Captain Kidd

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.

Kidd not only is obsessed with comic books but also edits them for Pantheon – which means, basically, that he has three careers going at a time when many people his age don’t even have one. Not only was he the editor of Daniel Clowes’s David Boring, but he also leapt to his defense after DC Comics killed one of Clowes’s strips: “The people in the comics division – they’re living in a fantasy land. They think Superman is real,” he says.

Nonetheless, Kidd takes comics rather seriously himself – he certainly knows all the minutiae: “One year, Montgomery Ward had an exclusive offer where you could mail in and get Bruce Wayne’s clothing for your Batman doll,” he says, gesturing to a doll dressed in a business suit. Asked why superheroes have a tendency to wear Speedos, he replies, “It’s really none of my business how they live their lives. I love all this stuff, but I get absolutely no sexual … I have sex with a partner.”

The partner in question is J. D. McClatchy, the celebrated poet who has been the editor of The Yale Review since 1991. The two are as similar as cheese and chalk – Kidd is 36, McClatchy 56; Kidd is obsessed with comic books, McClatchy with Walt Whitman. The two just got back from a weeklong trip to Seattle, which they visited specifically to see all eighteen hours of Wagner’s Ring cycle. “It’s like the Woodstock of operas!” Kidd says. McClatchy would no doubt grimace at the comparison.

“It was sublime,” McClatchy says. “And to his own surprise, Chip stayed awake the whole time. Earlier, I’d tried to lure him by explaining the Ring was really just a superheroes story.”

“Sometimes he needs to be reined in a little bit,” Kidd says of McClatchy. “He can be Mr. Academe. It’s really fun to be silly and vulgar around him, because he’s like one of those women in The Three Stooges – the wise society dowager who gets hit in the face with a cream pie.”

“Wise dowagers develop a taste for cream pie,” McClatchy says in his defense. “I have.”

There is, of course, a mentor-student aspect to their relationship, and there are certainly echoes of that same dynamic in the central relationship of Kidd’s novel. “Smart, classically oriented, no-bullshit” is how Chip describes McClatchy. “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. He writes for the generation behind him.

“I thrive on mentors and people who know more than I do,” he adds. “I thrive on negative reinforcement.”

McClatchy, likewise, has gained a great deal from Chip: “Before I met him, my idea of rock music was Act Two of Die Walküre, and Superman a character in Nietzsche. Nowadays, I live more in the dizzying pinball machine of pop culture, trying to keep a precarious balance.”

The two first met at a publishing party, and when Kidd introduced himself, McClatchy, startled, replied, “But I’ve dreamt about you. You’re supposed to have curly hair and tortoiseshell glasses!” “I’d made such a stink about my jacket,” McClatchy recalls of the book he was then publishing, “that the art department finally washed its hands of me.” When the first copy arrived, the poet immediately “saw how ugly it was. A series of guilty dreams ensued, and the only designer at Knopf whose name I’d heard of was Chip’s. So he was berating me nightly. And then, suddenly, eerily, we met – and never looked back.”

Although McClatchy (or Sandy, as Chip calls him, but you shouldn’t) was very supportive while The Cheese Monkeys was being written, he was also exceedingly blunt. “I asked him,” says Kidd, ” ‘If you didn’t know me, and I submitted this to The Yale Review, would you be interested?’ “

McClatchy’s response? “No – forget it.”

“Sandy’s not vengeful at all,” Kidd says, “but every now and then he’ll say, ‘You have no idea how easy you’ve had it.’ “

McClatchy is obviously proud of Kidd’s work; in fact, to hear him say it, he couldn’t be more so: “Chip’s been persistent in finding, even in the midst of a high-pressure career, the quiet you need to write down a story. From the beginning, I’ve adored Chip’s boundless energy, his innate sense of playfulness, his canny take on the world. All our years together have been marvelous.”

Which leads to the question, will the two give up their separate homes and start a family? “I need my own space, so I can do with it exactly as I want,” Kidd says. “The whole trend of gay couples adopting children, I don’t have that gene. I think that’s one of the advantages of being gay. God leaves you off the hook. Let the breeders do it! I sort of feel like I’m getting away with something.”

Instead of using his design-genius fame to trade up to a bigger and more influential job, Kidd is obviously taking a big risk by jumping into the role of novelist. After all, it’s safe to assume that his meteoric rise has earned him a fair share of resentment.

“The expectations one’s work creates both stamp and stymie one,” McClatchy says. “But Michelangelo wrote poems, and Francis Ford Coppola makes wine.” And while those of us who aren’t dating Kidd might hesitate to compare him to either artist, what McClatchy says rings true on some level: “It’s natural that what you are trying to design eventually has designs on you. And when you think about it, isn’t ‘writing’ a way to design language?”

Of course, the fact that Kidd is dating one of the nation’s most celebrated living poets is further grist for the mill of his detractors. But regardless of how his novel is ultimately received, Kidd, to his credit, seemingly has no intention of doing anything but moving up. “Graphic design is divided into form and content,” he says, “and it’s only natural for me at some point to move from form to content. I have ideas for other books, and then what’s next? Sound and movement.”

And yes, he recently completed designing the opening credits for G, a retelling of The Great Gatsby that transports the action to the Hamptons, with rap stars taking the place of flappers.

“Chip’s an imaginative and restless artist,” McClatchy says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if The Cheese Monkeys led not just to other novels but to movie versions of them – directed by and starring you-know-who.”

It’s clear he’s ambitious, but there’s no question that Kidd is extremely brave to attempt this tightrope act. He must be – after all, he’s dared to put the word cheese in the title of his novel. So, given these circumstances, shouldn’t he be a little bit worried about how people – particularly those in publishing – are going to respond to even the idea of his writing a novel, let alone the novel itself?

“Worried doesn’t begin to describe how I feel,” he says, taking a long sip of white wine. “I’m catatonic. You know, even I would eye this with suspicion – the whole Ethan Hawke syndrome, you know.”

Captain Kidd