Peter Mendelsund has a method of creating every little thing that’s ever occurred to him sound like an accident — and so much has occurred to him.
The artistic director of The Atlantic who oversaw the historic journal’s monumental 2019 redesign, Mendelsund can be the writer of 5 books, a famend e-book designer whose works the Wall Street Journal has referred to as “the most instantly recognizable and iconic book covers in contemporary fiction,” a pianist, and — most just lately — a fledgling painter.
“I’ve been wanting to do it since I started designing. Once I did, I just was totally smitten,” Mendelsund tells me from his Manhattan house on 111th St, the place he’s just lately returned after a month or so spent portray out in New Hampshire. With work at The Atlantic nonetheless totally distant, the artistic director is definitely seeking to spend extra trip in New England, the place he’s at present trying to find a studio to deal with his newest creative endeavor.
“The idea is to find a studio that’s big enough,” he tells me. “The paintings that I do are fairly large” — to not point out he accomplished 17 of them in only a few weeks in New Hampshire — “so I’m looking for a studio rental right now that’s going to be cheap enough so I can do these big, sloppy paintings of mine and also maybe crash on the floor.”
Like many people, Mendelsund appears to have stumbled into every chapter of his various, sprawling profession kind of by accident, by some mixture of luck and circumstance. Unlike many people, nonetheless, he tends to seek out extraordinary, typically unprecedented ranges of success in every subsequent stumble.
A musician turned designer turned novelist turned painter, this can be a man with a Midas contact for the humanities, a person for whom publishing a e-book — or a number of, in Mendelsund’s case — is just “one of life’s weird inevitabilities.”
“No, it is,” he tells me. “Whether you want it or not, it’ll happen. It’s like a surprising osmotic part of living in the culture that we live in — your book will rise to the surface.”
In truth, one other e-book of Mendelsund’s occurred to rise to the floor only in the near past. Out this month from Ten Speed and co-authored by David J. Allworth, The Look of the Book: Jackets, Covers, and Art on the Edges of Literature is an exploration of the creative medium for which Mendelsund — whether or not he likes it or not — is probably nonetheless greatest recognized: e-book covers.
Mendelsund could have spent 15 years designing a number of the most iconic and ubiquitous e-book covers of the twenty first century — he recollects an roughly eight-year interval wherein he couldn’t go on trip with out catching a glimpse of his cowl design for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo within the arms of some unsuspecting poolside lounger — however “book designer” was by no means actually a task with which he recognized. Much like each different side of Mendelsund’s profession, his storied tenure because the best-known e-book designer of our time — second solely, maybe, to Chip Kidd, the person who interviewed him for the job within the first place — appears to have occurred to him by accident.
“It was totally accidental that I landed in book design,” says Mendelsund. A conservatory-trained pianist who started enjoying round age 4, Mendelsund was a musician effectively earlier than he was anything, least of all a designer. “That was the general thrust of my life until my children were born in my early thirties,” he says. “More time has been spent in my life playing music than it has been doing anything of a visual or verbal or semantic medium.”
It was solely after the start of his first youngster prompted a necessity for medical insurance and extra secure earnings that Mendelsund began designing — which occurred, after all, “through a series of very fortunate accidents,” he says. “I ended up getting an interview as a junior designer at Vintage Books, and then 15 years went by.”
Mendelsund nonetheless designs the occasional e-book cowl for a very attention-grabbing mission or as a favor to a pal, however so far as he’s involved, he hung up his e-book design cap again in 2014, when he first began writing books as an alternative of designing their covers.
“I haven’t identified as a book designer in many years,” he says. “What We See When We Read came out in 2014, and I would say that’s really the moment I started to think of myself more as somebody who thinks and writes than somebody who designs.”
In truth, for all his acclaim within the area of e-book design, Mendelsund himself isn’t significantly keen on e-book covers, typically seeing them as an obstacle that inevitably colours a reader’s notion of a e-book. “As much as I love book covers — I love making them, it’s fun — I don’t love the fact that there’s somebody between me and the text.”
These days, truly, the famend e-book designer who by no means needed to be a e-book designer tends to easily rip the covers off his books altogether. “If it’s a paperback, I’ll rip the cover off,” he says. “The books that are most important to me in my life don’t have covers on them.”
For somebody who’s spent the higher a part of six years actively working to distance himself from the e-book designer id, the concept of now publishing a e-book about e-book covers was a bit nerve-wracking. “I was, to be completely frank, a little nervous about the idea of having this book come out, just because I had been working pretty hard to distance myself from the idea of being ‘the book designer,’” says Mendelsund.
Ultimately, nonetheless, he’s come to see The Look of the Book as one thing of a fond farewell to the unintended profession wherein he by accident made his identify.
