Roy Kuhlman and the Grove Press Covers

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , print design , Voice

Grove Press published some of the most important literature of the twentieth century and Roy Kuhlman designed the book covers. This body of work, over 700 covers, proves Roy Kuhlman to be a seminal figure in the history of graphic design. Along with Rudy de Harak, Alvin Lustig, and Paul Rand, Kuhlman pioneered the modern book jacket.

While Kuhlman generally did not read the books, he did attempt to convey the message of the title. That approach coupled with his abstract style seems to make the covers appear to be arbitrarily executed. But, in fact, his work is the result of exacting visual decisions. He worked in a pure, visual language, moving elements around on a page until they “felt right.” This created a loose connection between the literature and the covers but it was subliminal—the covers did not literally express the content but announced that both were “avant-garde.”

Grove Press, under publisher Barney Rosset, was the first to publish authors such as Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Genet, and Eugene Ionesco in post-war America. In 1951, Kuhlman went to Grove looking for freelance work after years of attempting to become a successful abstract expressionist painter. Both Kuhlman and Rosset tell this story—it seems that Kuhlman failed to show anything that interested Rosset, but when he was packing up to leave, some of his abstract work (for a later interview to do jazz albums) fell out of the portfolio. Rosset saw it and said, “This is what I want.”

Almost from the start, Kuhlman’s covers gave Grove Press a unique identity. Rosset had few rules for covers other than that the title and author’s name be horizontal. Rosset was cognizant of the visual aesthetic for European paperbacks and sought an equally avant-garde but different look for his North American market. Rosset’s insight and Kuhlman’s talent created the Grove Press look.

While the two were never close friends, theirs was a symbiotic relationship. Rosset bought the rights to new and interesting writers’ works, and Kuhlman created the designs that got the attention of an emerging educated middle class. He helped Grove Press become a publishing company with intellectual cachet.

Stylistically, three dominant graphic themes emerge in Kuhlman’s work: abstract, photographic, and typographic. Although these styles are often combined, each cover does follow a major focus.

Kuhlman worked in the Expressionist manner of the 1950s and 60s and this style is the largest and most representative of his Grove Press covers. His non-representational approach gives a wordless nod to the content without literally illustrating it. Kuhlman’s background as a painter is evident in the sureness and confidence of his lines and forms. He used ink with a brush or pen to sketch forms and shapes, developing the image as he worked. He would sometimes create shapes with the rubylith that would ultimately be used for the final mechanical. Using this technique, the comp became the mechanical.

Fig. 1 Genet, The Balcony
The overall design shows the attention given to the balance of individual shapes to the whole. Kuhlman may have started the design as an extreme close-up of a balcony and abstracted it. But it is the color choices that give feeling of the open space of a balcony. The accent of red for the smallest type is a nice touch.

Fig. 2 Hentoff and McCarthy, Jazz
Roy created this cover with his hole-punch and made overlays for each color. The balance of positive and negative space was one of Kuhlman’s greatest strengths. He expresses a visualization of the foundation of jazz and shows it top notes of playfulness with color.

Fig. 3 Lee, The Snake Lady and other Stories
Picasso was a favorite painter of Kuhlman’s. While he believed that he himself could not draw, this inked illustration shows that Kuhlman was a very expressive artist.

Fig. 4 Margarshack, Chekhov: A Life
One of my favorites, this is a beautiful cover of seemingly simple shapes, delicately placed. Without the type, it would still work as an expressionistic piece of art.

Fig. 5 Tutuoa, The Brave Huntress
I love this cover: the shapes are musical and alive, and the colors are broad and brave. Kuhlman hid the logo in the shape. The typeface, less bold than usual, has the same negative feeling as the image.

Fig. 6 Waley, The Pillow-Book of Sei Shonagon
Another favorite, this cover has two sets of shapes conveying the work of two people: the author and the new creation from the translating author. The large black shape separates the gulf between languages.

The photographic covers are the most experimental. They highlight Kuhlman’s exceptional skill and manipulation of that medium. Kuhlman did most of his own photography (at one time he wanted to work exclusively as a photographer). Aside from his camera work, he used the stat camera most creatively making film positives, negatives, and overlays that became enlarged abstract compositions. Always a solitary artist, Kuhlman sometimes posed for his covers, too.

Fig. 7 Ernst, Kabuki Theatre
This cover shows Kuhlman’s virtuosity as a designer using an ordinary photograph. The design of the background consists of bold diagonal stripes complemented by two bold yellow stripes. Both the background and the image are broken into a halftone texture that is further recessed by the placement of the bottom yellow stripe.

Fig. 8 Duncan, The Opening of the Field
In this photo-collage, the abstraction of the field is two-dimensional and the image of the children is not. But the image becomes unified with the whole by removing its background and with it any horizon line. Kuhlman controls the visual hierarchy by the placement of the figures, which forces the viewer toward the center space of the abstraction.

Fig. 9 Brinnin, The Third Rose
Kuhlman often experimented in his darkroom with techniques like photograms. Here he uses the shape of the photo as a starting place, ignoring the obvious solution.

Kuhlman’s typographic covers emphasize shape over classic type styling. He saw type as an element on a page—a shape to be finessed, manipulated and arranged. Kuhlman usually kept the image and main text (title and author) separate but was more playful with the Grove Press logo. Always budget-conscious, he would attach bits of type to other work that was being enlarged or reduced, then cut up the letterforms to use in future covers. Kuhlman’s type covers are minimal and powerful, and illustrate his ability to maintain a consistent style even when a traditional image was not the dominant theme.

Fig. 10 Beckett, Krapps Last Tape
This one shows his understanding of type as a design element. Kuhlman used random pieces of type that were left over from other jobs were to create this cover.

Fig. 11 Breton, Nadja
Hand-lettered by Kuhlman, the negative space of the letterforms is filled in with color. The placement subhead shows how Kuhlman took liberties with minor type elements.

Fig. 12 Mrozek, Six Plays
This is a good example of what has been lost no longer using stats. The imperfection of the original letterform gives the ‘6’ more personality than a perfectly enlarged post-scripted letterform.

Kuhlman never looked to Grove Press for full-time work, and, during the twenty years he designed covers for them, he always had other clients. His corporate clients included Columbia Records, Electra Films, Hertz, IBM, and U.S. Plywood. Kuhlman’s work designing “Mathematics Serving Man,” a series for IBM, won the AIGA Best Ads of the Year Award in 1958 and he was inducted into the Art Directors’ Hall of Fame in 1995 on the strength of that.

As for Grove Press, he said it was the best client he ever had.