June 2, 2011

Making the cover: The Neversink Library


Not long after I came onboard as art director here at Melville House, our publisher Dennis came to me with an idea for a new series. Conceived in order to champion books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored, it would be called the Neversink Library, in reference to Herman Melville’s White Jacket:

“I was by no means the only reader of books on board the Neversink. Several other sailors were diligent readers, though their studies did not lie in the way of belles-lettres. Their favourite authors were such as you may find at the book- stalls around Fulton Market; they were slightly physiological in their nature. My book experiences on board of the frigate proved an example of a fact which every book-lover must have experienced before me, namely, that though public libraries have an imposing air, and doubt-less contain invaluable volumes, yet, somehow, the books that prove most agreeable, grateful, and companionable, are those we pick up by chance here and there; those which seem put into our hands by Providence; those which pretend to little, but abound in much.”

The project brief was simple: the Neversink Library needed a series look that would stand out on the shelf, but remain flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of titles from throughout the 20th century. Furthermore, the idea should be easy to replicate so I or a future designer could put together any number of new covers quickly.

The first place my mind jumped was to Penguin‘s handsome Great Ideas series, designed by David Pearson. A creative all-type treatment would avoid the canned look of a staid font slapped onto a historic piece of art, familiar from so many other classics series. But custom lettering for every title could be too labor-intensive if we were to publish a dozen or more Neversink titles at once, and since many of the titles would be from roughly the same time period—the mid-20th century—there wouldn’t be a wide enough variety of aesthetic styles to accentuate the way Pearson has.

Sketching out my thoughts, I hit on another idea: silhouettes. I’ve always enjoyed working within the restraints imposed by silhouettes—trying to convey the greatest amount of information using the most limited means—and while their historical origin is in Victorian crafts, they retain a timeless quality, capable of representing any era.

For the rest of the graphic style, I drew inspiration from mid-century printmakers like the artists of the WPA program, best known for their home front posters during the Second World War. The muted color palettes and modern (but slightly odd) hand-lettered fonts seemed like a perfect fit for this series. In the end, I settled on a stark one-color treatment, using fonts modified to feel just a bit imperfect, evoking the era before precise, computer-aided typesetting.

Now, nearly a year after the project’s conception, the Neversink Library launches with After Midnight, Irmgard Keun‘s eye-opening tale of a teenage girl trying to live her life during the rise of the Third Reich. And with eleven more titles lined up over the coming year, we’re looking forward to introducing a whole cast of characters to your bookshelf.


Christopher King is the Art Director of Melville House.