1894 – 1985).

These days I look at almost all art as the product of a series of decisions. Perhaps this not profound and completely self evident but I find the concept both restful and intriguing. As a filmmaker, I know a project breaks down into thousands of decisions. This is what a Director does – make decisions. “Not that way, it should be this way.” A great project is when there are more good decisions than mediocre ones. I think one of the ways to best appreciate a great painting, a great building, a beautiful couture dress, or a fabulous meal is to break the final product down into its component parts and look at the decision process that went into every detail. The process is endlessly fascinating and often frustrating. I love Woody Allen’s take on it. He says, “I conceive the film–I sit home and write it–and, when I conceive it, it’s brilliant. Everything is true Chekhov or Shakespeare: it’s great! And then, you start work, and the truck with fresh compromises drives up every day.”

Ian Fleming books published by Penguin

A great book cover connects with the subject matter. This new series of Ian Flemming’s James Bond novels, by Penguin, not only evokes the sexy sophistication of the plots but also the times in which they were written.The paintings were done by Michael Gillette.

This is why the cover of a book matters to me. I see it as an extension of the artist’s decision making process. When well done, the cover is a talisman for the project. If the book is good the author hopefully found his or her way to a quality publisher. They decided to work together. Hopefully the publisher decided to hire a good designer and so on. In the design, I love to see intelligence connecting the major themes of the book.

Great graphic design signals quality. It doesn’t happen by accident. It costs money. It requires sophistication and judgement. It is a great joy in my life. I’d love to see some of your favorites. In your comments, if you send me a link or email a photo of something you really love I’ll get it posted on the blog. I can’t wait to see what you select. I bet this turns into a really rich experience.

1984 Animal Farm

The brilliant art directors at Penguin hired propaganda specialist and graphic wizard Shephard Fairey to illustrate the newly reissued editions of Orwell’s classics

Shepard Ferry, whose work you know from the famous Obama poster (and the subsequent legal troubles with the Assoc. Press) had a recent show at the wonderful new ICA in Boston. He is a new Andy Warhol. Penguin recently hired him to do special edition covers for George Orwell’s classics (seen above) and he did minor masterpieces which evoke the paranoid oppression of Russian propaganda posters. Shepard Ferry is a genius at this totalitarian control freak world view. The decision to hire him for this project was inspired.

Chess Monster

Two books I intend to buy and read only because of the great covers.

In Filmmaking, and in Opera (and in most complex artistic endeavors of any sort), the number of decisions can be very overwhelming. I know I’ve hit the wall when I can’t make one more decision. This is why David Lynch (the guy who directed Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet) jokes that he orders the same thing for lunch every day. One less decision to make.
One of my favorite quotes is from the great film director Luchino Visconti. In his retirement, a journalist once asked him if he still went to the movies and what he liked? Visconti said something like, “I don’t go to the movies much any more. When I get in there and see all the decisions up there on the screen – it is just too exhausting.”

In the Woods, Harry Potter

In the Woods is highly recommended. How would you like the assignment to design the cover art for a new edition of Harry Potter? I think, M.S. Corley did a damn good job!

What a triumph when the project is finally done and the creator still has a bit of strength left to decide upon (or at least approve) the perfect cover.

Until next time with much love,


  • Paulette says:

    Dear Tom, Thanks once again for your thought-provoking blog. Do I buy a book by being attracted to the cover? Yes, if it’s a children’s book. I particularly love the Beatrix Potter Books which still delight children all over the world having been translated into numerous languages. Sorry I’m not clever enough to post one here. When buying books for adults, I always buy according to the synopsis and the title. However, I still mourn the passing of the old record sleeves. I also love the graphic art on old posters, especially those done for the great liners.

  • Cathie Bleck says:

    Hi Tom,

    I am an illustrator presently working on “One Hundred Years of Solitude” book cover for Barnes and Noble + Harper (who own the rights).

    It is a “book as object” project. Seems they have taken the perspective to create the classics, affordable but completely seductive in the way the books feel in one’s hands…lots of gold leaf, stamping, engraving and they are selling very well. Some are over the top with intricate elaborative detailing-I did Dantes Divine Comedy a few years ago for the series.


