Through design, images and words – six decades of art directing The Paris Review

It’s one of the most celebrated literary journals in the world, but The Paris Review has also championed the work of many artists and illustrators during its 63 years in print. And in continuing to reference early grids, typography and its classic mid-century aesthetic, the magazine’s designers have often looked to its past to determine its future evolution.

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This article first appeared on AIGA’s Eye on Design blog and is republished with permission.

It’s very rare that an acclaimed literary magazine goes through as many style revolutions as The Paris Review has. The masthead has shape-shifted from serif to sans and back again; its size has gone from pamphlet, to book, to magazine, to somewhere in-between. And alongside timeless contributions from writers like Joan Didion, William Faulkner, and Truman Capote, design and artwork from the likes of Keith Haring, David Hockney, Leanne Sharpton, and Chip Kidd have been just as crucial to establishing the magazine’s revered place in the canon. Great content matched by great style makes a great magazine.

In recent years, the look of The Paris Review has received a lot of attention. In a strange yet telling homage, the Aesop shop in New York’s Chelsea neighbourhood created a canopy assembled from issues of the magazine, a sign of The Paris Review’s status as design icon. There’s a striking sense that the journal is more than just words it prints, but the images it uses to help tell its stories.

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When George Plimpton founded The Paris Review in 1953, he made sure the covers were sturdy and memorable: attractive yet tough shields to protect the stories and interviews within. He wanted them to stand out from the grey, text-heavy covers of the other, more austere literary magazines around at the time.

Plimpton brought in children’s illustration and print maker William Pene du Bois as the magazine’s first art editor – a crucial addition, and an appreciation for how grown-up stories could do with an evocative illustrative lift as much as children’s tales. Years later, in an interview for an extensive dissertation on The Paris Review by Usha Wilber, Plimpton said that du Bois was responsible for the magazine’s most revolutionary characteristic: the employment of illustrators. Equally crucial, du Bois had experience making magazines; he knew how to design something that would last, and recognised that words on their own need an evocative, visual component.

He also granted the artists he worked with a liberating level of freedom. Illustrators drew across the page and the margins, and du Bois convinced living legends such as Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau to contribute small scribbles and self portraits, unrestrained and abstracted forms that suited the writing’s probing sense of Modernism.

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For the very first issue (shown top of post, on left), du Bois designed the cover and masthead: a Roman figure with a sword seated on a Pegasus made quite an opening statement, a visual manifesto in itself. The figure was set inside a four-quadrant grid that would come and go over the next 215 issues, a design that subsequent generations of art directors would first work against and then become inspired by, defying and relishing du Bois’ original in turn. For the first issue, du Bois also came up with a logo: a bird gripping a pen in its claws and donning a French Revolution-era bonnet rouge, symbolising the merging of two nationalities.

This logo first disappeared in 1962 when artist Larry Rivers replaced it with a loose, hand-drawn cover for issue 27 (shown, below). The ’60s inevitably marked a significant change in the magazine’s design. Under the guidance of new editor Maxine Groffsky, the covers drifted further and further away from the restrictive grid and classic logo and into the realm of the fantastic, with a psychedelic colour palette and abstract graphics.

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Groffsky was a good friend of Niki de Saint Phalle’s (who contributed a portfolio to the the magazine), and in the covers from the late ’60s you can see a hint of de Saint Phalle’s free-wheeling sense of colour. Groffsky tells me over the phone from her apartment in New York that The Paris Review didn’t have an official art director when she was editing it, but she found the old look so stuffy and uninspiring that she decided to tackle the visual side of things herself. She wanted the impact of colour to capture the turbulent and revolutionary energy that she felt in Paris at the time.

Issue 33 marked Groffsky’s first bout of intense colour with a 1965 cover featuring a hot pink nude drawn by Alain Jacquet (shown, below). Plimpton called one of these late-60s covers “eye-scratching”. But for Groffsky it was important that many of the covers and portfolios were made by European artists and print makers in order to connect the American writing with their immediate Paris surroundings, in effect harnessing the potent symbolism of du Bois’ logo without directly using it.

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Today, as Groffsky sits surrounded by her old issues, she explains to me how she eventually escaped du Bois’ grid entirely, mixing typefaces in the same way she mixed clashing colours, and allowing writers free reign when it came to the layout of their words on the page. She remembers a text by John Cage that required multiple typefaces – a nightmare to set and print, but an equally playful and serious combination of meaning and appearance The Paris Review had more or less been created to undertake. The look and spirit of the times was changing quickly, and The Paris Review needed to respond, to protect the writing and its own continuing contemporary presence.

