Judging a Book by Its Cover with JOHN BERTRAM

By Tyler Malone

Winter 2013-2014

Architect John Bertram’s design studio Bertram Architects focuses on projects of spatial and material subtlety. They both create their own projects and also restore homes designed by various modernist architects (especially Richard Neutra). But John Bertram isn’t solely interested in building design. His most recent project, the book Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl, looks at design of a different type: book cover design. He and his co-editor Yuri Leving look at the history of the book cover design for Vladimir Nabokov’s literary classic Lolita. They explore the problems the book poses in design, how the Kubrick film has altered our expectations of the book, and whether or not a designer should follow the guidance given by Nabokov himself. I spoke to John Bertram about these issues and others.

Tyler Malone: How did the book Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl come about?

John Bertram: Shortly after I launched my website Venus Febriculosa, I had the idea for a cover contest for Lolita. The direct inspiration was Nabokov scholar/translator Dieter E. Zimmer’s online gallery “Covering Lolita” which features 185 covers from 36 countries. After seeing so many misleading covers, I realized immediately that there was a lot to explore, and the “Lolita Cover Contest” became the first of many such conceptual contests that were sponsored through my website. I first met my co-editor Yuri Leving when he approached me to write an essay about the contest for the Nabokov Online Journal (of which he is the editor). We found that we shared an interest in creating a multi-disciplinary work that would integrate graphic design and scholarly analysis. I should note that only a few covers in the book are from the original contest; all the rest are covers that I commissioned from many of the top book designers working today. In addition to this gallery of covers, there are essays by Nabokov scholars, designers, design critics, and artists.

TM: You’re an architect by trade, not a book designer, so I wonder how you got involved with the book and where your love of Lolita comes from?

JB: I’ve been a serious reader my entire life. I went to St. John’s College (known for its Great Books Program) and continued my literary explorations while at Yale School of Architecture (where I worked part time at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library). I also worked briefly for a graphic designer and publisher and so learned some of the fundamentals of book design. And while I can imagine not being an architect, I cannot fathom life without books. Lolita is a book unlike any other in its immediacy, depth, and kaleidoscopic brilliance. It’s simultaneously a tragedy, a comedy, a satire, but it also is a realistic story of obsession, delusion, and self-interest masquerading as love (Who among us has not been there?).

TM: What is your favorite Nabokov novel besides Lolita?

JB: I am sure the expected answer would be Pale Fire (or possibly Ada), but I’ve recently read for the first time several of Nabokov’s early novels that he originally wrote in Russian which I very much enjoyed. In particular, I must say that I was quite taken by Despair. It’s a story about a man who envisions the perfect crime in order to escape his unhappy life with surprising results.

TM: Who are some of your favorite writers besides Nabokov?

The German author W.G. Sebald wrote only a handful of books before his tragic death in a car accident in 2001, but each one is a rare and exquisite jewel that resonates deeply with me. His four novels (Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz) are sublime and melancholy meditations on existence, loss, and psychological and physical displacement. I suppose you could say he is my favorite author. In addition, I admire the work of Yugoslavian/Serbian novelist/memoirist Danilo Kis (especially Garden, Ashes; A Tomb for Boris Davidovich; and Early Sorrows: For Children and Sensitive Readers), John Hawkes (in particular Second Skin), and Junichiro Tanizaki. I also recently read the remarkable six-volume memoir of Konstantin Paustovsky which covers his life and travels in Russia, Georgia, and the Ukraine from his childhood in the early 1900s through WWI, the Russian Revolution, and the rise of the Soviet Union.

TM: Going back to your main career as an architect, before we go deep into this new book. Tell me about Bertram Architects, your firm, and what projects you’re known for, and what you are currently working on.

JB: I started my practice in 1999, two years after moving to Los Angeles and we specialize in carefully-conceived and detailed but relatively austere modernist residential architecture. About half of our work is dedicated to the restoration and remodeling of modern houses from the 1950s and ‘60s and the other half comprises new projects. Los Angeles may not be the best place for our kind of architecture, which I’d like to think is understated and uniquely thoughtful, especially now since the trend seems to be ultra-ostentatious and exceedingly inelegant high-end developer chic. Our work is more of an acquired taste and we are fortunate to attract a very intelligent, visually astute, and engaged clientele, composed primarily of directors, cinematographers, and production designers (the Hollywood ‘creatives’), and not so much actors, models, and hedge fund managers.

TM: Your restorations of Richard Neutra designs have received a lot of press. Tell me about Neutra, about living in one of the houses he designed, and about how you go about renovating his work.

JB: Richard Neutra was a prolific modernist architect, who was incredibly ambitious and charismatic, and dominated Los Angeles residential architecture for much of his four-decade career (he died in 1970). His work is rigorous and remarkably consistent and he was especially skilled at integrating his buildings into difficult hillside sites. What I find most interesting about him is that his entire career was dedicated to developing and refining a methodology, a few distinct typologies, and a series of signature construction details. I am especially fortunate to live in one of his houses. It’s like living in a jewel box and it never ceases to inspire me.

TM: What are similarities and differences between architectural design and graphic design?

JB: One way in which they are similar is that fulfilling the functional requirements of a given project is probably the easiest part of the endeavor. The challenge is making something beautiful, something interesting, and, occasionally, something unique. Also, architecture and graphic design are insular fields and a lot of work becomes a dialogue with other architects or graphic designers. Of course, a significant difference is one of scale. A graphic designer often designs in full scale, something an architect cannot do. As a result, an architect can never know what a space or a building will feel like until it is built.

TM: How important is book cover design? Do we, as the saying goes, judge books by their covers? Should we?

