Several years ago Jenny Volvovski decided she would design book covers for books that already had covers. Often perfectly good covers. She wasn't dissatisfied with the state of graphic design or anything. She just wanted to design covers for new books, and as a member of ALSO, a small graphic design firm based in Chicago and Brooklyn, she was working primarily for architects and online retailers and culinary clients – she created menus for the Lincoln Park bakery Floriole and Logan Square restaurant Giant. "But I wasn't getting book work, and since I read a lot, I figured, for fun, as an exercise, I would do it anyway, to see what I came up with."
She set parameters.
She restricted herself to three colors – green, black and white. Type could be handwritten, created with a typewriter, or one of two fonts, Futura bold or Caslon italic. And any image had to be original, created by Volvovski, not cut-and-pasted from Google. "I set those limits to end up with covers that would look like they came from part of a larger series – like from some big, cohesive, fake library."
A publishing house of one's own.
With a single overriding parameter, her most fundamental rule of all: Every time Volvovski finished reading a book, she had to design an alternative cover for the book.
That was many books ago.
Volvovski named the project "From Cover to Cover," though really it's more of a hobby – not found in a coffee-table book, never shown in a gallery, not intended for anyone in particular. She posts work on From-Cover-to-Cover.com, and that's it. But what she comes up with is often strikingly free of conventions, a frequent reminder of the timidity of commercial publishing. Sometimes you have to adjust your eyes to her work before recognizing even the most familiar title: Crown's cover for Andy Weir's "The Martian" – adapted into a 2015 Matt Damon film – shows an astronaut on a red, dusty Mars; Volvovski's cover looks encased in the same gray duct tape the book's hero uses to make repairs.
Indeed, it is.
How Jenny Volvovski created new covers for famous books
Every time graphic designer Jenny Volvovski finished reading a book, she had to design an alternative cover for the book. Here is how she did it:
What you don't quite see by just visiting her website is the literal labor of love involved: To make her "Martian" cover, Volvovski wrapped a digital scanner in duct tape, cut out letters for the title and author, then layered in the cut-out chunks of letters until it looked three-dimensional.
After reading Frank Herbert's desert epic "Dune," she bundled the same scanner in plastic wrap, poured beach sand over the top and sketched out the title with her finger.
Some of her covers are created digitally. Her take on Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels is a set of covers that show the progress of two plants, rising upward, twining, separating, not unlike the trajectory of the women in the popular series. The lettering on her "Americanah" cover is itself a clever commentary: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's best-seller tells the story of a Nigerian woman navigating culture shock and casual racism in the United States, and Volvovski's interpretation has red squiggly lines under the title and author name, the sort that word-processing software inserts beneath mistakes.
But many more of her covers reveal a sort of obsessive, method approach to graphic design: "After I read 'The Cartel' (by Don Winslow, about the Mexican drug wars), I made a straightforward cover (just title and author), then stuck it to a tree. I could have stabbed it with a knife but we were in Maine – I shot it a bunch of times with a BB gun. I think it's more satisfying when you create a physical thing."
After reading "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," from former Chicagoan Rebecca Skloot, "I designed a cover, then printed it very tiny, because the book is about cells, then put a magnifying glass over the cover and took a photo through the magnifying glass." The result looks like microscopic bacteria. For "The Secret History," Donna Tartt's thriller about murder at a Vermont college, Volvovski made a stencil of the title, laid it in her snowy backyard and sprayed ink on it – creating an eerie shape, reminiscent of the dead body in the book.
Volvovski held up the stencil.
It was blackened and soiled and stiff, like the corpse of a small animal revealed after a spring thaw.
She was home, in the Logan Square studio that she shares with her boyfriend and business partner, Matt Lamothe. Both wore slippers. Volvovski, 37, came here from Moscow in 1991, grew up in Buffalo Grove and attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where she met Lamothe and Julia Rothman, the other member of ALSO. As you might expect, since starting her book project, publishing houses such as University of Chicago Press have hired her to design new books. But even Volvovski knows her work tends to sidestep the clear, obvious imagery favored by most publishers.
Book cover design is a foundational exercise for many graphic designers, an art school staple that never loses its challenges – boil down a boatload of ideas to a dominant image (and font) that telescopes the content of the book and suggests the author's voice. Yet, because Volvovski wasn't doing this to solicit work, and never worried if her covers were commercial, "she ignored the typical language (of cover design)," Lamothe said. "Which is why it's been so cool to watch her. As a designer myself, it's been inspiring."
Instead of the puritan robes and oversize bonnets you might associate with a cover for Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," Volvovski nodded to that haunting moment when Offred, the book's protagonist, finds a faux-Latin message (essentially "Don't let the bastards grind you down") carved inside a closet by a previous handmaid.
Her cover? Just the title and author's name carved in wood.
Instead of taking a cue from the folksy, children's book-esque design of Jesmyn Ward's National Book Award-winning "Salvage the Bones," Volvovski looked to Hurricane Katrina, the actual and metaphorical storm at the book's center. Her cover is made of sculpted cotton swabs, shaped into the radar image of a large storm.
Right now, though, she's eight books behind.
"I'll get to them," she said, "but I have actual clients to worry about, and these covers – the only client is my reading list."