Rich Hendel: "My first book...was as honest a book as I've ever designed."

Rich Hendel is a revered book designer from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He literally wrote the book. I sat down with him yesterday in his sun-dappled home studio, surrounded by books and CDs and an eager beagle named Bingo, to talk about his career.

You were born in 1939 and raised in Rhode Island, where you went on to study illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). You intended to be a cartoonist originally. Did something about your RISD experience move you to become a book designer? I’d been to Middlebury College in Vermont for a year of language study before RISD, but found the courses slow-moving—a high school classroom pace—and the experience incredibly boring. Yes, Alex Nesbitt was the best professor at RISD and got my attention. He was a print historian who also taught typography and lettering, and he became my mentor. I took independent study courses with Alex and contemplated graduate school in printing history. I also ran the letterpress shop at RISD in my senior year, which meant that I ran a Vandercook press and had the opportunity to fill my portfolio with real printed pieces, a distinct advantage when it came time to find a job.

You enrolled in the Army two days after graduating from RISD in 1962. You hoped to learn German, which would be of use in your future printing history research. Instead, the U.S. Army taught you Chinese and later, Tagalog [Hendel breaks into a lovely rendition of the Philippine national anthem at this point, which I can only assume was in perfect Tagalog]. Is there any correlation between an aptitude for languages or codes and talent as a book designer? Well, some people think if you’re good at languages, you’re good at math. Not so! I’m innumerate or ignorant of math, like illiterate is unlettered—I can’t do algebra, etc. and don’t much care. And some say an aptitude for languages would include a musical understanding. Although I greatly like classical music, I don’t read music. No, I don’t think there is a correlation. And I honestly cannot tell you what I did in the Philippines. Let’s just say I left the military with top-secret clearance. At one point, I was the only Chinese translator on base. After learning Tagalog, my first wife and I were able to travel all over the country.

Three years later, I left the Army. I decided against a job offer from Hallmark Cards and took my first full-time design job at the Toledo Museum of Art in 1965. They had a print shop at the time, and I designed and produced all of their material from posters to brochures to postcards. Basically, everything but their catalogues which Carl Zahn, another mentor of mine, was designing alongside his full-time work for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In about 1967, a professor and friend at RISD, Malcolm Grear, asked me to teach graphic design at my alma mater. I was much too young and inexperienced, really I had no business teaching! Partially, that made me a good teacher as I really worried and worked at it. In another way, I was really in over my head. I was still doing freelance illustration work for ad agencies in Boston—which paid better than the $6,000 annual teaching salary, by the way—and after a year, when the recently founded University of Massachusetts (UMass) Press asked me to take over as design/production manager, I told Malcolm I was leaving. He talked me into doing both jobs part-time for a second year, after which I moved to the press full-time.

Was it intimidating to suddenly find yourself designing books in Amherst? I talked my way into that job without ever having designed a book, so it was a bit intimidating! But I immediately read Marshall Lee’s Bookmaking cover-to-cover and jumped right in. It was a smaller world then, with less competition. I fell in with a really good group of people, a tight-knit community of book designers. I was bolstered by winning some design awards right off the bat. Amherst was the “right time, right place” for me. And the absolutely best thing about this time was a 1971 job share situation that UMass supported, wherein I moved into Richard Eckersley’s house in England and he came to stay in Amherst for a time. I returned to teaching in that I worked for Richard’s father, noted poster designer and design educator Tom Eckersley, who was head of the design department at the London College of Printing. I met my good friend to this day, David Lock, during this exchange program in England. I was also lucky enough to study book history at the University of Reading in 1974, a sabbatical then offered by the University to its staff members.

Some book designers talk about an almost Zen-like need to make their work as transparent as possible in order to best serve the author’s words. Do you agree? Do you find this constricting; or liberating; or both? I am a firm believer in Beatrice Warde’s “crystal goblet” speech in London in 1930, where she insisted that printing and typography should be invisible in the way that a crystal goblet holds a glass of wine without drawing attention to itself, that is that typography and design should not get in the way of the writing. I’m a fan of this ideal, which gets to the heart of the heart of the matter in a timeless and neutral way. Unfortunately, many clients don’t understand this goal and so I find my work is often a delicate balance between what should be done and what a client is expecting or demanding to see. My first book ever, for the University of Massachusetts Press, remains one of my favorite designs. It was as honest a book as I’ve ever done. It’s buried somewhere in these shelves full of books in my office, but I’ve hung unto it all this time for that reason.

From Amherst, you moved to university presses in Austin and Chapel Hill and at Yale before settling back into UNC Press. Particularly Yale has such a strong reputation for book design and production. Was it difficult to leave? I left Amherst when it began to feel like too much of a small town, so it’s interesting that I ended up in Chapel Hill! I’m really more of a city person who feels most comfortable in Washington DC and London at this point in my life, but Chapel Hill is where I met my wife, Vicky, and where we’ve made our home. The job at UT Press gave me lots of experience essentially running a press, and Austin is a fantastic city to experience. Yale was a dream job and I took it in 1988 and worked with talented colleagues like Judy Metro who later published my first book at Yale. But New Haven was a hard place to live. When the opening at UNC Press came my way, we jumped at the chance to return to Chapel Hill in 1990.

You once mentioned “trying to be Herb Lubalin” typographically at one phase in your career. What did you mean by that? It was probably the nadir of my so-called design career that I thought that what Lubalin and the whole U&lc bunch were doing was a useful model for book design. It could not have been a more wrong approach. One critic of American book design said we are just a bunch of would-be magazine designers. That’s just one of the reasons. As did Jan Tschichold, I came to realize (in my own far-more inept way) that the traditions of good book design had to be at least acknowledged if not slavishly followed.

UNC Press is one of the oldest university presses in the United States. You were hired by Matthew Hodgson (director from 1970–1992) and worked with his replacement Kate Torrey before stepping down as associate director/design and production manager in 2012. Was it difficult to stop managing design and production for the press? I loved my job at UNC Press, and I love what I’m doing now. I left the press to work on my own. I’m a very active book designer and doing work for university presses across the country. I’d work for nothing if I had to, I simply love designing. And I like working. As you can tell, nothing about my career path was extremely calculated. I’ve had the good fortune and done the hard work to be in some interesting places at good times. And my work after UNC Press is shaping up in a similar way. I’m lucky that way.

In 1998 you wrote On Book Design, an accessible and intelligent book on book design. You followed this with an update called Aspects of Contemporary Book Design. How did these books come about? Is there a third book in the works? I’d done a lot of design workshops for the Association of American University Presses and written many articles for the Scholarly Publishing journal. A friend thought I should write a book about book design. Judy Metro suggested I send her a proposal at Yale Press, and suddenly I had a book contract! I set aside one day a week for a year, and worked with some terrific and timely collaborators on that book. The book I wrote and edited after the Yale book will be the last I write. It was published by the University of Iowa Press, and brought my views on book design up-to-date. I’m done! I don’t know that many designers anymore. But I’m glad you are doing this, I’m glad Yale Press is blogging about book design. It’s a way for book designers to talk with each other.

Book cover designers often claim to read every book they work on. True or false? Absolutely false. Time does not allow. It’s funny, I went into book design partially because I felt my education had been inadequate and this would give me the chance to catch up. I certainly have gained a smattering of knowledge in a lot of subjects, but at this point I think I know just enough to sound like I know what I’m talking about on a lot of varied topics, but not enough about any one subject to be an expert. Just enough to be dangerous!

interview is condensed and edited


Rich Hendel in his home studio © 2014 Design Story Works

Rich Hendel in his home studio © 2014 Design Story Works