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Between 1974-1990 the The Paris Review’s art editor was Richard Marshall, a curator at the Whitney who worked closely with pioneering artists including Georgia O’Keefe, Louise Bourgeois, and Basquiat. Marshall chose a striking sans serif for the masthead to highlight his new, stripped-back approach, and selected paintings and sketches for each cover as if filling a blank canvas. In the ’90s Chip Kidd redesigned the magazine, minimising text, separating the masthead, and featuring even larger art – the move into more graphic arts made the covers seem less like canvases and more like album art, reflecting tone and mood through shape.

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The Paris Review’s more current visual history has looked back on itself as well as forward, giving a smart, unsentimental nod to its own tradition. In 2005, editor Philip Gourevitch brought in Alissa Levin and Benjamin Levine of Point Five to redesign the magazine. In a page-less, post-internet world, he pushed for a more traditional magazine with glossy photo spreads and photography on covers set within a self-imposed grid that lightly referenced du Bois’ original.

“Our inspiration was the original designs from the ‘50s and early ‘60s,” says Levin, whose new look brought back the original bird logo, but in a tighter, neater framework. “Philip’s vision as editor was to introduce more non-fiction and photojournalism into the publication,” she continues. “Our vision was therefore larger in size than the original format. We wanted wider margins to create more breadth for the reading experience.” Their relaunch issue, number 174, featured a photograph of Salman Rushdie as a toddler on the cover. “It captures a moment of innocence, yet alludes to the intensity of his life to come,” says Levin.

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Under Point Five’s direction, issue 182 of The Paris Review (shown above, on right) became the first to be shortlisted for a Society of Publication Designers (SPD) prize alongside Wired and The New York Times Magazine. The cover featured an image of drug lord Pablo Escobar’s confiscated gun hidden inside a book. The new look and visual attitude meant it was treated as if it were a major newsstand title, not a maverick literary publication.

Just five years later in 2010 The Paris Review got another redesign, this time by Charlotte Strick and her Strick&Williams co-partner Claire Williams Martinez. The pair initially explored many different approaches and styles, including some highly originally formats, but current editor Lorin Stein felt strongly that the look of the magazine should echo and honour the early issues that helped establish the magazine’s essential DNA.

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“Mining The Paris Review’s rich archives revealed that the primary role of design in those mid-century issues was to support the publication’s beautifully curated literature and artwork,” says art editor Strick. She was determined to make the current publication work in the same way, while simultaneously reminding the reader of The Paris Review’s continual evolution.

Strick was particularly taken by the cover of issue 20, a drawing of three cabaret girls by Tom Keogh. “I love the expression on the women’s faces and their casual stance.” This looser, hand-drawn, illustrated style – as opposed to the graphic or photographic – has become a staple of the current covers. Graphic novelist Chris Ware has contributed, as well as more craft-based artists, like the paper-cut artist Dan Funderburgh (both covers shown, below).

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How Strick comes across contemporary artists and image-makers today is very different from the way Groffsky and du Bois scoured the streets and galleries of Paris for contributors. “I happened upon the painting by Nyssa Sharp that graces our Fall ’15 cover while trolling Tumblr,” Strick says (cover shown, below). “I wasn’t searching for a cover artist at the time, but Girl with the Yellow Skirt just knocked me over; she’s a terrific cover girl. The internet is full of fortuitous chance meetings like this.”

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Working within the restraint of du Bois’ original grid design – but with permission to manipulate it – Strick has been playing with the original format since 2010. “Inviting cover artists like Raymond Pettibon, Leanne Shapton, and Aidan Koch to pen their own mastheads and contributors’ panels has resulted in loose interpretations of our four-quadrant cover grid,” she says. The recent Winter 2015 issue 215 (shown top of post, on right) uses the worn surfaces of three sketchbooks once belonging to the renowned artist Richard Diebenkorn to assume the positions of the familiar cover panels.

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Through design, images, and, of course, words, The Paris Review has become a magazine well aware of its own place in history as it maintains its own distinct identity by changing shape and style without sacrificing continuity – becoming more relevant and ingrained in our culture with each subsequent issue.

This article first appeared on AIGA’s Eye on Design blog and is republished with permission. Madeleine Morley is an art and design writer based in Berlin and London, madeleine-morley.tumblr.com. Special thanks to Charlotte Strick, Maxine Groffsky, and Usha Wilber. See theparisreview.org