Until I was in my early twenties, my library was dominated by paperbacks. Buying a new hardcover book was an extravagance I couldn't afford on a college student's budget. But after I settled into my first job, I started treating myself to the occasional visit to the new releases section of the bookstore. Fifteen to twenty bucks was still a lot of money, so I'd usually do a lot of careful research before entering the bookstore to buy, say, the latest Philip Roth or John Updike.
But every once in a while, in what for me was then an act of madcap daring, I'd make an impulse purchase, and buy a hardcover book based on almost nothing more than the design of its dustjacket. When the gamble paid off, these were books I'd come to really treasure: usually novels, their authors unknown to me, the settings unfamiliar and exciting. I've saved them all, and I took an armful down from my shelf the other day. Loving Little Egypt by Thomas McMahon, The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt, The New Confessions by William Boyd, The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen.
Wildly different books, with one thing in common. Fred Marcellino was the designer of all their covers.
Fred Marcellino is not a designer whose name you hear much these days. Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger, the authors of By Its Cover: Modern American Book Cover Design, stop short — just barely, one senses — of consigning him to the dustbin of design history. Parked astride Chapter Four ("The Bland Leading the Bland: American Book Cover Design Disoriented") and Chapter Five ("The Pillaged, Parodied, and Profound"), Marcellino is characterized in less than glowing terms: "Fred Marcellino fostered a vast spectrum of depersonalizing styles in the 1970s and 1980s in order to meet the needs of his clients," they write, quoting a contemporary critic who observed that he had "no desire to use his work as a vehicle for the expression of some compelling personal vision."
Strange, because I can always tell a Marcellino cover. Born in Brooklyn in 1939, Fred Marcellino always wanted to be an artist, and was admitted as a student at tuition-free Cooper Union, graduating in 1960. Then followed graduate studies in the School of Art at Yale and a Fulbright Scholarship to study painting in Italy. He returned to New York in 1964, a scene dominated by the dusk of abstract expressionism and the dawn of pop, no place for a young painter besotted by Titian, Giorgone and Veronese. Marcellino retreated into commercial design, first editorial illustration and album covers, then books.
"I took to books immediately," Marcellino said. "With record covers I never had much to go on. I never even got to hear the music...With books, on the other hand, there was something that you could read, almost devour, really get your teeth into. There's a lot more to work with in a book; I found it much, much more exciting. I just like to read; I like books."
It's hard to remember now, after Chip Kidd, after Michael Ian Kaye, after Carin Goldberg, that there was a time when it was considered taboo to illustrate a novel with anything but plain type or an illustration: the fear was that people would wonder, if the subject was fictional, whom exactly the photograph was supposed to depict. So it fell upon Fred Marcellino, who combined the skill of a genre painter with the typographic sense of an upscale package designer, to create the look of quality fiction. A Marcellino cover was as loaded with allusion and metaphor as a della Francesca Annunciation.
Take the cover for Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities. It's an atypical Marcellino cover in that it bows to the "big book look" conventions established decades before, most notably by Paul Bacon. The rule was (and is) simple: the more famous the author, the bigger the name. But, upon examination, the cover's lovely illustration is anything but simple. It depicts a glass coffee table (referred to nowhere in the book) on a fancy Persian rug in a (presumably) upscale East Side penthouse, its fragile surface reflecting the towers of Manhattan, with all their preening ambition, neatly turned upside down, as would be the prospects of the protagonists in Wolfe's sprawling tale of 1980s-style class warfare. And, as is so common in Marcellino's work, in the pale reflection, a fleeting glimpse of sky. Tom Wolfe's turbocharged verbal acrobatics, with their mountainous piles of descriptive specificity, are completely ignored in favor of an image that seems to have no subject, no focus. How obscure, and how neat, the allegory is.
That sky would appear again and again on Marcellino covers. On Birdy by William Wharton, on Hearts by Wilma Holitzer, glimpsed beyond high walls on The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, as a backdrop for the iconic (and much imitated) floating bowler hat on The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Steven Heller called Marcellino "a master of sky" and noted how "many of his book jacket illlustrations use rich, cloud-studded skyscapes as backdrops and dramatic light sources for effect...The way in which he manipulated light on such subjects as walls, chairs, and doors enabled him to transform the commonplace into charged graphic symbols."
Even at his height, the end was near for Fred Marcellino's unique style of image-making. Louise Fili's 1983 cover for The Lover by Marguerite Duras is considered one of the first examples of a photograph being used sucessly to sell a novel. At Knopf under Sonny Mehta, it became positively de rigeur. Gone were the days when an illustrator would devote God knows how many hours to painstakingly rendering chairs stacked on a restaurant table. The future would belong to designers like Chip Kidd: "I found the image for Amy Bloom's Come to Me in a dumpster on the street in the East Village in the late 1980s. Someone had thrown out a whole stack of 1930s-vintage product shots of stuffed furniture. Fabulous." Out with the garrett-bound artiste, stinking of turpentine, toiling away over an easel. In with the flaneurs of Avenue B, plucking objets trouvé from obscurity like old-time movie producers discovering starlets at Schwab's.
I thought again of the power of book covers while opening presents this Christmas. My gifts were what they've been for years: books and cds. As I was cleaning up in the aftermath, it occured to me that, unlike everyone else in my family, my gifts are products that more or less remain in their packages for as long as I own them. I remembered encountering a Marcellino package almost twenty years ago, a first novel from a writer I'd never heard of, Jonathan Franzen. According to the flap copy, The Twenty-Seventh City is the story of what happens when St. Louis, Missouri, decides to install a young, charismatic émigré from Bombay as its first female chief of police. "No sooner has Jammu been installed, however," we learn, "than the city becomes embroiled in a bizarre and all-pervasive political conspiracy."
I don't remember exactly what I was shopping for that day 18 years ago, but it wasn't a book about the intersection of feminism, British colonialism, midwestern corruption and teenage romance. Instead, years before The Corrections and the National Book Award and the notorious Oprah contretempts, what attracted me to the work of Jonathan Franzen was a haunting image of an Indian woman's face, impossibly large, peering from beyond the Gateway Arch, inviting me into an unknown world. It was a recommendation I dared not ignore. I belonged to a book club that had only two members: me and a person I'd never met, Fred Marcellino.
In 1990, perhaps sensing that the tide was running against him, Marcellino quit book cover design and began creating children's books. He won a Caldecott Honor that year for his illustrations for Puss in Boots; his first original book, I, Crocodile, was named one of the 1999 New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books. Fred Marcellino died two years later at the age of 61.