Category Archives: Book Design

Discovering John Alcorn: Evolution by Design


As a birthday gift to myself, I bought a coffee table book titled John Alcorn: Evolution by Design. This is one time when it’s appropriate to call it a gift, since this tribute to possibly the most prolific ’50s-to-’80s-era illustrator shares Alcorn’s gifts with the world – corny, yet true!

Co-authored by Alcorn’s son, Stephen, and design historian Marta Sironi, Evolution by Design succeeds as both a comprehensive career overview and a personal remembrance (Alcorn died in 1992). Packed full of beautifully reproduced original art, this volume was an eye-opener. For someone like me who knew Alcorn from his groovy late ’60s commercial peak (e.g., The Fireside Book of Children’s Songs), the breadth and sheer talent displayed within these pages is nothing short of revelatory. This man was a true artist, always searching for the next horizon to explore. Alcorn started out with New York’s legendary Pushpin Studios, branched out on his own to incredible success in the ’60s, then helped shape America’s visual zeitgeist with a vocabulary of sinuous shapes, natural forms, and wild colors. He wasn’t one to rest on his laurels, however. In the early ’70s, Alcorn and his family uprooted to Italy, where he studied the country’s master painters and craftsmen. He remained astonishingly prolific during this time – becoming a favorite of the iconic film director Federico Fellini, among others – although most of this period’s output never made it to the U.S. Returning to these shores in the late ’70s, Alcorn continued to thrive with a gorgeous, mature style highlighted by a thoughtful attention to detail that never appeared fussy. The book closes out with a chapter devoted to one of the artist’s recurring visual motifs, the blooming flower.

John Alcorn: Evolution by Design was published by Moleskine, the notebook company, in 2013. It can be purchased at the Moleskine website or at

Illustration projects for Mead papers (left) and The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics (right), 1969.

Illustration projects for Mead papers (left) and The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics (right), 1969.

Ad campaign for WCAU radio shown alongside their letterpress plates, 1959.

Ad campaign for WCAU radio shown alongside their letterpress plates, 1959.

Cut-paper student work and advertisement, mid-'50s.

Cut-paper student work and advertisement, mid-’50s.

Fruits and vegetables illustrated for Morgan Press and others, 1981-91.

Fruits and vegetables illustrated for Morgan Press and others, 1981-91.

Logo designs for Italian publisher Rizzoli, 1970s.

Logo designs for Italian publisher Rizzoli, 1970s.

Children's book illustrations, 1969.

Children’s book illustrations, 1969.

Various book jacket designs from the late '60s and early '70s.

Various book jacket designs from the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Penguin Droppings

Penguin Drop Caps is a line of republished classic literature that has captured my eye lately. The cover of each brightly hued Drop Caps volume sports a large, fancy letter designed by Jessica Hische, which represents the author’s last name. Hische’s creativity with the letterforms is truly inspiring (check out those little insects on the Willa Cather volume!).

While I’m still not sure that all of these Drop Caps will be added to our home library (for now, I have Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Cather’s My Antonia), the series as a whole is pretty encouraging proof that nicely made mass-market books are still thriving in these tablet times. Penguin’s Paul Buckley designed the spines, backs and interiors in a thoughtful way that manages to look both hip and stately. The only problem I saw is that the binding is coated with a strange, waxy texture that easily picks up sweat or dirt from readers’ fingertips. Also, Penguin decided to festoon the backs with ugly ISBN stickers which can’t be peeled off (grrr!). The Drop Caps can’t be beat for anyone who desires to have a clean, diverse reading rainbow on their shelves, but for durability issues I think Penguin’s cloth-bound classics may have a slight edge (they’re priced about the same, as well).

Penguin is currently at #16 in the process of publishing all 26 of the Drop Caps books. While P just came out this month, the rest will be released throughout the end of 2014 (Amazon has all the titles listed now, linked below). I just finished A, and am getting ready to start C. Aside from reading B and D in high school, and I about twenty years ago, these are all new to me. Suggestions, anyone?

A – Austen, JanePride and Prejudice
B – Brontë, CharlotteJane Eyre
C – Cather, WillaMy Antonia
D – Dickens, CharlesGreat Expectations
E – Eliot, GeorgeMiddlemarch
F – Flaubert, GustaveMadame Bovary
G – Golding, WilliamLord of the Flies
H – Hesse, HermanSiddhartha
I – Ishiguro, KazuoAn Artist of the Floating World
J – Joyce, JamesA Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
K – Kidd, Sue MonkThe Secret Life of Bees
L – Lee, Chang-raeNative Speaker
M – Melville, HermanMoby-Dick
N – Nesbit, EvelynFive Children and It
O – O’Hara, JohnButterfield 8
P – Proust, MarcelSwann’s Way
Q – Queen, ElleryThe Greek Coffin Mystery
R – Rushdie, SalmanHaroun and the Sea of Stories
S – Steinbeck, JohnCannery Row
T – Tan, AmyThe Joy Luck Club
U – Undset, SigridKristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath
V – VoltaireCandide, or Optimism
W – Whitman, WaltLeaves of Grass and Other Poems
X – XinranSky Burial
Y – Yeats, W. B.When You Are Old: Early Poems and Fairy Tales
Z – Zafon, Carlos Ruiz and Lucia GravesThe Shadow of the Wind

Recovering the Classics

Recovering the Classics is an effort to spread awareness of good design and classic literature – two excellent causes! The site canvasses artists and designers to put a contemporary spin on book covers for 50 public domain classics. Given such an eclectic array of adventure, horror, romantic and non-fiction titles to deal with, I’ve been impressed with most of the results – some are beautiful and straightforward, while others take an offbeat approach. Although I’d love to share my favorites here, perhaps it’s best that you go there and dig around.

I had to make my own contribution. The roster offered a lot of tantalizing ideas, but I ultimately ended up selecting Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio because it was a book I remembered cherishing a while back (perhaps we’re overdue for a re-read). Hands was the name of one of the more memorable stories from this collection, which all take place in a rural Ohio town – so the design I went with is built around an evocative photo from the period. I thought it came out nice (and, unlike many other titles, mine is currently the only available design!). Download or buy it here.

Conceiving a Babi

Christopher Geoffrey McPherson – The Babi Makers (2013).

We’ve spent the last few weeks working on the release of Christopher’s latest book, a cautionary sci-fi tale called The Babi Makers. The very concept of the book had my creative gears spinning, and I immediately thought of doing something that was contemporary, yet also evocative of funky old sci-fi things like Omni magazine art and paperback book covers from the ’50s and ’60s. I originally thought to have just a landscape in the bottom half, meant to represent the community of Nové depicted in the book. It wasn’t quite working, however, and that’s when Christopher thought up the idea of including figures looking over a cliff. That’s where it finally clicked.

The Babi Makers is available as a Kindle download, or as a paperback. Below, some imagery that guided me along in the design process.

Wassily Kandinsky – Variegated Black (1935).

Sci-fi paperback book covers, 1960s (Avon edition of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy).

Early OMNI magazine covers and art (July 1981 issue).