    No one can get gold stamping done correctly these days, but I think the average consumer really loves this book series. Overall, a beautiful series. I really do wonder what will happen to illustration now that publishing books in print will be so far less in demand. One reason I have been moving away from being an illustrator and into personal paintings is the flame is burning out for content and editors have assumed more authority over the design process. I remember one art director commenting that stock photography had become so popular for book covers because more of the “masses” could relate to it as opposed to illustrations which are more personal.

    Thanks for your thought provoking blog.

    Kind regards,


    P.S. Here is another example done for The Sun Also Rises


  • Dear Tom,

    Once again you open a wonderful topic to discuss! And once again, my memories go first to my childhood, where one’s impressionable minds eat voraciously images that impact us. In my case, as in a lot of us, it started reading comics. The lovely covers of “The Adventures of Tintin” were my favorites, where one could see our hero in a situation that awakened one’s interest, drawn with a simple line and bright colors.

    Tin Tin

    When I was ten years old, my sisters bought the famous SANTANA album, depicting in the cover the face of a lion with figures somehow hidden in the drawing. I spent many times looking at this LP, just contemplating its cleverness.


    In addition, the movie posters were also a great way to entice me to see a film. The graphic quality of the poster of AMARCORD for example, represented the characters in the film, depicting a nostalgic era of times not that far away forgotten.


    There’s timeless quality in all these images, and as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”

    Thank you for sharing your terrific blog.

  • martina says:

    wow!! Laura, Great covers!! thanks for posting them. I love the tatoo of the winged victory on the feminine torso. It reminds me of a patient who had a mastectomy, and didn’t want to have reconstructive breast surgery, but researched tatoos– then went to Seattle to have a gorgeous and delicate spray of flowers cascading from her shoulder to her waist in pastel colors. It was so graceful, and the scar was rendered invisible, or simply the canvas for the painting. Quite intriguing and lovely.

  • Laura Ruth Bidwell says:

    Dear Tom,

    Your topic is dear to my heart.

    I buy MANY books, CDs and even wine based on covers and labels.

    I bought this Vivaldi recording based solely on the cover:

    Vivaldi 1

    That purchase led me to the complete naïve label Vivaldi series with their gorgeous portraits by the French photographer Denis Rouvre.

    Here are two stunning examples:

    Vivaldi 2

    Vivaldi 3

    Need I say more?

    PS – Steve Ellis’ comments about the AJA album cover reminded me of my favorite lyrics:

    Double helix in the sky tonight

    Throw out the hardware

    Let’s do it right

    I have no idea what they mean, but they thrill me just the same.

    Hmmmm… topic for an upcoming blog?



  • martina says:

    Dear Tom,

    Great reflection! I guess I am one of the non-visual people here, in that what I most love is the title itself, and the type-set, and the fabric of the cover, and color. I am yearning for a book I lost– my dad’s copy of War and Peace, by Tolstoy, from the 40’s, with a rose linen cover, thick black typeset, with a very thin gold leaf edge on the letters. I loved the thick vanilla paper of the pages, and the typeset itself. I am trying to remember a book cover that grabbed me as much as the ones you have shown. I DO like the Harry Potter cover you show here. I totally love Abe’s comment about being on the dendrites of your network, and your stethoscope on the pulse of the zeitgeist! I am still trying to write a poem about being inserted into the mother’s photographs, as in the Ricci collection you posted about last time. I will have to think about covers which are so tempting that you would want to read the book or hear the music!

  • abe frajndlich says:

    hi tom,

    i always look forward to your gems. shephard show was amazing in boston. you do have your stethoscope on the pulse of the zeitgeist and i am glad to be along the dendrites of your network. maybe during the week i will forward a couple of fave covers. but as you know you are spot on.

    thanks again.


  • steve ellis says:

    Aja- Steely Dan 1977.

    Aja/Steely Dan Title song sounds like the cover. Watch her as the song begins and you fully expect her to sweep her arms at the chorus and twirl away from the sliver of light. Your Diary of course makes your point. Even if the title doesn’t capture the reader’s imagination, there is always an arresting image that pulls you in, and one after that, all the way through. The images are so compelling that I want to know what point you think they illustrate.

    You’re right about judging a book by its cover. Not 100% predictive any more than the first ten words a stranger speaks, but for sure that’s how you want to bet it.

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