A Defining Look of the Nineteen-Eighties
January 24, 2023 4:55 AM   Subscribe

From the 1984 début of those first seven books, the Vintage Contemporaries design attracted immediate attention. It felt perfectly of the moment, a snapshot of the mid-eighties. If you’re a book collector of a certain age you can close your eyes and see it now. from The Artist Whose Book Covers Distilled the Nineteen-Eighties by Dan Kois [The New Yorker; ungated] posted by chavenet (25 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
I loved this style of art. I still do! What these covers remind me of, though, is assigned reading. I had several books with these covers, but I got them because a teacher or professor said to; these copies tended to be the good-quality used ones. This probably says something uncomplimentary about me. In fact, when I saw a headline about book covers that "distilled the nineteen-eighties," I immediately thought about the Brothers Hildebrandt or Larry Elmore -- you know, this kind of thing.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:26 AM on January 24 [4 favorites]


Huh, I was just talking to another book collector about these. They certainly distilled the eighties, for better and worse.
posted by goatdog at 5:53 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]


When I think distilled 1980s, I see this.
posted by cardboard at 6:13 AM on January 24 [7 favorites]


oh no, the cover of his book!
posted by lokta at 6:14 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]


I still have a bunch of those (Norwood, Great Jones St, Brightlights Big City, Platitudes, Cathedral, etc), either bought at used bookshops in the early 90s or looted from my parents' library when they divorced and moved in 1990. I always liked those covers. Like much of what was unambiguoulsy 80s in style, those covers always felt cool and sophisticated to me, probably because I was not-quite 14 at the tail end of the 80s, and a lot of the era's less Alex P Keaton-y- aesthetic felt still aspirational to me ( I have a soft spot for checkerboard prints and bubble skirts to this day, for example).

Looking forward to the discussion of 90s-era Vintage International Covers, which went hard in the other direction. Everything was sepia washed and "historical" for a minute. Very brown. Slightly depressing. But went with the whole brown beanie "I spilled diner coffee on this cover while jotting notes in my dog-eared paperback literary novel in the most public way possible" vibe that was 1994. (Note: that was 100% me in 1994)
posted by thivaia at 6:45 AM on January 24 [7 favorites]


I was obsessed with these books in my youth and would buy them knowing nothing about the authors, which ended up introducing me to a wider array of fiction, and at an earlier age, than I would have otherwise.
posted by gwint at 7:11 AM on January 24 [4 favorites]


Wow, instant flashback.
I have that edition of Cathedral. Bought for a first-year English class at the University of Western Ontario in 1988. I later switched to a double major but hated Western so I left in 3rd year for film school and never got my BA.
Still have the Raymond Carver though, it’s in the basement somewhere.
posted by chococat at 7:19 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]


Cocaine decor/eighties deco/Miami is certainly making it from artsy bohemia into the mainstream.

I have a couple of these kicking around that I got used. They are great covers! If I ever win the lottery and do a vanity PhD, it's going to be about the rise and persistence of surrealism in Anglosphere design. (Peak mainstream surrealism was IMO the 30s/40s, SFnal surrealism in the sixties and seventies and This Type of Thing in the 80s/early 90s)

But this whole discourse reminds me of a (paraphrased) quote about fashion -if it's contemporary it's fashion, if it's ten years old it's honestly repulsive, if it's twenty years old it's honestly charming, if it's thirty years old (or, really, older) it's brilliant design that was only overlooked because Past People didn't have finer feelings.

In short, in another ten years we'll be rediscovering 1994 Brown.
posted by Frowner at 7:21 AM on January 24 [10 favorites]


Oh wow, this is peak 80s indeed. I think I have a Barry Gifford trade paperback in this style or similar still kicking around my house.
posted by Kitteh at 7:33 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]


When I think '80s book design I think of those embossed, die cut covers from Sidney Sheldon or V. C. Andrews paperbacks. Sadly, no one has collected them into a nice shareable website.
posted by fiercekitten at 7:35 AM on January 24 [12 favorites]


Oh wow, this is peak 80s indeed. I think I have a Barry Gifford trade paperback in this style or similar still kicking around my house.

