Some thoughts on Philip Grushkin: A Designer’s Archive

Sophia Angelis has just written a very favorable review of Philip Grushkin: A Designer’s Archive for The Designer’s Review of Books. As nice as it is to receive kind comments, it is even nicer to see a review that does more than simply give a thumb up or a thumb down on a book. Although, I do not agree with all of her opinions, I am glad to see someone voice their likes and dislikes without rancor or gushiness.

To my surprise Angelis likes Grushkin’s jacket for Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex but is critical of those for The Wayward Angel and Helix. I find the former to be boring and the latter two to be much more fascinating. The airbrushed woman in The Wayward Angel is evidence that Grushkin began his career working in the  Salterian jacket tradition that was prevailed in the 1940s. Similarly, the tiny steamer (not steamboat) that seems to disfigure Helix in Angelis’ eyes, is the sort of small vignette or drawn element that was typical of another Salterian approach. Without either of these illustrations—which Angelis oddly calls “embellishments”—these jackets would look very “modern” and clearly be more appealing to those attuned to the work of Alvin Lustig and Paul Rand. But the “embellishments” are a key part of the designs, illustrative elements that pertain to the stories each book tells.

Helix is about a marine engineer and ships—especially a C-1 freighter—are at its heart. J.R.H. Crouse, the reviewer for The Saturday Review, described the book as “a simple but compelling one about a ship’s last voyage.”  Two of the rejected designs for the cover also had ships as tiny elements, but a third had none, relying solely on swirling lines—Crouse said the  “story goes in a true spiral, like a rope.”—to capture the book’s content. My assumption is that Grushkin preferred the subtlety of the latter, but that the publisher insisted on the presence of the ship as a signal to the book buyer of its contents.

One of the rejected designs for Helix by Philip Grushkin (1947).

One of the rejected designs for Helix by Philip Grushkin (1947) with an illustration of a ship.

Rejected design for Helix by Philip Grushkin (1947) without any ship illustrations.

The only rejected design for Helix by Philip Grushkin (1947) without any illustration of a ship.

“Semi-pro private ’tec and professional rival mix matters murderously, with several uninhibited dames adding pungency to eventful if confused proceedings.” This is the “summing up” of The Wayward Angel in The Saturday Review. Lee Server, author of the Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction (2009) provides a more coherent description, calling Verne Chute’s book “a more conventional hard-boiled tale, a breezy mystery chase with a tough, two-fisteed hero and a dangerous dame.” (p. 64) The dangerous dame is a missing heiress—thus the woman on the jacket. Again, it is likely that the publisher pushed for her inclusion as two of the rejected designs do not have any such illustration.

I am explaining the illustrative elements of both Helix and The Wayward Angel not to argue with Angelis—matters of taste are subjective—but to remind readers that graphic design is a commercial activity, with aesthetic decisions always at the mercy of marketing, financial and other considerations. This is one of the principal aspects of Philip Grushkin: A Designer’s Archive. The book—a monograph written to accompany an archive—is notable for the insight it gives into the creation of book jackets in the 1940s and 1950s. These insights are only possible because the Grushkin archive, now part of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University, is rich in mechanicals, roughs and comps alongside printed jackets. It is the sort of material we need more of if we are to get a truer sense of the history of graphic design.