“It feels like a little bit of a farewell for me, but also kind of like an assessment of this profession that I happened to stumble into for this brief period in my life, and then fall back out of. The timing felt right,” he says. “Let’s just hope that the review of the novel doesn’t call me ‘Designer Peter Mendelsund.’”
For all Mendelsund’s book-cover-ripping methods, his decade-and-a-half profession in e-book design wasn’t actually such a nasty gig.
“I don’t necessarily miss doing it, but I was incredibly happy during that period,” he says, noting a sure “simplicity to the task” that made e-book design a much less daunting creative endeavor than the opposite artistic mediums he’s pursued earlier than and since.
“It’s a very simple prompt: Read this book, put how you felt about this book in this rectangle, and then move on to the next one. It was like rinse and repeat,” he says. “Unlike a work of fine art or a novel or something, there’s no reason you have to do something that’s considered profound. You don’t have to worry about profundity.”
In some methods then, the artistic output for which Mendelsund has been most generally hailed represents a a lot less complicated endeavor than the extra creatively taxing mediums he’s pursuing today.
“Of all the art forms, which are themselves naturally neurosis-producing or exacerbating or inward to an uncomfortable degree, writing is the worst,” he says, although he’s been warned he could quickly really feel the identical method about portray. Right now, Mendelsund finds a sure ease in his newest artistic foray, however a gallerist again in New Hampshire took it upon herself to warn him that “‘people really suffer when they make their paintings.’”
While Mendelsund is not any stranger to the plight of the neurotic artist, the romantic mannequin of fine artwork because the unique results of inner strife isn’t essentially one to which he subscribes.
“It doesn’t have to be hard, categorically. Some things are good that are easy to produce.” In truth, he provides, “Some of the best things I’ve ever made in whatever medium were things that happened despite me, in a kind of fugue state.” Like most issues Mendelsund has completed, nice artwork, it appears, is usually one thing that “happens to you,” kind of by accident.
That mentioned, for all of the serendipity and pleased accidents by way of which Mendelsund’s profession appears to have developed, he admits his success wasn’t merely easy.
“A lot of it is just putting in the hours. You can’t write a novel without having some sense of discipline — ingraining the habit of just sitting down and doing the work.” However, he provides, “There’s no reason it shouldn’t be a joyous process. As a person my age, I just feel like if it’s not going to be enjoyable, then I don’t understand the point. There has to be joy.”
Right now, Mendelsund is discovering that pleasure in portray. “I don’t know what the future holds, but that’s where my heart is right now.”
But as a person rightfully cautious of ending up pigeon-holed into an artform he’s simply making an attempt on for measurement, he’s already discovered himself making an attempt to keep away from one more label.
“This is a very new thing and my friends are mocking me because of it. They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re a painter now?’” says Mendelsund. “And I just want to say — fuck, you know? I’m just me, I’m just painting. It doesn’t make me a painter.”
But once you’re a creator who appears to stumble into success as typically and simply as Mendelsund, folks are likely to assume you’re a grasp of each area you contact. For his half, nonetheless, Mendelsund is aware of there’s a tremendous line between being a Renaissance man and a jack of all trades.
“In my worst moments, I think, ‘Oh God, I’m such an amateur.’ I’m just an idiot who keeps trying out things and can’t quite settle,” he says. “But the truth is, I really do believe that there are things to be learned from not digging down into a single silo — not locking yourself into a particular form or self-definition.”
Unfortunately, the remainder of the world doesn’t are likely to see it that method.
“I was joking to a friend of mine recently about how many times in reviews they’ll open with ‘Designer Peter Mendelsund’s new book,’” he says. “I guess it’s just easy to pigeonhole or index somebody in a particular way, to slap that kind of label on them, but I’m really resistant to it.”
Mendelsund isn’t even significantly excited about labeling himself. He was a pianist first, “and that really comprises about 30 years of my life, so in that way I think of myself more as a musician than I think of myself as a designer.” But now, six years and 5 books post-design, “It’s tempting to think of myself as a writer,” he says. “But I’ve been painting now. So I just — I guess I think of myself as just a person, honestly.”
Mendelsund himself could not be capable of sustain together with his personal ever-shifting labels, however Google is making an attempt. Last yr, the search engine lastly up to date Mendelsund’s data panel from “designer” to “author.”
“It’s a bummer when a bot tells you what you are on some level, but this is 2020, this is where we’re at,” says the Google-sanctioned writer. And if the web has to label him, Mendelsund would somewhat Google name him a author than a designer.
“I’ve never been happier. I was just like, ‘Oh finally,’” he says. “But I’ll bet you that in a couple of years I’ll want that to change again.”
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