JB: Book design has become more important as the general public becomes increasingly sophisticated visually and I think they have come to expect certain standards of quality and visual interest. Certainly, the publishing industry is such that covers are a crucial component of any book’s marketing strategy, so there is a lot riding on the right approach. In fact, it sometimes seems to me that the book designer is as important as the author. While I can’t say that I judge a book by a cover, I think the current expectation is that a smart and sophisticated book will have a smart and sophisticated cover. It’s a bit of a disappointment otherwise.

TM: In your conversation with John Gall in Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl, you mention the word “responsibility” with respect to the designer. In your opinion, to whom or what does a designer have a responsibility to when designing a cover?

JB: The responsibility is first and foremost to the work itself. Although covers that mislead or otherwise misrepresent their contents are quite common, I don’t think they serve anyone’s interests beyond perhaps those of the publisher. For me, the minimum requirement for a book cover is that it not conflict with the book and, if it does, there should be a very good reason for it. What is inexplicably lost on so many Lolita covers is that the title character, a child of twelve at the beginning of the novel, is abducted, held hostage for two years, raped repeatedly, and ends up dying in childbirth at age 17. These are the simple ‘facts’ of the novel and they are horrific.

TM: Who designed the cover of your book? And what was the idea behind its cover?

JB: The cover is the work of Seoul, Korea-based graphic designers Sulki & Min (who incidentally first met in 2001 at Yale University where both were MFA graphic design students). They provided a wonderful cover for an earlier project of mine and Michael Silverberg, my editor at Print, shared my enthusiasm for their spare and keenly intelligent work. The cover was originally intended to be white with black text, a reference to another Nabokov quote “…If we cannot find that kind of artistic and virile painting, let us settle for an immaculate white jacket (rough texture paper instead of the usual glossy kind), with LOLITA in bold black lettering.” Given the subject of the book, the text-only approach seemed most appropriate. The Nabokov quote provides context but also a bit of mystery and ambiguity. The bright green is a faint echo of the first edition of Lolita, published as one of Olympia Press’ Traveller’s Companion Series whose covers were always green.

TM: On your cover you have the Nabokov quote about his hopes for the cover of Lolita: “Pure colors, melting clouds, accurately drawn details, a sunburst above a receding road with the light reflected in furrows and ruts, after rain. And no girls.” What are your thoughts on his recommendation? Is it useful? Would it make a decent cover? Should designers heed his advice?

JB: Nabokov was certainly aware that any representation of a girl would fall short of his prose and I think he was trying to make the point that his novel was in some sense not ‘about’ a girl, and further, that his creation was too rich and too subtle for any cover that attempted to represent in a literal way a scene or a character from the book. I also think that Nabokov felt that any representation or illustration would be extraneous. It’s well-known that Nabokov was extremely careful to control his public image and his reputation and this of course extended to book covers.

TM: What do you think the Kubrick film’s influence has been, positive or negative, on cover design for Nabokov’s novel?

JB: Kubrick is not known as a director whose films remain faithful to their literary sources, and Lolita is no exception. In this particular case, much of the life has been drained out of the story and the film is only a pale shadow of the novel. It’s also important to remember that whereas Lolita is twelve in the novel she is sixteen in the movie, a major change that completely alters the storyline. Even more so than the film, the image of actress Sue Lyon wearing heart-shaped sunglasses and enjoying a lollipop, which was a promotional photograph taken by Bert Stern, has been without question a major influence. On the one hand, it was a huge publicity coup for the novel and, insofar as press is always good, I suppose its influence is positive. On the other hand, it in no way represents the character in the novel and so is a barrier against understanding and appreciating the novel. Beyond its falseness, it is an image almost completely lacking in subtlety, which is in my opinion the worst image for a book which operates on many subtle levels.

TM: Another thing you talk to John Gall about in your book is Dieter Zimmer’s discussion of Lolita covers were he claims that “for such decisions there exists no theoretical apparatus, only the intuition of the individual responsible.” Let’s say you’re the individual responsible. According to your intuition, which cover design for Lolita do you consider the best?

JB: This is an impossible question for me to answer! It’s worth noting that in their essays, Mary Gaitskill, Peter Mendelsund, and Dieter E. Zimmer each single out the Vintage cover designed by Megan Wilson (John Gall was the art director) as a favorite. It features a photograph by Andrea Gentl of a girl from the waist down, wearing a skirt and saddle shoes with her knees together as if cringing defensively. I agree that it is one of the most successful published covers. Lolita is portrayed as the victim she is, of the appropriate age, and not sexualized. If I had to single out one of the covers commissioned for the book, at the moment it would be Andy Pressman’s, in which the title is blurred to the point of being nearly illegible. It suggests to me the simple fact that we never get to know Lolita since she is seen solely in a distorted way through the eyes of Humbert Humbert.

TM: Is there any other novel that you could imagine doing a similar study of?

JB: In addition to numerous book cover contests I have sponsored or co-sponsored, I have been involved in two similar book projects, one based on Tadeusz Borowski’s collection of Auschwitz stories This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen and the other on Umberto Eco’s most famous novel The Name of the Rose, both of which began as Venus Febriculosa contests. However, there are several aspects of Lolita that make it such a perfect book for exploration. It is a masterpiece; it is well-known; it is controversial; it is largely misunderstood in that it has a reputation among the general public that is at odds with the basic story; there are hundreds of existing covers; and the author himself expressed his opinions about a suitable book cover. I really can’t think of another book that is so ideally suited for such an exploration! I would love to do another project like this, but I can’t find the right book.

John Bertram is an American architect. His design studio Bertram Architects focuses on projects of spatial and material subtlety. They both create their own projects and also restore homes designed by various modernist architects (especially Richard Neutra).


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Written by Tyler Malone

Photography by Austin Young

Design by Marie Havens


John Bertram, Photography by Austin Young

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