Michael Bierut | Essays

The Unbearable Lightness of Fred Marcellino

Cover design for Knopf, Fred Marcellino, 1978

Until I was in my early twenties, my library was dominated by paperbacks. Buying a new hardcover book was an extravagance I couldn't afford on a college student's budget. But after I settled into my first job, I started treating myself to the occasional visit to the new releases section of the bookstore. Fifteen to twenty bucks was still a lot of money, so I'd usually do a lot of careful research before entering the bookstore to buy, say, the latest Philip Roth or John Updike.

But every once in a while, in what for me was then an act of madcap daring, I'd make an impulse purchase, and buy a hardcover book based on almost nothing more than the design of its dustjacket. When the gamble paid off, these were books I'd come to really treasure: usually novels, their authors unknown to me, the settings unfamiliar and exciting. I've saved them all, and I took an armful down from my shelf the other day. Loving Little Egypt by Thomas McMahon, The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt, The New Confessions by William Boyd, The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen.

Wildly different books, with one thing in common. Fred Marcellino was the designer of all their covers.

Fred Marcellino is not a designer whose name you hear much these days. Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger, the authors of By Its Cover: Modern American Book Cover Design, stop short — just barely, one senses — of consigning him to the dustbin of design history. Parked astride Chapter Four ("The Bland Leading the Bland: American Book Cover Design Disoriented") and Chapter Five ("The Pillaged, Parodied, and Profound"), Marcellino is characterized in less than glowing terms: "Fred Marcellino fostered a vast spectrum of depersonalizing styles in the 1970s and 1980s in order to meet the needs of his clients," they write, quoting a contemporary critic who observed that he had "no desire to use his work as a vehicle for the expression of some compelling personal vision."

Strange, because I can always tell a Marcellino cover. Born in Brooklyn in 1939, Fred Marcellino always wanted to be an artist, and was admitted as a student at tuition-free Cooper Union, graduating in 1960. Then followed graduate studies in the School of Art at Yale and a Fulbright Scholarship to study painting in Italy. He returned to New York in 1964, a scene dominated by the dusk of abstract expressionism and the dawn of pop, no place for a young painter besotted by Titian, Giorgone and Veronese. Marcellino retreated into commercial design, first editorial illustration and album covers, then books.

Cover design for Knopf, Fred Marcellino, 1982

"I took to books immediately," Marcellino said. "With record covers I never had much to go on. I never even got to hear the music...With books, on the other hand, there was something that you could read, almost devour, really get your teeth into. There's a lot more to work with in a book; I found it much, much more exciting. I just like to read; I like books."

It's hard to remember now, after Chip Kidd, after Michael Ian Kaye, after Carin Goldberg, that there was a time when it was considered taboo to illustrate a novel with anything but plain type or an illustration: the fear was that people would wonder, if the subject was fictional, whom exactly the photograph was supposed to depict. So it fell upon Fred Marcellino, who combined the skill of a genre painter with the typographic sense of an upscale package designer, to create the look of quality fiction. A Marcellino cover was as loaded with allusion and metaphor as a della Francesca Annunciation.

Cover design for Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Fred Marcellino, 1987

Take the cover for Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities. It's an atypical Marcellino cover in that it bows to the "big book look" conventions established decades before, most notably by Paul Bacon. The rule was (and is) simple: the more famous the author, the bigger the name. But, upon examination, the cover's lovely illustration is anything but simple. It depicts a glass coffee table (referred to nowhere in the book) on a fancy Persian rug in a (presumably) upscale East Side penthouse, its fragile surface reflecting the towers of Manhattan, with all their preening ambition, neatly turned upside down, as would be the prospects of the protagonists in Wolfe's sprawling tale of 1980s-style class warfare. And, as is so common in Marcellino's work, in the pale reflection, a fleeting glimpse of sky. Tom Wolfe's turbocharged verbal acrobatics, with their mountainous piles of descriptive specificity, are completely ignored in favor of an image that seems to have no subject, no focus. How obscure, and how neat, the allegory is.

That sky would appear again and again on Marcellino covers. On Birdy by William Wharton, on Hearts by Wilma Holitzer, glimpsed beyond high walls on The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, as a backdrop for the iconic (and much imitated) floating bowler hat on The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Steven Heller called Marcellino "a master of sky" and noted how "many of his book jacket illlustrations use rich, cloud-studded skyscapes as backdrops and dramatic light sources for effect...The way in which he manipulated light on such subjects as walls, chairs, and doors enabled him to transform the commonplace into charged graphic symbols."

