Islanders
Gilda Hannah's Groundbreaking Career

by Jennifer Dunning

Gilda Hannah came to her award-winning career in book design almost by accident. The long-time Roosevelt Islander had graduated from Vassar College with a degree in mathematics. But a boyfriend had talked her into that major, and she knew she was no mathematician. Her heart was with the fine-arts training that she had received at New York’s High School of Music and Art.

However, employment was generally limited to secretarial work for young women in the late 1950’s, when Hannah graduated. And so a succession of low-level jobs followed, until one day she had a revelation about the bosses to whom she was reporting.

“A guy came in and said, 'I’m a book designer',” Hannah recalls. “The minute he said that, I thought bingo!” A friend suggested she take a secretarial job with “a terrible boss” at a major publishing house. No one lasted more than a year, but in that year Hannah could – and did – learn the rudiments of book design as others had before her. She landed a design job at the flourishing New Directions house. And there, in the early 1960’s, she became a noted designer of innovative book jackets, celebrated in the winter issue of Aperture, the quarterly journal of photography.

A resident of the Island since 1976, Hannah looked back on her ground-breaking career in a recent conversation in her light- and plant-filled apartment in Rivercross, a home filled with functional work equipment and the vivid portraits she has painted over the years. Anecdotes tumbled out about the yeasty artistic era in which her career blossomed, and the celebrated writers with whom she came into contact. Book jackets covered the dining room table, each with its own story, all with a distinctive clarity and style that helped to brand New Directions as a major publisher of experimental writing and that helped, over the years, to sell books at a number of other houses.

New Directions, founded by the visionary James Laughlin in 1936, had a stable of noted authors who included Henry Miller, Ezra Pound, Yukio Mishima, and Djuna Barnes. Hannah’s first assignment there was to design a jacket for a reprint of "Nightwood," a prominent early lesbian novel by Barnes. The modernist short-story writer and poet, long the center of the thriving Greenwich Village artistic community, was a formidable character. Hannah, then Gilda Rosenblum, was essentially a sacrificial lamb, sent in after other, much more experienced designers had failed to satisfy the writer.

“She was rejecting every cover,” Hannah recalled. “I had done only book interiors, and only for less than a year. She was such a star for them, and they were anxious to find someone to please her, so they put the two of us together. She was very tall. Imperious. Regal. She was in her 70’s and walked with a cane. She wore a big black cape with a high wing collar, like Superman.” Barnes was very happy with the now iconic cover, and even flirted a bit with the young Miss Rosenblum. “Heh, heh, and how is my little Miss Rosebud today?” she asked impishly at their final meeting.

That success solidified Hannah’s relationship with New Directions. She became the in-house designer and made her mark at the company, developing and expanding the trend-setting work of Alvin Lustig, whom she succeeded after his death. The covers were unmistakable. Black and white, they were “stark, contemplative, inky, and dreamlike,” Carmen Winant writes in Aperture. “They often feature cropped images – usually taken by the designers themselves and rarely credited – printed full bleed, appearing to strain against the margins that hold them.”

Under Hannah’s direction, the covers became almost entirely photographic. “It was an all-in-one, streamlined job,” Winant writes. “Hannah took the majority of the photographs, occasionally commissioning an image or buying from stock, made the design and type decisions, and chose the book’s paper.” She used a starburst image from a malfunctioning Leica, for example, for the cover of "The Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca," and split her photograph of the Statue of Liberty for the shardlike collage on the cover of Franz Kafka’s "Amerika."

The covers tended to be distinctively evocative,” Hannah said, rather than the more familiar literal representations of texts. The mood that the publisher wanted to evoke “was experimentalism, I think, avant-gardism. Out of the ordinary.

“James Laughlin was breaking new ground both in literature and in packaging. So he wanted to hire the most evocative, untrendy people.”

Along the way, Hannah gained some fame. The novelist Philip Roth suddenly noticed the young wife and mother living across the hall from him on East 10th Street when he realized that Hannah, then married to Roy Kuhlman, the designer, had created an admired book jacket.

But the goal was always to sell books. “Does this advertise the book well?” Hannah said. “Is it a good representation? Does it make the book attractive to a potential buyer? That should be the one strength. And I’m not so sure there’s any guideline for that. Each assignment was different, somehow. Each required a different approach and a different kind of solution.” The one constant was that designers seldom did more than skim the texts.

“Nobody read the books,” Hannah exclaimed. “You’d never have time to do the work. Of course, you’d need to know the weapon if it was a mystery.”

Hannah left New Directions in the early 1960’s and went on to design for other publishing houses, including The Feminist Press, Penguin, Meridian, and Harper & Row. “There were a lot of good people around,” she recalled. “It was really a golden age of books.”

But change was coming. By the early 1980’s, she had gone on to become an art director at several companies, then focused on designing the layout, typography, and concepts of book interiors. “Part of the problem was that publishers had become very political. I could see it starting. It used to be that the art director and the editor or maybe the publisher would work on a jacket cover together. But they also hired freelancers and then six people would have to approve the covers. And then they got so watered down, they stopped having value. They were more trouble than they were worth.”

Today, Hannah does occasional book-design jobs, mainly for psychology texts. “Now, looking back, I really regret not having the opportunity to use the new techniques that became available to graphic designers with software like Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and InDesign. They opened the door to great visual effects for cover designers that were never possible before, though of course the politics would still be there.”

But now there is more time for bridge-playing, another passion, and gallery-going. Says Hannah, “I’m pretty sure I’m retired.”

Tags: People Jennifer Dunning

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