Hall of Fame – W.H. Chong

W.H. Chong portrait

Self portrait by W.H. Chong

W.H. Chong was awarded the Joyce Thorpe Nicholson Design Hall of Fame Award in 2013. Below we revisit the interview published in the 2013 awards catalogue by Scribe art director Miriam Rosenbloom.

Miriam Rosenbloom (MR): How did you find yourself designing book covers?

W.H. Chong (WHC): It was thanks to Diana Gribble, who co-founded Text Media in 1990 after McPhee Gribble had been sold to Penguin; Text Publishing was the book arm. I had been designing newspapers but came to Text at the start and designed the logo, or as she called it, the colophon.

I have never worked at a large publishing house with nice budgets, or even in a team of designers, though I did once have a little studio project with Josh Durham.

MR: You have been single-handedly responsible for the look of Text for more than 20 years. Have you ever consciously tried to shape the look of the list – how do you think this has evolved over the years?

WHC: Mary Callahan was there for the first three or four years – I was busy up north editing The Sydney Weekly. But I hope the look has become simpler and more like it emanated from the books than if they were designed, if that makes sense?

MR: Do your wider interests in art & culture influence your work? And in turn, does your art practice inform your design work?

WHC: Art and culture are the soil and water of books. As it happens book work often informs my art practice: doing brush and ink portraits for a recent couple of books has led me to do some large scale ink drawings of friends, which feels like a whole new territory.

MR: Do you ever get tired of the ‘tyranny of the rectangle’?

WHC: It was good enough for a couple of thousand years of Chinese painting, and the iPad.

MR: Do you feel the pressure to design conservatively has increased as the industry has come under more financial pressure?

WHC: Yes. Marketing feels it’s their job to keep covers ‘accessible’ – ie, like other work that’s already successful, whereas the art instinct tells the designer to push the envelope. Still, as the philosopher Kenny Rogers advises, you have to know when to fold ’em.

MR: Over your career what artists and designers have influenced your work? Are there designers working today whose work you look towards?

WHC: Milton Glaser. Studying at Swinburne as we turned into the ’80s, design was aimed at advertising work. It was hard core. But Glaser I came across very early on and his example as a designer who thinks about design as a continuum of art has had a profound effect on me. Glaser says that art exists ‘to inform and delight’. Which is also a good definition of graphic design.

Terry Jones of i-D magazine, who dropped this deathless line, that his idea of good design was to find a great image and get out of its way. I buy that totally. In that vein I love the work of Francoise Mouly, art editor at the New Yorker. The parade of stylish and ingenious illustration and photography each and every week is a tonic. And Daniel Mróz, the superb Polish illustrator–designer. Look him up.

However in Australia we do not have much historical perspective. I’ve been told there are seven designers previously honoured with induction into the Design Hall of Fame, but alas, there is no single resource to see who they are, their work or hear from them. A Hall of Fame without doors or windows! History is crucial, though I should add that while I’m pro-sentiment, I’m anti-nostalgia.

As for designers today, I’m not au courant. John Brack said this great and terrible thing when he explained why he no longer went to see exhibitions: ‘If they don’t look like my work I’m not interested; if they do, it confuses me.’ It’s worrying that I resonate to a few grains in there.

MR: Do you find that certain genres come easier to you than others? Would you say you had particular strengths and weaknesses?

WHC: Oh, many inadequacies. I have to fake commercial, any ‘genre’ and feminine. Really, it’s Beckettian, each time I just try to fail better.

MR: Is it most satisfying to design when you are also the image-maker as opposed to image-chooser or image-director?

WHC: See Terry Jones above.

MR: The pages of a book are, at its best, a direct relationship between author and reader. A cover design has that same potential, albeit via a complex obstacle course involving temporary needs of the market. How do you juggle designing for the long-term and fundamental needs of the book’s content and the short term needs of the sales teams and booksellers?

WHC: Hmm, you can’t think about legacy, but the first iteration could be the defining one. It is the designer’s joyful duty to ensure that the needs of booksellers coincide with the needs of the book. But that bit of rocket science is only required if the book feels like it has a long life.

Lastly, if I may, I’d like to remember the late Diana Gribble. I think I can say she changed my life, and I miss her. And to express thanks to Michael Heyward, the brains and heart of Text. Over our 20 years work-friendship he has shown me a whole lot about books and in return I’ve honed his eye just a little bit.

Reading a manuscript, anticipation becomes anxiety the nearer you are to the end. To illustrate the cover of a book, especially a novel, is to pinpoint and construct a single image to convey an entire narrative. A literal representation is sometimes the least helpful thing you can do for a book, confining the expectations of the reader to specifics. I painted a picture of Stalin for Stories I Stole, Wendell Steavenson’s reportage from Georgia, to fit an exisiting lightbulb frame – about 3 x 4 feet; I can’t justify the effort, except it was fun. You get your kicks where you can – but where to hang a large portrait of a genocidal tyrant? My personal favourite is The Spare Room, Helen Garner’s novel about cancer; it seems soulful.