Even at his height, the end was near for Fred Marcellino's unique style of image-making. Louise Fili's 1983 cover for The Lover by Marguerite Duras is considered one of the first examples of a photograph being used sucessly to sell a novel. At Knopf under Sonny Mehta, it became positively de rigeur. Gone were the days when an illustrator would devote God knows how many hours to painstakingly rendering chairs stacked on a restaurant table. The future would belong to designers like Chip Kidd: "I found the image for Amy Bloom's Come to Me in a dumpster on the street in the East Village in the late 1980s. Someone had thrown out a whole stack of 1930s-vintage product shots of stuffed furniture. Fabulous." Out with the garrett-bound artiste, stinking of turpentine, toiling away over an easel. In with the flaneurs of Avenue B, plucking objets trouvé from obscurity like old-time movie producers discovering starlets at Schwab's.

Cover design for Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Fred Marcellino, 1988

I thought again of the power of book covers while opening presents this Christmas. My gifts were what they've been for years: books and cds. As I was cleaning up in the aftermath, it occured to me that, unlike everyone else in my family, my gifts are products that more or less remain in their packages for as long as I own them. I remembered encountering a Marcellino package almost twenty years ago, a first novel from a writer I'd never heard of, Jonathan Franzen. According to the flap copy, The Twenty-Seventh City is the story of what happens when St. Louis, Missouri, decides to install a young, charismatic émigré from Bombay as its first female chief of police. "No sooner has Jammu been installed, however," we learn, "than the city becomes embroiled in a bizarre and all-pervasive political conspiracy."

I don't remember exactly what I was shopping for that day 18 years ago, but it wasn't a book about the intersection of feminism, British colonialism, midwestern corruption and teenage romance. Instead, years before The Corrections and the National Book Award and the notorious Oprah contretempts, what attracted me to the work of Jonathan Franzen was a haunting image of an Indian woman's face, impossibly large, peering from beyond the Gateway Arch, inviting me into an unknown world. It was a recommendation I dared not ignore. I belonged to a book club that had only two members: me and a person I'd never met, Fred Marcellino.

In 1990, perhaps sensing that the tide was running against him, Marcellino quit book cover design and began creating children's books. He won a Caldecott Honor that year for his illustrations for Puss in Boots; his first original book, I, Crocodile, was named one of the 1999 New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books. Fred Marcellino died two years later at the age of 61.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Media

Comments [17]

Thank you for seeing books as permanence. They live in our lives for many years and quiety sit on shelves waiting to be rediscovered.

I recently reorganized all my book cases (8 of them) and had an enourmous amount of fun looking at the covers and remembering what drew me to the book to begin with. Was it the image, the content, the author? Many books written by friends, covers designed by friends, books given to me by friends.

I too gift books at the holidays, and am always struck by seeing gifts I given, in the bookcases of friends and family years after.

Books to me represent a relationship with knowledge and people. They bring us together and help us to develop common experiences, similiar to movies, yet the experience of a book is so personal and allows each of our visual imaginations to run wild.

Funny to say I have been on a book buying sabatical and have been frequenting my new local library, which by the way actually has a speed book section, crazy. There are thes racks right in the main foyer, that look like the racks at Barnes and Noble. They can be checked out for 1 week and have no renewals on them...bizzarre, even the act of reading has been sped up..apparently the latest library design trend...leave it to those crazy designers to even spped up reading. Go figure...

I could go on and on about books, thier covers, their importance in my/our lives..

Have a great rest of the holidays, hopefully with a good book!!
Florence Haridan

I was thrilled to read Michael Beirut's eloquent comments on the covers of Fred Marcellino. Fred was my dearest friend and one of the greatest honors of my life was the chance to write the text for The Art of Fred Marcellino (Pulchinella Press), which was designed by his equally-talented wife Jean Marcellino. For more than a decade, Fred was beloved among publishers for the quality of his work and for his aristocratic professionalism that belied a soul of great passion. For every book cover, he presented two finished comps. Some of the unused illustrations were, to my mind, superior to the chosen ones.

Fred read the manuscript of every book he was assigned. Whether he liked the work or not, he somehow always found its soul and transformed it into something worthy of the term "art." In truth, Fred continued to do selected book jackets even during his last years. What is astonishing is how wildly different each was in concept, style, and technique.

