Some nagging thoughts and comments about things I know little about:
Usually when I write a blog post it is an immediate, visceral reaction to something that has stimulated one or two of my four or five functioning senses. But for this one I've have had to sit on it, chew on it, spit it out and look at it before picking it up and recognizing it for what it is. After all, the topic is Chip Kidd, the big boned boy from 40°20'30" North, 75°55'35" West turned superhero on the not so distant world of publishing. What's more, the posted video was directed by my friend Gary Nadeau, filmed by my friend Tal Unriech of Flike and given a typographic shine by two talented colleagues from Pratt Institute who never seem to remember who I am. The video debuted at Joe's Pub this past Monday to an audience of graphic dignitaries, a who's who of the publishing circle and a number of skinny young bucks with this summer's topper of choice, the straw fedora. The video was crisp and beautifully simple. Split, layered and cut with precision, perspective and pace. Twitching and turing with an obsessive compulsive cadence of habit and necessity. Solid, solid as a rock. But as the song crescendoed and the crowd responded as sea of somewhat rhythmical white hands clapping, I began to fade, shrink and think.
Looking at Chip Kidd, or looking at one of his book covers, you are afforded the horizontal and the vertical that he controls. You see the uncomfortably stuffed shirt with custom collar and neatly pressed sleeves rolled up with a devil-may-care precision. An animated tuft of hair perched upon his forehead like the male Bird of Paradise trying to impress a potential mate. But the finest detail, and the most important design element would be the tortoise portholes resting on either side of their aquiline pedestal, their delicate twisted arms desperately reaching for his ears. The glasses, the palsy-walsy connector and synthesizer of what he sees and what he hears. The transparent curtain behind which he keeps his wizard, and the window from which he watches us drink his rainbow flavored Kool-Aid.
The glasses are not only a metaphor for vision, knowledge and smarts, they are the physical means by which he has observed the world and collected a lifetime of images which he has manipulated and fused to other people's words. You can't separate Cristina Garcia's story in Dreaming in Cuban from the image of the woman peering over the red cigar box like band on the cover. Nor can you remove the gangly and antsy typography of Katherine Dunn's novel Geek Love from your minds eye, although the original cover was done by David Hughes in 1989. Even the illiterate can associate the iconic skeletal T-Rex with Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. Seems as though Chip Kidd will be forever quietly lurking around our homes, and in the back of our minds.
Kidd has almost single-handedly reshaped the publishing industry by creating a reason to create exceptional book cover design through intuitive reasoning and meaningful, emotive imagery. Although be believes content makes the book successful in the long run, not the cover, he would certainly argue that good covers do create interest and opportunity where they didn't exist before.
Now, here is where I come to the uncomfortable place in a critical review, especially when the work is done by someone that I admire for their creativity, individuality, sense of history and purpose. Chip Kidd as I have know (of) him over the years has been a tremendous visual short story teller, graphic interpreter and observer. He is a master that has never left the chair of the wide-eyed student. He has jogged our collective unconscious, pushed our imaginations and crafted a new perspective from information we already possessed. But what has worked for him for the past 20 years on the cover of a book, has left me flat and underwhelmed when the needle hits his record, or as on Monday night, when the band hits the stage. Missing was the visceral reaction that I talked about earlier. Instead, the songs brought on a painstaking intellectual slog that didn't give me a chill, push me to anger, bring me to tears or put the fear of God into me. They didn't even put a smile on my face. I felt horrible, and feel worse as I write about it now. Where had it gone wrong for me, how did this quirky cupid miss his mark? After all, he is a contemporary, someone that grew up with Batman, Matchbox, teachers and summers where the air was thick with humidity, crickets and the smell of creosote emanating from railroad ties.
Although there were no mistakes, there something was missing from the deftly painted aural pictures. Was it the sense of place, poetry and meaning captured on Kidd's cover for White Jazz by James Ellroy, or the austere and imperious typographic posture of Me, Stories of My Life by Katharine Hepburn. Both two dimensional samples expressed the essence of the story or person with a beautiful and succinct visual language, and without making the artistry or process aware of itself. They were what they were, and they were what they were meant to be. But when I listen to the music, and perhaps in viewing the music video, what I am all too aware of is the carefully considered, well-crafted hooks and hummable tunes layered with synthesizer filigree, embossed with heavy base lines and foil stamped with clever word plays and juxtapositions. Did he just forget to color outside of the lines?
Then it started to come together and fall apart at the same time. There was Ricky Wilson's tuning and mastery of the guitar hook, Fred Snyder's sprechgesang, the They Might Be Giants, colossal metaphors and monstrous allusions, and even the synthesized brilliance of The Cars. Shit, they even started to sound like they came off of Lincoln , the first and only album from my favorite ironic-sardonic and self-critical whiner Christopher Temple. Granted, much of the music I am listening to today is derivative of classic rock and new wave bands of the past as exemplified by The Ting Tings "Shut Up and Let Me Go" sounding like Missing Persons or MGMT's "Electric Feel" a haunting reminder of The Rolling Stones circa 1974. But I can forgive the angst, trepidation, frivolity, lifting, sampling and acquisition of a twenty-something. We can allow them to slap a vexed coat of paint, or of the mocking cloth, over a well-worn chair because it doesn't have to bear the weight of their personal history. However, the same chair shows its wear and fragility under the weight of a titanic figure like Chip Kidd.
But where the music fails, the man succeeds, because at 44 he soldiers on and dons the uncomfortable suit of change. He takes chances and leads by example with the belief that, "The next step is for graphic designers to meaningfully generate their own content." As he generates and gyrates, collects and makes, he continues grow and contribute to a worthy cause. While he can rest assured that his mark has been made, and that his efforts have been duly noted, he continues to fall in love. And as well all know, love doesn't always work out the way we had hoped.