This interview was guest authored by Samantha Hahn. Photos are by Christine Han.
In 2014, longtime friends and collaborators Charlotte Strick and Claire Williams Martinez formed the Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary design firm, Strick&Williams. The partners bring to the studio seventeen years of experience working for publishers and design agencies, respectively. Strick&Williams collaborates with cultural institutions and clients in the arts, publishing, education, and non-profits. Their clients include Abrams Books, Catapult, Columbia Global Reports (Columbia University), The Criterion Collection, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, French Institute Alliance Française, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Human Rights Watch, MoMA, National Sawdust, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Penguin Random House, Scribner, and W.W. Norton.
I first met Charlotte in 2013 when she commissioned me to illustrate Rachel Cusk’s novel, Outline, published in serial for The Paris Review magazine, where Strick is the Art Editor. Charlotte was one of the best art directors I have ever worked with, so it’s easy to see how she is able to elicit incredible work from other artists and design such show stopping book covers.
I had the privilege of conducting a joint interview with both Charlotte and Claire about their collaborative process, the anatomy of a book cover, and their inspiration as readers and designers.
Samantha Hahn: Hi ladies, first off I have to say that you do a variety of design projects, but that we’re focusing in on your incredible book cover designs. What drew you to want to create book covers? And can you judge a book by it’s cover?
CS: I’ve long been hooked on beautiful typography. My father, a book publisher, who also owned an art material trade business, championed the art of calligraphy through both his businesses. He was forever pointing out “beautiful letterforms”—and also “terrible” ones. In a class at Parsons School of Design, I tackled the repackaging of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Archie Ferguson, then an in-house designer at Knopf, was invited to our final critique. He declared my design to be the only one that “looked like a real book cover,” and I knew then that I had to find a way to make more of these mini posters! Nearly two decades and hundreds of jackets and covers later, I still find joy in figuring out the visual puzzle for each new title.
And judging a book by its cover? Well, this can be quite risky, but sure it keeps us in business.
CW: As a kid my parents taught me that making the world a better place is a collective social responsibility. When I began my career in graphic design, making books was a good way to marry the skills I had learned in school with the values my family embraced. I also wanted to practice distilling an idea down to a single image, and the book cover seemed like the perfect form in which to do that. As for whether or not you can you judge a book by its cover… I don’t believe that you can in all cases, so I don’t do it!
SH: Let’s go back to the beginning, childhood. What are some early books that inspired you both visually and in terms of the stories themselves? Any favorite titles, authors, and characters to share with us?
CS: An early much-beloved picture book would be The Chewy Toffee Man Story by Alasdair Anderson. Published in 1976, this book of oddball characters is full of wit, ingenuity, and wild toffee flavors! Later on I devoured the Anne of Green Gables books and still dream of traveling to Prince Edward Island some day. Anne (with an “e”) Shirley had admirable pluck.
CW: My favorite childhood books were Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne, and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. I loved Winnie the Pooh for its immersive color images, its archetypal characters, and for the endearing playfulness of language. The book helped me to understand how people can be deeply flawed and wonderfully talented at the same time. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was my first literary foray into sci-fi. The magical world created by Lewis was so charming that I was disarmed enough to digest the idea that evil is inevitable in life.
SH: I have read a bunch of interviews with you but would love to know your design process, the anatomy of a cover if you will. The publisher comes to you with a book title and then what? Is it always collaborative between you two or do you each have a delineated role?
CW: It completely depends on the project. We always read the books and develop a plan for the design, together. Sometimes we collaborate on a design, passing files back and forth. Sometimes we have an idea for a photo or an illustration that we pitch to the editor, and then one of us usually takes the reins and art directs the artist.
SH: As an illustrator I always admire the varied and unique lettering and art styles you commission. How do you go about choosing artists to work with? Do you give them a sketch or concept to work from, or let them go free and then comment on their ideas?
CS: I keep a vast archive of work I admire and when the right project comes along I can usually access the artist quite quickly though sometimes it all comes down to timing.
SH: This may sound like a trite question but I’m really curious to know…If you could pick any book in history to create a cover for what would it be and why?
CS: There’s a chance, dare I even say it out loud, that we may get the opportunity to design a special edition of The Wizard of Oz using the original illustrations by W. W. Denslow; this is a dream project of mine. Stay tuned.
CW: The Bible, for its endless wonderful stories and for the challenge of reinventing something so familiar.
SH: What are your reading habits? Where do you like to read? What do you like to read? When do you like to read?
CS: Any chance I have a spare moment! The news these days is coming at us fast and furious. It’s rare that I get to read for pleasure, but I am slowly making my way through Brad Gooch’s biography of Flannery O’Connor, which is a wonderful read, especially having just visited O’Connor’s home, Andalusia Farm in Miledgeville, GA.
CW: News in the morning and fiction at bedtime.
SH: You both have kiddos. What kinds of stories do you enjoy reading with them?
CS: One of the greatest indulgences of being a parent is sharing favorite childhood books with my twin boys, and falling in love with these stories and characters all over again. I’ve been filling their bookshelves with secondhand books— Frog & Toad, The Chewy Toffee Man Story, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Together we’ve recently discovered NY Review of Books’ rereleases of Esther Averill’s charming Jenny and The Cat Club series, which we can’t get enough of, and we’re nuts for Du Iz Talk? by Carson Ellis. It’s brilliant and just gorgeous to look at. Bravo to Ellis for winning a Caldecott Honor this year.
CW: Leah likes to read stories that engage the shadow side of the world. Choices range from Scooby Doo with the “Gang” handily defeating bumbling villains, to the race to save humanity in the Time Quintet.
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