However, it was always Fred's desire to create children's books and when he finally was offered the opportunity by Michael DiCapua, he seized it and turned out a master work that rescued a classic story from the dustbin of children's literature. He did that several times with other works such as The Steadfast Tin Soldier" and "A Pelican's Chorus. He was an extraordinarily sensitive reader and was the first to realize that the children's classic Little Black Sambo was, in fact, set in India and that only the smallest textual change of the name to Little Babiji was enough to rescue a work that had been labeled "racist" for many years. It was an act of unmitigated courage to present it to a publisher and then to succeed in creating a far-superior illustrated version than the original.

I remember well when Fred decided to try his hand at writing. Three manuscripts arrived about a month later. Among them was I, Crocodile, and an equally enchanting tale about the tulip wars of the Netherlands. At the time of his death, Fred had almost finished a sequal to I, Crocodile,. The book continued the adventures of his reptilian hero, but was set in Fred's beloved city of Venice during Carnivale. Does anyone need to be told who was thought to have the best costume?

Of all the people I have known, Fred was the truest to his talents, to his beliefs, and to those he loved. As with every real artist, his greatest work of art was his life.

Nicholas Falletta
New York City
Nicholas Falleta

Book covers often are better then the books they cover; that image of Bonfire of the Vanities still sums up the 80's for me even better then the text. By the way I think as a kid I discovered custard at Schrafts and in Los Angeles at least movie producers discovered starlets at Schwabs.

[Esoteric drugstore reference at the end of paragraph ten has been corrected; thanks, John.]
Michael Bierut

Thank you very much for the article on Fred Marcellino! Until now I was only aware of a few of his book covers. (My favorite so far has been his Magritte-flavored jacket for Stanley Elkin's The MacGuffin -- I couldn't find an image of it to link here, but it appears on page 141 of Ellen Lupton's Mixing Messages.)

It's good to know that there is a book devoted to his work, as well.
Ricardo Cordoba

i worked with Fred's wife Jean at Wells Rich Green around 1990. My first words when I met her were--"is your husband the guy who does those amazing illustrations on books and for the Friends School in the neighborhood"? And the answer was graciously, yes. For a young designer, new to the agency world, she was professionally generous and kind. And the posters he did for the Friends School were unbelievably beautiful and surreal. For several years, while his children went to the Friends School in Gramercy Park Fred created the most exquisite posters they have ever had.

As someone who long ago aspired but through a lack of talent and speed couldn't be an illustrator--admired and also collected Fred's work--and as a neighbor mourned his death--thanks for acknowledging his contribution.
Lynda Decker

It's early in the morning on New Year's Day and the first thing I see on-line is a link to this wonderful piece on Fred Marcellino (linked by the wonderful Maud Newton, whose website is always the first thing I see on-line in the morning). I've been a bookseller for twenty-five years, and in all the talk about on-line books, on-demand books, downloading sections of books, and so on, I'm always thinking: what about that moment when you see the book, in its cover and binding, for the first time, when you see it entire? An unknown book that you see on a table or a shelf and feel moved to pick up, hold in your hands, examine, and finally read?

Every cover you mentioned I could bring to mind . . .
kimn neilson

I am Jean Marcellino, the widow of Fred. I can hardly begin to express my delight in this wonderful piece on the subject of his book jackets. Michael Beirut's insightful commentary is beautifully executed, and inspires me to add a few thoughts on the subject.

FYI, there's a website devoted to Fred, which features some of his work, biographical information, and access to "The Art of Fred Marcellino," a 48-page soft cover book with about one hundred full-color illustrations. It's www.pulcinellapress.com.

Michael's reference to the quote from "By It's Cover" reminded me of my first reaction to that characterization of Fred as having fostered "a vast spectrum of depersonalizing styles... in order to meet the needs of his clients." It was simply to shake my head and laugh. The notion was so absurd and muddle-headed.

Anyone who ever knew Fred during the era of his concentration on book jackets, whether personally or professionally, knows that he approached his work with the passion one normally associates with the "fine artist," reading every manuscript from first to last, then focusing his attention solely on the visual crystallization of the author's words. For him, the concept or "solution" was the challenge, and his greatest satisfaction came, not from the ultimate look of the cover, but from having nailed that core idea.

