John Gall

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

It must have been a hard day for typewriter repairmen everywhere when the word processor was invented. With one change in technology, their job became nearly obsolete overnight. It’s a fear that many people understand, including book designer John Gall. “Everything is in flux at the moment. I originally thought I had five years left doing this, now I think it’s more like five months,” he says, half-jokingly.

Over the course of two decades, Gall has made the journey from a child who enjoyed the design elements of cars and records to art director at Vintage/Anchor books, home to the catalogs of literary luminaries like Haruki Murakami, William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, to name a few. During his 12-year tenure there, Gall has overseen the creation of more than 3,000 book covers. But as technology advances threaten to replace printed books with downloadable versions, publishing houses—and the designers who create the book covers—are now standing on the precipice of a potentially industry-shattering shift. Rather than react with fear or hostility to this uncertainty, Gall takes a workingman’s approach to his future. “I’m taking this day by day. Big changes may be afoot in the distribution of books. Then again, maybe not.”

It’s all just sweat and inspiration. Well, it’s actually more like sweat plus inspiration plus more sweat (and you can add a little luck in there, too). There’s also the procrastination, mind-reading, plate spinning, heavy drinking and obscenity-laced diatribes, as well.

Gall’s been at the helm of many major projects during his time at Vintage, including a recent one he refers to as a “dream project” and a “daunting one” as well: the complete re-design of Vladimir Nabokov’s entire catalog. To tackle this, Gall picked 19 of the top designers in his field—including heavyweights such as Chip Kidd, Carol Carson, and Peter Mendulsund—to form a veritable design dream team. Under his direction, they went to work recreating 20 Nabokov covers (he kept The Eye for himself) as an homage to Nabokov’s other life work: cataloging and collecting butterflies. The designers evoked each book’s content by incorporating tools used by entomologists: a specimen box, insect pins, and layers of paper. “It was a real conscious effort to have a consistent look that was going to vary over the course of 20 books,” he says.

Gall also used the Nabokov project as an experiment against the digital revolution. “The idea was to create this object that really works as a critical piece. Sometimes these book re-designs just go sit on the shelf, spine out, and don’t do anything. But the Nabokovs were an attempt to get notice, and there was tons and tons of notice.” Described as “among the most eye-catching volumes…seen in 2009,” by the New York Times, the finished covers together comprise a thematic work of art. Paul Sahre, designer of The Luzhin Defense in the Nabokov series, described the design process to Printmagazine: “[Gall] found a way to collaborate with the designers…without doing it in the conventional way. He was totally hands-off after assigning the title to me, but his larger series idea was the driving force behind what I was going to do. He created a very interesting and difficult game to play.” Gall reacts modestly to the praise.

“It’s all just sweat and inspiration,” he says of his design process. “Well, it’s actually more like sweat plus inspiration plus more sweat (and you can add a little luck in there, too). There’s also the procrastination, mind-reading, plate spinning, heavy drinking and obscenity-laced diatribes, as well.”

Drinking and obscene diatribes aside, it also takes more than a modicum of talent and good old-fashioned hard work to reach the level of success he achieved with the Nabokov series, and throughout his career as a whole. “Sure, coming up with a good idea is never easy, but once you have a nice solid concept, the rest of the process can almost seem effortless; enjoyable, even. And these, of course, are usually the best ones.” Gall describes his creative process as threefold: research, concept and execute. “Read the books, come up with some ideas, flesh them out, see what is sticking,” he says. However, it’s the process of getting a book’s cover approved that poses the greatest challenge for Gall and his team. “If the publisher comes back and says, well, ‘This needs really big type with a chicken on it’, that obviously means they think this is kind of important,” he says. “The re-working, dealing with all the feedback (some warranted, some moronic) ‘make this bigger’, ‘make this smaller’, ‘my psychic thinks it should be blue’—that is what separates the men from the boys,” he says.

And amidst the uncertainty of technology’s impact on his industry, he notes the one thing remains true for all designers: the need to embrace a rapidly changing marketplace.

“I see design as tied at the hip to technology. Throughout the history of design, new advances in printing, typesetting, and distribution have always led to new design movements. The invention of movable type, the ability to print multiple books, the invention of letterpress printing, lithography, four-color printing, and computers—designers have taken advantage of all of these developments to create exciting work. The new advances in the distribution of the printed word may signal the end of one thing, but may also be an incredible opportunity for the creation of something new,” he says. Specifically, Gall finds himself interested in how the digital distribution of books will change the way we interact with words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters, since there are no actual pages. But he’s also keeping his career options open. “I’d like to design more book interiors, and maybe come up with another idea for a book to write,” he says. Gall co-authored Sayonara Home Run!: The Art of the Japanese Baseball Card with Gary Engel in 2006.

And, if Kindles and iPads do take over the publishing world and none of this works out? “There’s also that barbecue/cask ale joint I’ve been meaning to open…

Being a highly sought-after book designer requires good food to fuel the mind. John Gall shares his top picks for where to find a bite while in NYC.

Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shoppe
Old school NY. Some dig the pastrami, others the egg salad. I say go for the tuna melt washed down with a chocolate egg cream. 174 5th Ave. near 22nd St.

Pork. Period. Get the Porchetta plate (porchetta, greens, beans). Possibly the best lunch I’ve ever eaten. Go early—there are only six seats, and they sometimes run out of food. 110 E. 7th St. near 1st Ave.

Yakitori Totto
They use any and all parts of the chicken, skewered and grilled over coals. Great lunch specials. Chicken knee bone, anyone? 251 W.55th St. near Broadway. 2nd floor.

Burgers have been way over-examined in NY of late. I’ll stick with this old standby near St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Juicy burgers, fine pies and weird seating. The place hasn’t changed since the ’60s, wait staff included. 5 E.51st St.

MoMA cafeteria 2nd floor
Great place to regain your composure after staring at Marina Abramovic for an hour. The food is excellent and the communal seating makes it a prime spot for people watching/listening. 11 West 53rd St.

Schnitzel & Things
One of the best of the new breed of gourmet food trucks. Pork or chicken schnitzel with a side of German potato salad. Then track down the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck for dessert. Check Twitter for each place’s daily location.

Stewart Kuhlo is a Chicago-based attorney, writer and hip-hop obsessive.

Photos by: Noah Kalina


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