When you walk into a bookstore, how do you decide which book to buy? Perhaps you are seeking something on the bestsellers list. But if you are just hoping for a good read, you may select a book by its aesthetic appeal—an eye-catching cover, type that is attractive and easy on the eye, and luxurious paper that makes it a pleasure to turn the pages. For more than 40 years, it was Susan Mitchell’s job to place a high quality product in your hands. As art director for several major publishing houses, Mitchell art directed and/or designed covers for many bestselling books including: The World Is Flat, by Thomas L. Friedman; The Hours, by Michael Cunningham; and, A Man in Full, by Tom Wolfe (whom she needed to visit in the Hamptons to have design details approved).
Increasingly, customers purchase their reading material online, perusing that latest novel on a Kindle, Nook, iPad, or other electronic device. Fewer customers now judge a book by its cover, and that means fewer opportunities for artistic directors like Mitchell. What’s the old saying? When a door closes a window opens? Mitchell sees this new path as a tremendous opportunity. She is building a studio in her home and plans to devote herself to her first love–creating art.
“Learning for me is everything,” said Mitchell, talking about her future. “I don’t like to repeat myself. In many ways I am the anti-brand.”
What she has learned makes for a very impressive resume. After receiving her degree at the Pratt Institute, Mitchell landed a job at Alfred A. Knopf, working for Betty Anderson, the legendary designer and art director. “Betty turned out to be the most amazing mentor,” said Mitchell. “Alfred Knopf himself was still alive and he’s the one who promoted book design to be the art it was in those days.”
Mitchell was responsible for the actual interior layout of the book, including the binding, and the graphics. “This was significant design that is not important anymore to many people,” she said. “I made the aesthetic choices that would enhance the readability, but I wanted to make it exciting, too.”
When her learning curve stopped being challenging, Mitchell left to freelance, only to return when Anderson offered her a promotion. She left once again for the freedom of freelancing. “In those days, we didn’t need a lot of money,” she said, noting that she rented her apartment for $75 a month.
Then came a call from Louise Fili, who during her 11 years as art director of Pantheon Books reinvented book jacket design. Mitchell was recruited to become Pantheon’s book design art director. “So I came in and all of a sudden wonderful projects started to come my way,” she said. “It was an inspiring period of time, overseeing the whole book package.” Famous authors often dropped in and Mitchell fondly remembers being in an elevator and chatting with Bennett Cerf, the founder of Random House, Pantheon’s parent company.
In 1985, Mitchell moved to Vintage Books, like Pantheon and Knopf, part of Random House, where she helped develop Vintage Departures, Vintage Black Lizard Crime and Vintage Classics, as well as revamping the entire Vintage Contemporary line. Sonny Mehta came on board and unveiled a grand plan to republish many of the classics on Vintage’s list under the new imprint Vintage International. The combination of the right timing, the right project, the right people, and support made it a culminative moment for my design philosophy up to that time.” The group ended up winning major awards for its designs. “It was a wonderful list of books,” said Mitchell, who singled out authors Albert Camus, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, Kazuo Ishiguro, Yukio Mishima, Doris Lessing and more. “I had the freedom to develop each as I wanted, organizing photo shoots and original illustration for each title. The ease and advent of stock photography and art now makes me doubt that I could ever experience the headiness of that again.”
In 1996, the art director at FSG turned in his resignation and Laurie Brown, Mitchell’s former co-worker at Vintage, now a vice president of sales at FSG, asked if Mitchell wanted the job. “You bet!” Mitchell said. She would go on to spend the next 15 years there art directing and designing.
In 2008, change made its way to the publishing industry and Mitchell lived through a shakeup at FSG/Macmillan where around 100 people were let go. Perhaps nothing spoke more emphatically to the changes when Mitchell observed the children’s book division move to Macmillan’s corporate building. The e-book department steadily filled the empty spaces on the floor. “The e-book people don’t keep books on their shelves!” she said. “It’s weird because the whole place had lots of book shelves. My shelves were filled with novels and design books that inspired me.”
Now, Mitchell awaits the completion of her new studio space. She plans to take advantage of this luxury, something she couldn’t enjoy while working so hard on her career. Her husband, Kenny, whom she met while they were students at Pratt, has been incredibly supportive, pushing her to work fulltime as an artist.
“On Fridays in the summer I would take the day off and go to Silvermine Arts Guild to draw at open sketch classes with live models,” she said. “I started painting again. I would come home and post my drawings. Something was starting to happen.”
Mitchell’s life has come full circle. Born in Natrona Heights, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, Mitchell was the youngest of four children. In fourth grade, she was selected to go to art classes at Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon. Even then she preferred to draw people, especially “girls in these beautiful strapless gowns with those fantail skirts.” She drew in pastels and had an oil paint set she loved.
Rather than stay close to home, she attended Pratt in New York. Told by her parents to come home or get a job, she opted to work at the Broad Street Club on Beaver Street as a waitress. She once waited on Franklin Roosevelt’s son, James, and on another occasion, Van Johnson, the actor.
Knowing she had to get on with her career, she borrowed a copy of the Literary Marketplace, started to make calls and landed her first job at Knopf. She hasn’t stopped working since.
Although Mitchell is committed to her new path as an artist, it’s possible that designing books will still be an option. “I think of myself as a great art director and mentor,” she said. Recently, Mitchell was one of seven Americans asked to submit covers for an Italian book competition. And while e-books now buy the cover rights from hardcover or trade paperback books, Mitchell said she can foresee a time when ebook publishers will want to design original e-book covers, particularly now that the iPad and other devices boast such vibrant color resolution.
In the meantime, Mitchell will start to create art, perhaps aiming for a gallery show. She already has political poster designs in the works, speaking out for causes that need a voice. Her daughter is designing a website for her where she will be able to display her artwork. “You have to add on and build,” said Mitchell.”I want to know where I’m going, not where I’ve been.”
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