I’ve had the opportunity to work on books by J.M. Coetzee, Kate Grenville, Peter Singer and Barack Obama. Each book is Very Important to its author, but as every designer knows, less celebrated (or dead) writers often allow for more interesting work. My cover for Knut Hamsun’s astounding Hunger is an homage to the witty 1967 version by the great Milton Glaser. I found the nerve to post him a copy and Glaser sweetly sent back a note to say he was touched. In & Out of the G******h B***l depends on a rebus. The cover for James Renner’s weirdly wonderful novel is quite exact in its evocation; I appended a saucy tag: ‘(You have never read anything like this before)’. Maria Takolander’s The Double suggests Cyrillic forms, which is neat as much of it takes place in the chill spaces of Finland-Russia.

W.H. Chong covers

Surprisingly to me, red, black and yellow is not a common national flag palette. Apart from the Australian Aboriginal flag, only Angola, Belgium and Germany employ the scheme. I like to use it when I can, not that I’m aware of it. The extraordinary photograph on the Nick Cave is by Polly Borland, and was suggested by the publisher, Michael Heyward. It provoked a bunch of mostly hostile, feminist commentary. The writer Evelyn Juers recently quizzed me about Stasiland, what she pegged as the ‘iconic’ cover for the then unknown Anna Funder (note the exquisite size of the author name). I explained that it was a picture of a young German woman, and I imagined her as the doorbitch to a club called Stasiland, whose dark exclusivity gave it a perverse glamour.

W.H. Chong covers

One author whose books I have designed over a period of time is Murray Bail, a regarded littérateur in the rarified world of literary fiction. Murray is an unabashed elitist so I took the licence to make his covers unworldly. The Eucalyptus image is by Bill Henson, shot in Merri Creek; the title dissolves in the water like fallen debris. The Pages is about a failed Australian philosopher: the cover puns on leaves as pages, and barking up the wrong gum. As for The Voyage cover the author actively cheered on minimal abstraction – how about that! I made Murray a bespoke font for the title and his name, and stamped them in gold foil. For his 1980 debut novel, Homesickness, reissued
in Text Classics dress, I recalled my days of Peter Stuyvesant, ‘the international passport to smoking pleasure’.

W.H. Chong covers

Text Classics was launched last year, an imprint of superior Australian books which had fallen out of favour or memory, or were long out of print. By the end of 2013 there will be 71 titles. I have spent a fair bit of the last two years reading in a time machine. My main intent has been to make the “classic” contemporray, without denying its historical origins. The updating on Ned Kelly, The Getting of Wisdom and Watkin Tench’s 1788 is quite extreme. They’re a Weird Mob is a homage/parody (one of many) to John Brack’s Collins St., 5 PM; it’s rearranged, reoriented and repainted, with added earphone cords, acid colours and the odd baseball cap. It caused a bit of fuss at the NGV, owners of the original, who were anxious about confusion! Having a template is liberating – you can project almost anything on to the yellow canvas. (The yellow is for wattle, and maybe also for Van Gogh, his hue of happiness.)

W.H. Chong covers

I still carry around a sketchbook and pencil but since April 2012 I’ve been pulling out the iPhone (Brushes app). Making an image with your naked fingertip on a small glass surface requires a meditative concentration. And it’s a thrill when the colour and texture appear. As Arthur C. Clarke observed, technology seems magical to the backward. I always end up drawing faces, nothing else fascinates so.

W.H. Chong portraits

Clockwise from bottom left: Roz Chast (favourite New Yorker cartoonist, at a dinner party), Helen Garner (across a dinner table), Geoff Dyer (at a writers’ festival) and Stan, my father-in-law and most reliable subject. Both Dyer and Chast said they had never seen such a thing done – touch screens: they may as well be magic. After making 91 analogue ink and brush portraits for books by John Freeman and Geordie Williamson I painted this A1-sized picture of Di Gribble (below).

W.H. Chong's portrait of Di Gribble


Eucalyptus (Literary Fiction)

The Philosopher’s Dog (Literary Non-Fiction)
Twelve (Literary Fiction)

Inside Out: An Autobiography (Literary Non-Fiction)
Geography (Literary Fiction)

The Third Brother (Literary Fiction)
In My Skin: A Memoir (Non-Fiction)
Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger (Non-Fiction)

Mr Pip (Literary Fiction)

The Raw Shark Texts (Winner: General Fiction)
Uncommissioned Art (General Illustrated)

Hamlet: A Novel (Winner: Children’s/Young Adult Book)
The Pages (Literary Fiction)

Hand Me Down World (Winner: Cover of the Year/Literary Fiction)

August (Winner: Children’s/Young Adult)

The Voyage (Winner: Cover of the Year/Literary Fiction)

The Rosie Project (Winner: Commercial Fiction)
Zac & Mia (Joint winner: Young Adult)
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Winner: Designer’s Choice Cover of the Year; Literary Fiction)
The Double (Literary Fiction)

For Once in My Life (Commercial Fiction)

Muse (Literary Fiction)
Between You & Me (Non-Fiction)

The Watchmaker Novels (Children’s and Young Adult Series)
1984 (Literary Fiction)
Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing (Non-Fiction)

A custom iPhone drawing by Chong will launch ABDA’s first promotional postcard at Volume 2017, Sydney’s Art Book Fair, October 13-15.