When it came the execution, Fred would usually create an illustration, seeking to embody the author's intention in having written the book in the first place. He would often work and re-work this illustration until he had satisfied himself that he'd taken this project as far as he possibly could. As Nick Falletta points out in his contribution to this blog, this process usually culminated in the submission of one extremely tight sketch, with comp lettering. Fred always insisted on having complete control over every detail of his jackets, and would never permit the addition of anyone else's typography.

If the publishers liked what they saw, he then proceeded to finish. If the publishers had any corrections, alterations, suggestions... comments other than "I love it," he'd request the comp back, and politely say, "I'll have another look at it." He'd then put the comp in a drawer, and go back to the original manuscript in search of another completely new, completely "other," solution. And again submit one very tight sketch. If this second one was rejected, he'd take the kill fee (conventionally 50%), and think twice about accepting further assignments from that client.

On rare occasions, the publisher would request changes. Fred would usually find them silly, and, again, take the kill fee. When a complete impasse was reached, he'd sometimes throw up his hands and simply insist that his name be taken off the flap. Often, the client would relent. During the peak of his book jacket career, the threat of removing his name was not something to be taken lightly by his clients.

As to "a vast spectrum of depersonalizing styles," the dismissive tone is mystifying. He had an awesome visual vocabulary. Fred's passion for the whole history of Western art, illustration, and design was profound. He spent his life absorbing the styles and techniques that intrigued him, and in short, could do just about anything. When designing his jackets, he reached into his bottomless bag of tricks to find exactly the right executional style most appropriate to that particular concept.

The notion that Fred ever did anything simply to "meet the needs of his clients" is simply ridiculous. He never gave a thought to the hours/remuneration ratio when he worked, and most of his clients realized early on that commissioning him to produce a cover was probably going to be a winning proposition for them. For one thing, they'd get more man-hours than they might from another designer. They'd get an informed and devoted reader who, unlike the great preponderance of designers of the era, wouldn't lift a pencil before finishing the book. And they'd get a magnificent piece of art.

They'd also get the reward of being able to put "Cover: Fred Marcellino" on their book.
Jean Marcellino

Thank you Micheal, and Jean for gracefully chiming in.

Of note: both authors of this "depersonalization" flap over Fred (Ned Drew or Paul Sternberger) live in or around my township (Maplewood, NJ) and teach design at Rutgers. It's cover designer, the underrated John Gall, also lives up the street/ across the tracks. (tuck this trivia away for future Jeopardy encounters).

I don't agree with the assessment, but can understand the author's dilemna; in haste, perhaps the judging went fatally awry. Another reason could be due to the aformentioned change in "image-making". Any one caught dead in the Airbrush Club post 1993 was asking for a beating... (aka: hurtin' 4 certain)

felix sockwell

An article about Marcellino's 2002 exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum can be found here.
Michael Bierut

As an avid reader, who doesn't use book reviews or best-seller lists as a guide to my recreational reading, dust jackets are of special interest to me. Sometimes I rely on the recommendations of family or friends in chosing a book but more often than not the book's jacket is a good starting point. I ignore the infoblurbs on the back of the jacket, the summary of the book on the front jacket flap, and the biographical information on the back flap. For me a dramatic eye-catching cover that suggests that the book contains something different is what attracts me. Distinctive covers, like so many of those by Fred Marcellino and his friend Wendell Minor, have proven to be an excellent basis for reaching a decision to borrow a book from the library or to purchase it. I'm not often disappointed. Best of all being able to identify, at first glance, that a cover was by Fred or Wendell often was an extra incentive to borrow or buy. After all, if the publisher thought enough of a book to employ either of them to design the cover, he must have thought the book deserved the best. Unfortunately Fred is no longer here to keep up that tradition but Wendell still does so in his own distinctive style. In the sea of bland, non-distinctive covers - all too often based on photographs - that I encounter in large bookstores something unusual still stands out and reminds me that here, like so many of the books that Fred did covers for, is a book that is worth reading. Inevitably reading the first few paragraphs bears that out.
Norman D. Stevens

When I am asked why I chose to become a graphic designer after being an English lit grad, I usually tell people that I became more interested in the typefaces used in my books, the space of margins, and the papers used in the bookbinding. I loved the heft and sensual pleasures of holding and turning the pages of books and would often buy a different edition of a book I was supposed to read because the cover wasn't as beautiful as another edition I had found. Somehow, this always gets a laugh out of a non-designer audience...

