Paul Bacon (1923 – 2015) – created looks for books


Paul Bacon was not a household name, but anyone who has a passion for books will have seen his works. Bacon was an artist, who used minimal imagery and bold typography to sell famous novels such as, “Catch 22” by Joseph Heller, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest’s and Phillip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint”.

Portnoy’s Complaint cover art

Joseph Heller described Bacon as the inventor of the best seller dust jacket and the style that became known as the ”Big Look Books.” During his lengthy career, he designed more than 6000 dust jackets and was also a jazz singer, musician and a respected designer of vinyl record album covers.

Realistic imagery and uninspiring typography dominated book cover designed in the 1950s. Bacon’s stark, dramatic work challenged the prevailing aesthetic. The only illustration he drew for the “Compulsion” cover was two small red figures running off the edge of a block of space.

Designed cover “Catch 22”

His cover for “Catch 22” was similar in style to his cover for “Compulsion” but with a more comic air as the red figure is now a little bit larger and is appearing to do a jig. Bacon threw out nearly a dozen sketches, he told Print magazine in an interview in 2002, before he came up with a little guy who he ripped out of a piece of paper, representing Yossarian in full flight.

Early Years

His signature style- the prominent lettering and the smaller, abstract image that captured the essence of books took off.  He made his jackets personal, inviting and of this beautifully crafted quality. Bacon was born in 1923 on Christmas Day in Ossining, N.Y. He started drawing as a child and graduated in 1940 from the Arts High School in Newark, NJ.

During World War 2 he served in the Marine Corps. He returned to New York after the war and found a job in a design studio. He continued his other passion, jazz, during his spare time. He played a kazoo-like instrument made of a cellophane enveloped comb.

He also wrote reviews for the magazine Record Changer, founded by Bill Grauer and Orrin Keepnews, and they would launch the Riverside jazz label. In his early years there, Bacon became Riverside’s chief designer.

Blue Note Records

He later created hundreds of Blue Note Records album covers and was friends with many of the label’s artists, especially Monk. Bacon’s 1949 essay on the iconoclastic composer, ” The High Priest of Be-Bop, ” is still quoted for his insights.

However, as Bacon said in the print interview, ” If I was born to do something, it was to design book jackets. ” His first book cover came by accident after the father of a friend asked him to illustrate a 1950 book on the search for chimpanzees in Africa called ” Chimp on my shoulder. ”  The editor, E.P. Dutton was impressed enough to have also the jacket designed by Bacon.

Paul Bacon's first book cover
Paul Bacon’s first book cover

He worked in all the major publishing houses over the next few decades. Sometimes he settled on all types and found them to be the perfect solution for the salty ” Portnoy’s Complaint. “

Bacon’s ” One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest ” jacket was one of his favourites, a hand torn letter pastiche in pink, red, and yellow shades.

He read every book for which he designed covers and rarely had contact with the authors as a designer. Among the few to whom he spoke was Norman Mailer, who had an idea about his novel ” An American Dream ” in 1965.

American Dream – First Edition Cover

As Bacon recalled in an interview for the Out of Print website in 2012, the pugnacious writer complimented his work and then said, ” How would you feel like adding something to it? ” It was a picture of his girlfriend and Mailer said he didn’t care if he made it as small as a postage stamp.  That was exactly how Bacon treated it, and he admitted, ” it didn’t do a bit of harm. “


Sat, Jun 20, 2015 โ€“ B6 ยท South Florida Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) ยท

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