Celebrated graphic designer Chip Kidd said that “a book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku of the story.” This challenge of consolidating reams of story into one memorable image is one that faced Philip Grushkin, whose body of work from the early 1950s is the subject of historian and calligrapher Paul Shaw’s book “Philip Grushkin: A Designer’s Archive.”
Shaw will be speaking in 523 Butler on Wednesday about Grushkin’s work, part of the Columbia University Libraries’ Book History Colloquium. The event is the first highlighting Grushkin since the Rare Book & Manuscript Library acquired a collection of over 2,000 pieces of his work and the work of his mentor, George Salter. Grushkin collected Salter’s book covers as a boy, according to Shaw’s book, and studied under him at Cooper Union, imitating Salter’s style before finding his own.
“Grushkin used drawn lettering in his jackets far more frequently than Salter did in his American work,” Shaw writes in his book—something that differentiates Grushkin’s work from contemporary book covers.
Unlike today’s self-consciously loopy “handwritten” typefaces, Grushkin’s hand-lettering shows the labor that went into his book covers.
“I always like things that show evidence of the human hand,” rare book librarian Jane Rodgers Siegel said. Siegel praised the covers’ organic quality, which marries Grushkin’s bold, fat lettering with optically dazzling loops, stripes, and smudges in meaty reds and blues.
“Grushkin ... forged his own brand of modernism, a unique mixture of bold typographic hand lettering, dynamic background patterns, vibrant colors, and abstract symbolism,” Shaw writes.
Grushkin’s covers convey the mood of the novel without explicit symbolism—for David Loughlin’s “Helix,” a book about the battle of man versus machine, Grushkin’s drafts and final cover feature a manic motif of swoopy spirals that read like a mess of rioting Slinkies.
Siegel believes that Shaw’s lecture and a displayed selection of Grushkin’s work—once it is tagged and delivered to the library—are imperative for today’s student designers and typographers.
“I’m a great believer in knowing the past of what you do,” she said. “It isn’t just about what your contemporaries are doing. It’s not that the past has to form what you do, but a knowledge of the past to inform it adds depth and meaning to what you do now.”
Siegel, who is excited about the lecture’s exploration of Grushkin’s pre-Photoshop process, feels that his work is rendered more relevant with developments in technology, as the detail-oriented discipline espoused by mid-century designers should be a touchstone.
According to Siegel, despite the new technology used in creating books covers and typography, designers can emulate Grushkin by being “in command of all the pieces that you’re putting together—the coloring and the letterform and the illustration,” asserting that “being serious about the work is where it starts.”