(Although if I could re-write my conversion, wouldn't it be more dramatic to say I decided to become a designer after a post BA trip to Ireland and hear my calling being whispered by the Book of Kells at Trinity?)

Thanks, Michael!

Fred Marcellino was one of my closest friends, so I can't say that I'm entirely objective about his extraordinary talents, which ranged from painting, graphic design, illustration, interior design, furniture design and construction, and gardening to writing and illustrating a collection of sublime children's books. In my mind, Fred was a kind of Renaissance man, and I was in awe of his talent and abilities throughout the 35 years of our friendship.

So I would like to refute the assertion voiced by Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger in their book that Fred's jacket designs lacked a compelling personal vision and catered instead to expressing the desires of his clients. If anything, and I know this for sure, the opposite is true. Fred's jacket designs reflected, after long consideration, what he believed to be the essence of the manuscript for which he was creating a cover. I know this as a reader of the books as much as an admirer of his work. I also know that in many instances he spent perhaps as much time reading and re-reading a manuscript as he did designing the cover for it, and was seldom if ever involved in anything that had to do with the sales or marketing of the books he worked on.

I wholeheartedly concur with Michael Beirut's assertion that Fred's covers are personal. Intensely so, I would add, and instantly recognizable. No one can deny he inspired a host of imitators. But his work is unmistakably original—and his vision his own. You can trace a continuum from Fred's book jackets to the award-winning illustrations of his children books. His breathtaking craftsmanship, and his deep humanism, may have grown more eloquent as time went on, but they were in evidence in his very first jackets to the last. I think the passage of time will confirm his genius and artistry. The appeal of his book jackets will endure, no matter what the fashion for cover design is today.
Larry Kaplan

I will get I, Crocodile for my nephew -he just turned eight, and will look into Arrivederci, Crocodile, too.
Coincidentally, just a few weeks ago, before the holiday break, I was minding him while my sister went shopping and we did his frequent-words spelling activity together. We had finished the 30-minutes of reading he's supposed to do each day and I had Roald Dahl's The Magic Finger in hand. Along with 'penguin' and 'publish' one of the other infrequent (I figured 7 to 10 out of 30 needn't be so frequent) words I came up with was 'crocodile', and I was giving him hints to spell beyond c-r-o-c, saying "in French they pronounce it croak-OH-deal."
Another reason I'll buy the book is because upon googling Marcellino, I found this sentence of the book, "While robbing Egypt's mummies, sphinxes, and palm trees, Napoleon can't resist bringing home a souvenir crocodile..." very educational.

Here's an article that, along with this post, reminds me I've seen too many films without reading the book first. Like Birdy, a scene of which I'll always remember; the moment he weighs a girl's bare breast. Equivalent to a book cover, in this sense, is a movie's poster. On Art.com the poster for Birdy shows him perched on the footboard of a metal bed looking out the window. Marcellino's cover for the book captures Birdy's yearning without needing to show, in this case, Matthew Modine. It seems to me, as usual, the poster for the European market is darker, more like the illustration by Fred Marcellino for Wharton's novel. And the puritan society we have in the United States was satisfied with this hokey image. And what if someone wants the original poster image for a DVD cover instead?

As a graphic designer in NYC, I have known and met many creative and talented people. Fred Marcellino was THE single most talented person I have ever known. As Larry Kaplan has stated - he was truly a Renaissance man.
I, too, was priviliged to know Fred and to consider him one of my dearest friends and to see close up the scope of his genius. Fred was a true artist. In every way. He lived his art - his life, his home, his gardens, his work - were all his art. He could do, and did do, it all.
As a jacket designer, no one could touch him. You could always identify a Marcellino cover. His vision was fresh. His typography unique. He nailed the concept and finished with expert execution in his inimitable style every time. Not to mention his wit and charm! Fred was exceptional and will always be remembered as such.
Dolores Frey

Well worth checking out:

Michael Bierut

Fred showed me a generous turn in 1982. I sought him out because he had done the cover painting for "Renaissance Live At Carnegie Hall", an LP I had memorized due to my older brother's obsession with it. I'd the keen idea to give my brother the original painting. ( Ahh, the ignorance of youth ). I found Fred in the NYC White Pages. I called and he graciously invited me, the young art school student, over to his studio. Incredibly, he had two flat printed copies of the one sheet. He took one and signed it to my brother- a priceless gift for a huge fan. He refused payment, and after showing me his works sent me on his way. A kind, generous and clearly brilliant artist.
Peter Abraham

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