Embarrassingly, I only recently realised the magic and majesty of The Paris Review. I came across it when a recent issue was illustrated by one of my favourite artists, Chris Ware. Eager to see who was responsible for this decision, I tracked down their art editor and came across Charlotte Strick. Charlotte is a fantastic, intelligent book jacket designer who is utterly seeped in the work that she makes, so much so that she writes about design almost as much as she practices it. I was keen to speak to Charlotte about what she did and what got her there, but I wasn’t prepared for the level of detail she was to go in. – she gives a truly spectacular interview. Here she is…
Before we begin, tell us a little about your background…
As a kid, my masterplan was to grow up to be a well respected fashion designer. My mom, who’s English, came of age in the era of Carnaby Street and the Mary Quant mini, and it all sounded magical to little American me. After art school she’d gone on to work in London’s garment industry, and I loved how with what seemed like a few broad strokes of her wand, she could turn one of her pencil drawings into a dress for herself or for me.
I majored in fine art and art history in college and then worked for a short while as a costume design assistant in Los Angeles, most memorably for Tracey Ullman. My dreams of New York’s famed 7th Avenue brought me back home to the east coast, where I slaved away for several years at different fashion companies. During this period I helped to manage the dramas of multiple evening wear designers; wrestled with and mastered a 40+ phone line switchboard; sourced exotic buttons, zippers and hangers; communicated in broken English with demanding factories in Asia via daily fax; and delivered lots and lots and lots of hot steaming cups of coffee for various, colourful bosses.
At some point I decided to apply to art school and study graphic design instead. My skin was just too thin for the fashonistas, and aside from stirring coffee, I wasn’t getting to make anything with my hands. I had a long fascination with typography instilled in me by my father, a book publisher, who also owned an art material trade business. So I began by career following in my mother’s footsteps, and ended up following in my father’s instead. One path has always informed the other.
How did you come to begin designing The Paris Review?
Lorin Stein, their current editor, and I worked together for about a decade at Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), an important literary book publisher based in New York City. Over the years, we’d had a lot of success and good fun—even while butting heads—coming up with book jackets for authors Roberto Bolaño, Lydia Davis and Sam Lipsyte, to name but a few. When Lorin interviewed for the job at The Paris Review, he, unbeknownst to me, told the board that if selected, he’d be hiring me to redesign the look of the magazine—inside and out. Once the position was his, he also invited me to be the magazine’s art editor. What luck for me that our working relationship has been able to continue in this way.
What was your perception of the publication before you began?
Jane Freilicher’s lithograph poster of the River Seine, made for The Paris Review’s famed print series, hung in our family’s den. It had been a wedding present from the artist to my parents. I always loved it for it’s scale and the great confidence of her gestural lines, though I don’t believe that I made the connection between it and the magazine until much later. My long impression of The Paris Review has always been that it is tremendously special with a long history of discovering and supporting the work of great writers and artists—some yet unsung. Always quite high brow and discerning.
“My long impression of The Paris Review has always been that it is tremendously special with a long history of discovering and supporting the work of great writers and artists—some yet unsung. Always quite high brow and discerning.”
What message do you want to give readers with the cover design?
Charged with the task of re-imagining the magazine as a whole, I mined The Paris Review archives, which are extensive. Claire Williams Martinez, my business partner at our newly formed design studio, Strick&Williams, consulted on the project with me. She and I studied the inconsistencies and terrific personality of the earliest magazines from the 1950s.
The masthead changed from issue to issue without much concern. For example, sometimes the “The” was all caps, sometimes not, sometimes all three words were set in italic, sometimes not. We began to realise that whatever type styles were available to The Paris Review founders at the time of printing, had just been embraced without our modern preoccupations of “branding” and “identity." It was less a carelessness than a carefree-ness. At first the uptight 21st Century graphic designer in me was frustrated by this inconsistency, but I came to rather admire the early “Reviewians” for maintaining a consistent voice while continuing to see themselves anew with each issue.
The early covers are really works of art in that way. I scanned our favourite mastheads from this period. The early lead type style lends so much character and historic spirit to the current covers; it sets the tone for the entire magazine. Sometime in the 1970s and through the early 2000s, the original four-quadrant grid had been largely abandoned for the freedom of different layouts.
