January 18, 2013

Designers under the bell jar


In 1966, a young designer at Faber and Faber named Shirley Tucker created an image that would become an icon of modern design. Her cover for the first edition of The Bell Jar to be published under Sylvia Plath’s name is a monument of restraint, the concentric circles depicting the protagonist Esther Greenwood’s descent into despair while evoking, subtly, the book’s title. Despite marking the fiftieth anniversary of The Bell Jar‘s original publication with what can only be described charitably as an unfortunate new cover, Faber and Faber recently released a video interview with Tucker about the creative process behind designing a book that was among the most important to chronicle the challenges faced by women in the postwar era.

Shirley Tucker’s 1966 cover

“One felt one related to her and her problems and her life and what happened,” she says, and although she declines to elaborate, it’s not hard to imagine that Tucker, as a woman with career ambitions in the 1960s, experienced many of the same pressures and difficulties Plath’s narrator describes, even in such a creative field as graphic design.

In a segment that aired on Radio 4’s iPM last weekend, another designer, Jacqueline Redmond, recounts her experiences working in the British tabloid publishing industry in the 1960s to interviewer Eddie Mair. Throughout her short career, she says, “we just had to work harder … for less money to justify our position.” Soon after landing in the art department at The Sun, she became pregnant, was forced to leave, and, as she puts it, was “relegated to the scrap heap.” As a mother, she would no longer be considered even for freelance work because employers thought she couldn’t be depended upon. Despite having a design degree and distinguished resume, she was no longer able to work as a designer.

For her part, Shirley Tucker succeeded her predecessor Berthold Wolpe as art director of Faber and Faber upon his retirement in 1975, but was forced out herself when Faber handed creative control over to a team at Pentagram led by John McConnell in 1980. That partnership ended around 2002, and today things seem to be looking brighter for women in British design, with Donna Payne leading Faber’s art department and Suzanne Dean running the show at Random House UK. (Dean had a moment of celebrity when Julian Barnes, in his Booker acceptance speech for The Sense of an Ending, called her “the best book designer in town.”)

In the US, although women in book design surely still face challenges (including an assumption I’ve encountered, on the part of some publishers, that women are best suited to designing sensitive literary fiction and chick-lit, not to mention the more blatant cases of sexual harassment I’ve heard about firsthand) they do hold positions of power in art departments at a number of publishers and imprints, including Knopf, Vintage, Crown, Riverhead, and Hachette. And as Michael Bierut once noted on Design Observer, many of our most successful female designers — Louise Fili, Carin Goldberg, Barbara deWilde, and Paula Scher — came to prominence as book designers.

So it seemed like a major step back this week when the influential, newly relaunched design studio Sagmeister & Walsh, who have designed a number of books themselves, unveiled a new identity system whose sexual politics could be said to be troubling at best. Under the direction of partners Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh, the studio’s new promotional materials include branded condoms, erection-measuring pencils, and CDs stamped with stick-figure women performing fellatio. By way of a press release, the studio distributed a nude, count-the-genitals photograph of its team. (Spoiler alert: the penises win.) Amid the wave of predictable publicity, we’re left to wonder: is it an elaborate act of irony? Or is it just an empty provocation?

Without more context, it’s hard to say what the conceptual intent of the pieces is, and for all we know, they come straight from the mind of Jessica Walsh. But it strikes me as a sad statement in a time when women’s success in our industry still seems to be measured by the extent to which they’re willing to participate in a dominant culture of adolescent masculinity. Or when Milton Glaser can say, in an all-male panel discussion on book design, that women don’t become high-profile designers because they get pregnant. Or when the AIGA reports, without much apparent alarm, that female designers still earn less than their male counterparts.

I suppose it’s possible that Sylvia Plath, who fought to win freedom from the role she was expected to play as a woman, and whose predicament was so eloquently captured in Shirley Tucker’s cover design, would see a female designer distributing condoms with her logo on them as some form of progress. But it seems just as likely that she would see the bell jar, “with its stifling distortions,” descending once again.




Christopher King is the former Art Director of Melville House.