Art Inspires Fiction: On the Power of Jacket Design

September 4, 2014 | 3 books mentioned 6 4 min read


Shortly after I turned in my new novel, The Stager, my editor sent me a startling black and white photograph of a woman in a chair. The woman is in a state of graceful repose, with long legs extending into strappy black shoes. She is sultry, sexy, and extremely unsettling. She appears to be beautiful even though you cannot see her face because she is wearing a mask. The art director was suggesting updating this image to use as the cover of the book.

It was apparently an iconic Bauhaus photograph. I could toss the word Bauhaus around as well as the next person, but to be honest, I didn’t really know what it meant, apart from having something to do with Germany and a slim treatise on architecture by Tom Wolfe. That Bauhaus might also involve Jungian images of women in chairs was surprising; more puzzling was what this had to do with my novel — a dark comedy about home staging set in suburban Maryland. But to be honest, I didn’t really care. I loved this photograph in all its weirdness and, more to the point, I was just relieved that no one was proposing slapping on my novel the image of a woman holding a briefcase, a baby, or a mop.

The updated image that was created for the book jacket hewed closely to the original, but now that it was infused with color and light, not to mention the comical silhouette of the belligerent rabbit who plays a central role in the book, the cover seemed more playful than spooky — or so I thought. Not everyone I showed it to agreed; my agent reported that the British publishers thought the cover was “too S&M,” for example.

Still, the more I studied it, the more I could see a perfect symmetry with the narrative. At the center of the novel is a home stager whose job involves coming into a house to strip it of personality, to depersonalize it so that others can see themselves living there — to mask the interior. The home stager, as it happens, is masked, herself. She’s incognito in the home of her former best friend, about whom she knows secrets. And the home is full of symbolic totems from their past. Masks and more masks.

While I was in high gear connecting the dots on all the mask symbolism, a friend looked at the photograph and became nearly apoplectic when he saw the chair the woman was sitting in. It’s a Wassily, he explained. “The most disturbing chair in the world, next to the electric.” With its black leather straps in place of cushions, not only is its appearance formidable, but it is evidently quite uncomfortable. Sitting in it feels like having a broomstick shoved up a certain part of the anatomy, or so I was informed.

I had never heard of a Wassily chair. I take pride in my house and I care about my surroundings, but my own sensibility leans decidedly toward the Anthropologie catalogue with a little Pottery Barn mixed in, which is to say that there is no rigorous intellectual underpinning to the way I have put together my home. Also, modern furniture has no place in my design lexicon, so the chair on the cover barely caught my eye.

A little research turned up the following: made of tubular steel and inspired by the construct of a bicycle, the chair was originally called the model B3. It was designed by Marcel Breuer in the mid-1920s, when he was the head of the cabinet-making workshop at the Bauhaus. The painter Wassily Kandinsky evidently admired it, and Breuer made a copy for his quarters. Years later, when it was reproduced in mass quantities, it was named the Wassily.

covercoverThe chair needed to go in the book, my friend said. But I was unconvinced; the Wassily does not belong in the shabby chic faux Tudor mansion where the story is set. Besides, by this point I had already been sent the copy-edited proofs. Adding the chair was going to require a fair amount of work on a project I had psychologically declared finished. But my friend persisted; the chair was on the cover for a reason, he said, and the next thing I knew I had a stack of furniture books on my desk and was reading From Bauhaus to Our House and a doorstop called 1,000 Chairs.

The chair inserted itself rather easily, despite my resistance. One of my characters is a Swedish tennis pro who, now that he is no longer on the circuit, has developed a shopping addiction. It turns out that he acquired this chair on eBay, and that it had once been owned by three-time Wimbledon champ Boris Yablonsky. This felt like one of the most natural sentences I’d written in my life. The chair was out of place in this house, facing the wall in the living room like a forlorn child sent to the corner for misbehaving. The owner of the chair did not belong in this house, either, as it happened. He was going quietly insane, strung out on an alphabet soup of prescription drugs which were causing even crazier side-effects. By the time I finished the final page proofs, the chair had wormed its way not only into the final scene, but was referenced on page one.

The more I bonded with this chair, the more I wanted to know about both Bauhaus and the original photograph. A little research turned up the fact that the woman behind the mask is either Ise Gropius, wife of Walter Gropius, founder and leader of the Bauhaus school of modern architectural design, (who later served as chairman of the Harvard Graduate School of design) or Lis Beyer, a Bauhaus student. The fact that no one — not even, evidently, the curator of an exhibit at MOMA, where this photograph appeared in 2009 — could definitively identify this woman was its own form of intrigue, and a puzzle I might explore further, perhaps even with an eye toward my next book.

Life inspires art and art inspires life and truth is stranger than fiction. Add to this: art inspires fiction, and fiction inspires art. And let’s raise a glass to art directors whose visions inform the books, themselves.

is the author of five novels including, most recently The Stager (Sarah Crichton Books/FSG). She is the Director of Events and Programs at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington DC.