Under the editorship of Philip Gourevitch, designers returned the original four rectangles, which we find very effective and continue to use. We have also changed our trim size to be a little taller and a bit skinnier. Most importantly, we brought back the uncoated stock inspired by those early painterly issues. Holding it in your hand now, we hope it feels familiar and warm, at once reminding you of the great history of The Review, while also giving you a sense that you’re being handed the very future of writing and art.
Have you had a particular favourite issue?
Like a parent, one never likes to be asked to pick a favourite! I am very proud of our first issue, number 194, as we were really examining the look and feel of each and every page for the very first time. I’m particularly fond, too, of the strength of that issue’s portfolio curated by Lauren Cornell of New York’s New Museum. I love the contrast of Tauba Auerbach’s hard-edged, text-based, graphic paintings in conversation with Colter Jacobsen’s meticulously detailed, representational landscapes and portraits based on ideas of memory and reproduction.
I curated my own portfolio, Women on Women, for issue 199 that I like to think of as a group show. It included works by 17 different female artists, each using women as their subject across many mediums and with varying points of view. For this issue I also worked closely with artist Dan Funderburgh, to create a paper snowflake cover that took its cues from the themes in the writing from that issue. Dan laser-cut each snowflake and then these were stacked together and photographed for our cover. It was perfect for the winter issue, and I love how the can-can girl legs break the cover grid—giving the “w” in “Review” a bit of a kick!
“Like fine artists, it’s important to keep growing, experiment with new things and build on what your last project was able to teach you. Try your very best not to let tight deadlines prevent you from doing this, otherwise what’s the point?”
Do you collaborate with illustrators? How does that process work?
Until very recently I was the art director of Faber and Faber and of the trade paperback line at FSG. I worked on staff for fourteen years and over time I established many relationships with working artists. My twin jobs at FSG and at The Paris Review fed one another. Dan Funderburg, whom I mentioned earlier, and I went on to collaborate on the cover reissues for Christopher Isherwood’s backlist. Last year I worked closely with Lydia Davis on a Paris Review portfolio of turn-of-the-century Dutch photographs, and I’ve had the good fortune to design four of her book jackets all published by FSG.
I love working with illustrators, photographers and also fine artists; I learn so much from sharing ideas with them. For The Review, as with my book covers, the process is a little bit different every time. I keep a vast archive of work I admire and when the right project comes along I can usually access the artist quite quickly though sometimes it all comes down to timing. Artist Samantha Hahn just completed a four-issue illustration assignment for Rachel Cusk’s new novel, Outline, which we serialised in the magazine. A copy of Samantha’s book, Well-Read Women, arrived in my mailbox while Lorin and I were looking for an illustrator to commission. Samantha’s acid green cover for Issue 207 has become a favorite of mine, too.
How does designing covers for many issues of a magazine differ from designing the cover of one novel?
The intent is always the same—make it memorable. The main difference is that with a work of fiction I have a manuscript to read and draw from. With The Review Lorin is coming to me with an idea or I am going to him. Not always, but often, the cover art reflects more of what you can expect to find in one of our portfolios, so there’s less pure invention going on than there would be with designing a cover for a novel. It’s more about not repeating ourselves and making a beautiful object you’d think twice about recycling!
Can you give any sage advice for any budding designers?
As a Parsons student I bought a mouse pad from the well-known type foundry, Emigre, which read “Design Is A Good Idea." It made me smile then as it does now. At this point in my career I’ve made plenty of work without strong ideas I’d like to sweep under a rug, but that’s as it should be. You should always be striving to be better than your last project, remembering that it’s the strong ideas that produce the best and most memorable work.
Like fine artists, it’s important to keep growing, experiment with new things and build on what your last project was able to teach you. Try your very best not to let tight deadlines prevent you from doing this, otherwise what’s the point? Never stop going to galleries and museums and looking at how fine artists solve questions of composition, form and colour. They have as much to teach you as your fellow designers do. And if you’re given a book jacket to design, please read the manuscript. It holds all the answers.
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