Chris Ware

Graphic Designer Chip Kidd at Columbia College

Last evening, as part of its Art & Design lecture series, Columbia College in downtown Chicago hosted a presentation by legendary book jacket designer and author Chip Kidd. If the term “rockstar” can be applied to graphic designers, he would certainly fit the bill. Though his name may not be familiar to those outside of the graphic arts, if you’ve been near a book store in the past couple of decades, chances are you’ve seen his work.
I arrived early which was good, since apparently word had spread on Twitter, and the place was filling up fast. After a short introduction by talented cartoonist and Columbia College faculty member Ivan Brunetti, Chip Kidd took the podium, sharply dressed as usual with a wide striped jacket and his trademark round glasses. The informal lecture was accompanied by a Powerpoint presentation featuring a number of case studies.
One of the earlier ones involved the designing of the dust jacket for Michael Crichton’s novel “Jurassic Park“. At the time, the film rights for the book had already been sold to Steven Spielberg, so Kidd’s instructions were to “think JAWS”, meaning that he should come up with an iconic image that could be repurposed for the film, in the same way that the image of the shark emerging from below was used on both the “Jaws” book and film poster. The now famous Tyrannosaurus skeleton image was inspired by a drawing from an old book purchased at the New York Natural History Museum. Kidd drew it with a Rapidograph pen on tracing paper and the image was used on the book cover and later as part of the movie poster and on countless merchandising tie-ins (apparently without any further compensation.)
Despite 25 sucessful years as a graphic designer, Kidd makes it clear that rejection is still part of the job. One of the most entertaining case studies centered around a cover design for “You Better Not Cry”, a collection of twisted Chistmas stories by Augusten Burroughs. Kidd had already designed several book covers for Burroughs and the subject seemed a perfect fit for his daring and subversive wit, but the project hit some snags. The first couple of ideas were rejected for either being too tame or too “mean” (One involved a ceramic Santa figurine carrying a sack full of G.I. Joe weaponry). Finally, after weeks of stagnation, the project was completed by the publisher’s in-house staff and featured a not-so-subtle rearview image of Santa exposing himself, which apparently was more in keeping with the publisher’s sensibilities.

Besides his work as a graphic designer, Chip Kidd is also the author of two satirical novels which have attained a devoted cult following. Seated behind me at the presentation was graphic novelist extraordinaire Chris Ware, who illustrated the cover for Kidd’s first book “The Cheese Monkeys“, centering around a graphic design student’s art school misadventures. His sequel, “The Learners” follows the main character, Happy, as he lands his first job at an ad agency. Both books are breezy, fun and convey the same wit and style as his book cover designs.

Many thanks to Columbia College for opening the event to the public and to Chip Kidd who kindly chatted and signed books and posters following the presentation.

Next up: Author Sarah Vowell at Oak Park’s Unity Temple

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Chris Ware and Charles Burns at Unity Temple

An audience of about 200 fans was afforded a rare opportunity to see and hear two modern masters of the graphic novel, Chris Ware and Charles Burns. The setting was Oak Park, Illinois’ beautiful and historic Unity Temple, built by Frank Lloyd Wright, which is undergoing an extensive and much needed renovation. In addition to numerous structural issues, recently there was news that vandals had stolen the bronze lettering above both entryway doors.

Chris Ware, best known for his masterful “Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth”, is an Oak Park native, and Wright’s prairie style comes through in the clean architectural precision of his work. Charles Burns, the senior of the two and one of Ware’s “childhood heroes”, on the other hand, claims to be no good at rendering mechanical objects and says he relies heavily on photo reference for things like cars. His latest work is the nightmarish “X’ed Out”.

Throughout their presentations, both artist’s came across as genuine, modest, and reserved, somewhat surprising given Burns’ roots as a “punk comic artist” (Both have had work published in the alternative “Raw magazine”). Both Ware and Burns share a mastery at getting under the skin of their characters and exposing their darkest sides and most disturbing thoughts. Much of their imagery and story lines are aimed at mature readers in every sense of the word.

When asked if they ever had to police their own thought processes in order to avoid offending family and friends (both are now family men), Burns said that he has to consciously fight the temptation to censor his darker themes in order to avoid dulling his art. Ware said he isn’t sure where his darker themes of family dysfunction come from, as he grew up in a comfortable, middle class home environment. Both confessed to occasional awkward conversations with a parent, having to explain that “The mom and dad in the story are purely fictional…REALLY!”

At the book signing following the presentations and Q & A, both artists were personable and the fans patient despite long lines. Given Ware’s methodical signature style, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the line is still snaking throughout the temple.

Many thanks to Chris Ware and Charles Burns and to Oak Park’s “Book Table” book store for arranging the event and to the Unity Temple for hosting. A portion of the event’s book sale proceeds go toward the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation”.

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