Judging a Book By Its Cover

“Never judge a book by its cover,” we’re told. Whatever deep truths are hinted at in this old adage, it’s easier said than done when it comes to actual books and covers—especially those of George Salter.

A German-born and (after 1940) American calligrapher, illustrator, teacher, and designer, Salter was a prolific jacket artist who revolutionized the world of book jacket design, fundamentally altering the way this art form was understood—and establishing jacket designers as artists in their own right.

The Newberry Library holds 66 boxes of Salter’s papers and artwork, a generous gift of the artist’s wife Agnes Salter and his daughter Janet Salter Rosenberg. The George Salter Papers include correspondence, notes, articles written by and about Salter, and a wealth of his beautiful book jacket artwork.

I can attest to this beauty myself. This past summer, I worked as an intern at the Newberry, fulfilling a practicum requirement for my Book Studies Concentration at Smith College, where I am now a senior, majoring in history. My work at the Newberry focused on producing a finding aid for the Salter Papers—and introduced me to the fascinating life and work of this designer.

Born in Germany in 1897, Salter was initially trained in stage and set design but became interested in the book arts in his twenties, making a name for himself by producing more than 350 designs—most of them book jackets—for 33 different German publishers.

He had just begun to establish a career when, in 1933, the Nazi regime forced him to emigrate to New York City. Because of his work in Germany, Salter was already relatively well-known in the book world of New York and soon had commissions from Simon & Schuster, Viking Press, and Knopf.

Through his relationship with Knopf in particular, Salter produced some of his greatest designs and arrived at the apex of his career. Between 1936 and 1967, he produced 178 jacket designs for Knopf, including designs for books by some of the most prominent Western writers of the day.

Many of these covers displayed what became Salter’s distinctive style—an airbrushed and often minimalist aesthetic coupled with a burst of color.

Salter remained keenly aware of the importance and role of typefaces in book production, and he even designed his own—“Flex”— a ribbon font named for its flowing, calligraphic lines.

Meanwhile, in part because Knopf encouraged his designers to sign their work and mentioned them in colophons and advertisements, Salter signed his name to many of his jackets, marking them as his own.

By 1950, Salter had risen to the top of his profession. Even during a dry spell in the mid-1950s, his colleagues still greatly respected him, and publishers coveted his jackets. Many of his designs from this period became signature pieces for seminal literary works of the twentieth century, including William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Salter passed away on October 31, 1967, in New York City, but not before he had transformed the art of jacket design. Even now, he remains one of the seminal calligraphers, book and book jacket designers, and illustrators of the twentieth century.

Renewed scholarly engagement with Salter is thus long overdue. I, for one, plan to continue using the Salter collection in my own scholarship at Smith, as I undertake a joint senior thesis and capstone on German book artists who were forced to flee Nazi Germany in the early 1930s. I will focus both on George Salter and Elizabeth Friedlander, another German designer and calligrapher. With luck, my research for the Salter portion of this project will bring me back to the Newberry in less than a year’s time.

Though I was sorry to leave the Newberry at the end of the summer, I am encouraged to know that George Salter and his wonderful designs will be here to greet me upon my return. Until then, I will browse used book stores, always on the look-out for what are certainly some of the most distinctive book jackets of the twentieth century.

By Georgia Fowler, former intern at the Newberry. Georgia is currently a senior at Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts.