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Captain Kidd

By day, he's the path-breaking designer of book jackets every ambitious writer wants to work with; by night, he's a comic-book connoisseur and collector of kitsch. Showman and bon vivant -- and now author of a new novel -- Chip Kidd is his own superhero.

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Because he's a design demigod who has elevated the humble book jacket to a serious cultural statement, Chip Kidd gets asked to give a lot of talks.

And when he does these slide-heavy tours of his portfolio, there's an anecdote he likes to use to liven up the disquisition. Having scrolled through the sketches for Donna Tartt's The Secret History -- one of the first books to be wrapped in a transparent cover -- he points out to his audience that his highly original concepts are rarely used for the paperbacks. Then he tells this story: On his way home from a frustrating day at work, he steps into a deli to buy a six-pack of beer; suddenly, a burly man with a gun enters the store and demands that everyone get down on the floor. At first, Kidd thinks the day couldn't get any worse, until he turns around and notices a rack of mass-market paperbacks -- upon which lurks a copy of The Secret History, complete with gold-foil type and a trashy red rose. The spectacle disgusts him so much that he yelps, drawing the thug's gun toward him.

"What did you say?" the gunman barks.

Chip shakes his head defeatedly and says: "Whenever you're ready . . . "

His audience, needless to say, is riveted by the tale, whether or not any of them suspects that none of it's true. "That's probably my first stab at fiction," he says.

In that case, The Cheese Monkeys, his debut novel, which hits bookstores late this month, would be his second. But unlike his lecture-circuit showstopper, it has more than a shred of autobiography between its covers. It's a coming-of-age story about a young college student's discovery of his calling -- graphic design, naturally. Under the tutelage of an outrageously confrontational but ultimately mentorish professor named Winter Sorbeck (clearly, some names have been changed), who happens to be a dead ringer for Gary Cooper, the young man slowly comes to grasp the power and central cultural importance of graphic design.

"Before I met him," says the poet J. D. McClatchy of his partner, Chip Kidd, "My idea of rock music was Die Walküre, and Superman a character in Nietzsche. Now I live in the pinball machine of pop culture."

The novel seems to leave off just where Kidd's remarkable career begins. "When you're a graphic designer," says Barbara de Wilde, the design director of Martha Stewart Living, who went to college with Kidd, "there are only a few jobs you can have -- like music packaging or advertising. At the time we graduated" -- 1986, from Penn State (which, not surprisingly, provides the backdrop for The Cheese Monkeys) -- "publishing was really exciting, because really beautiful work was being done, and people were starting to notice it."

At just about the same time, Sonny Mehta was installed at the head of Knopf. And under his control, the house developed a "literary approach to book-jacket design, where pictures become poetic phrases," as the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum has described it.

The first book that announced this new style was an odd and disturbing novel by Katherine Dunn called Geek Love. "It was Sonny's first big buy," Kidd says by way of explaining the stir his first big design caused. But the jacket, an electric-orange cover with thin blue lettering, was a deceptively simple way to reveal the book's off-kilter contents. "Geek Love was just a weird little book," remembers art director Carol Devine Carson. "At first, there was a little face on the cover, but Sonny said, 'Take that off.' "

The result of this collaborative effort was Knopf's new mood -- with Kidd's creativity at the forefront. "Chip created an interpretive vocabulary," says Glenn Horowitz, a rare-book dealer, "and brought to the jacket something essential in the tone and pitch of the book."

Still, none of this explains the fact that Kidd's name became known to almost every person with literary ambitions. The key, De Wilde points out, is "the phenomenon of larger bookstore chains creating these beautiful galleries."

"Chip's accomplishment," Horowitz says, "was to inject his own artist's ego into the design." And that ego got plenty of gratification in return. Chip, De Wilde adds without rancor, "has gotten so much publicity, people think he has a publicist." Although the idea of a star book-jacket designer might be hard to wrap one's head around (Kidd himself likens it to being called "a star electrician" or "a star housekeeper"), the label has stuck.

"Given the number of graphic designers in the world," says the very visible designer Milton Glazer, "when one becomes publicly visible, it's a miracle. Why they become visible is a great mystery; sometimes it's because of the unique quality of work; sometimes it's their sense of self-promotion. Chip is a brilliant designer, and he also has a great flair for the appropriate comment."

Asked why he thinks his name has made such an impact, Chip doesn't bother to compare Barnes & Noble to the Museum of Modern Art, nor do words like vellum or acetate ever enter his vernacular. Shrugging, he offers, "I think the fact that my last name is 'Dick' spelled backwards really helps."

It's hardly surprising that Chip Kidd -- who grew up in Redding, Pennsylvania, a suburban satellite of Philadelphia -- would not only be in a marching band but choose to play the loudest instrument, the drums. "I guess I was compensating for the fact that I wasn't the loudest," he says with a giggle. "I was one of those typical skinny kids who always got by by making people laugh." And though he no longer terrorizes people by bashing through "When the Saints Come Marching In," he still finds ways to make a spectacle of himself in order to gain approval and accolades.

"He throws the best cocktail parties I've ever attended," says novelist Jenny McPhee, who once worked with Kidd at Knopf, where he's been employed since graduating from college fifteen years ago. "He's extraordinarily funny," she says. Which is true, and it's also a pleasant surprise. With his glasses, blue jeans, and penchant for Izod shirts, one would never suspect Kidd to be the type to adopt a lampshade as headgear. But the second you hear his laugh -- an infectious hybrid of a childish giggle and a wicked cackle -- you realize looks can be deceiving.

It's quite true that Chip's the kind of person you'd want to invite to your party, and his Upper East Side apartment is probably the place you'd want to throw it. The overall effect is of an antique shop colliding with a toy store at 180 mph: While his bathroom has been completely retooled using vintage fixtures ("I like clean lines, simple forms -- this glass towel bar almost becomes a Dada object!"), his living room is upstaged by an enormous display case prominently featuring a collection of comic-book memorabilia -- of which an array of Batman and Robin wind-up toys is his pride and joy. "There was a spate of Batman stuff in 1966 that was all Japanese," he says, "so there's a sort of charm to them." His wistful tone suggests he might start tearing up at any moment -- then, he takes a sip from his wineglass.


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