I 100% have this version of Airships!
posted by thivaia at 7:40 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]


I read a lot of books in the '80s and '90s, and I don't remember these covers at all. This feels like a Berenstein Bears situation.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:04 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]


I immediately thought about the Brothers Hildebrandt or Larry Elmore -- you know, this kind of thing.

That's exactly where my mind went as well. The style depicted in the article though? I don't have any conscious memory of it at all! I pretty much never read anything outside of SF&F.
posted by notoriety public at 8:19 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]


When I opened this FPP my immediate thought was of Bright Lights, Big City. I also thought of Don DeLillo's White Noise but apparently it did not have a cover done by Lorraine Louie so I must have been remembering one of his other books.

I was obsessed with these books in my youth and would buy them knowing nothing about the authors, which ended up introducing me to a wider array of fiction, and at an earlier age, than I would have otherwise.

Yes, not only did I buy some of these books, I bought them simply because their covers were gorgeous. Paying for a book now, especially in hardcover or paperback, is a more studied decision. And certain current book cover trends (e.g., people shown walking away or standing alone in the distance) can put me off reading a given work.
posted by fuse theorem at 8:24 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]


i absolutely gravitate towards these editions when i see one in a used book store. i’ll buy it just because it’s one of these styles, without knowing anything about the author. usually is not a bad decision. beautiful books. it seems in general book design is in a low point these days, mirroring the general decline of publishing i guess.
posted by dis_integration at 8:27 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]


Needs more Patrick Nagel.
posted by SPrintF at 8:37 AM on January 24 [6 favorites]


When I think '80s book design I think of those embossed, die cut covers from Sidney Sheldon or V. C. Andrews paperbacks.

Exactly why these were so refreshing. I have Days Between Stations and Barry Hannah's Airships ("America the beautiful, like you will never know.")
posted by Rash at 9:04 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]


I bought that Max Headroom book at a book-signing event, thinking Frewer or at least one of the co-authors was going to sign it. But no, they were just using a little dot-matrix printer, and it was busted, so I got no signature at all. Max, you owe me restitution!
posted by credulous at 9:12 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]


Seeing these makes me glad I have all my Virago Modern Classics paperbacks.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:28 AM on January 24 [5 favorites]


These books helped me through a lot of loneliness during college, and I discovered some absolutely mind blowing authors as a result. I can't say enough about how much they meant to me, to the point that I could practically walk into a bookstore and grab anything from this genre/motif and be assured of something rewarding. It's how I discovered Frederick Exley (A Fan's Notes), Thomas McGuane, Cormac McCarthy, Richard Russo. Thank-you for this link.
posted by docpops at 9:28 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]


The sleeve art for my single Linden Street was uhhhh inspired by Vintage Contemporaries. I imagined the song was going to sound more like the dBs in its finished form, and I figured there was a strong overlap between jangle pop fans and people who read these paperback editions. After reading Dan Kois’s story, I regretted not putting a 🦃 somewhere in the photo, both for the thematic quality and because, well, Harvard Square.
posted by pxe2000 at 10:32 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]


ideefixe, that is almost what I was thinking, except that I’ve lost almost all of them moving!

I did just find the list of their catalog, though.
posted by clew at 11:48 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]


I'm seeing a lot of the Memphis Group in these covers: bright colors, clean lines, playing with geometric shapes. Memphis Group stuff is the look of the eighties for me, even when it's just framing more naturalistic elements.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:36 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]


Dancing Bear by James Crumley, the hardboilest of the hardboiled, is the cover I remember. Man, but does it capture the contents within.
posted by y2karl at 2:33 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]


I remember these covers well, both from buying some for myself and also buying/selling them at the Ann Arbor used bookshop where I worked.

But one passage from the article gutted me:
She died in 1999, at the age of forty-four.
posted by doctornemo at 2:53 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]


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