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The art of book covers

The art of book covers — Designer Chipp Kidd finds inspiration at home in Shillington, Pa.

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In New York, where Mondrians hang in museums and Lichtensteins adorn the lobbies of office buildings, where design and fashion determine everything from bus shelters to cocktail napkins, an artist would seem to have endless sources of inspiration. But when designer Chip Kidd is looking for ideas, he goes home to Shillington, Pa., (pop. 5,600) and visits the flea market.

Kidd is 27 years old, and the only job he has had since graduating from Penn State in 1986 is designing book covers for Knopf, the Random House imprint. Ever since his early, striking work on books such as Gabriel García Márquz’s 1988 Love in the Time of Cholera (with Carol Carson) and Katherine Dunn’s 1989 Geek Love, Kidd has found himself much in demand.

He gets requests to design jackets for other publishers, to speak at the Art Directors Club of Los Angeles, to become the youngest chairman of the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ book show. Still, Kidd goes home every month to prowl through nearby Renninger’s, a place he calls ”the world’s largest indoor flea market.” That’s where he found the Cuban cigar vendor whose wares inspired the crisp, seductive cover of Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban. That’s also where he found the quirky portrait of two brothers that he used on the faux Holstein jacket of William Tester’s Darling. ”It’s a museum where everything is for sale. It’s a record of what was done before, and it provides a clearer vision of what to do now,” says Kidd.

His strategy seems fitting for a designer who shared his hometown with a writer known for creating art from the unexpected: John Updike. ”My dad had his dad for math class,” Kidd says. And now Kidd is designing (with Carson) the jacket of Updike’s next novel, Memories of the Ford Administration.