If you ever picked up a paperback in high school English class, checked out the New York Times bestseller list, or saw the poster to Jaws, you felt Paul Bacon’s influence: Bacon, the award-winning designer behind the covers of Catch 22, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Slaughterhouse Five, has died. He was 91.
Bacon was known for pioneering what the publishing industry calls the Big Book Look: hardcovers meant for the bestseller’s list with big, bold titles and quasi-abstract designs that synthesized the book’s themes down to just a couple colors and, maybe, a single quintessential image. Three generations of readers grew up reading hardcovers and paperbacks with either Bacon’s covers, or covers inspired by Bacon’s work, bound to the front. Bacon had 6,500 different designs to his credit.
Some of the covers are so iconic, it’s difficult to imagine the book with any other cover. Consider his cover to Joseph Heller’s 1961 satire Catch-22, which features the ragged red silhouette of an army soldier, dancing a jig against a blue background. His cover to Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint influenced the cover of Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl. Bacon also did the original cover to Peter Benchley’s Jaws, featuring the enormous, hungry mouth of a shark coming up beneath a midnight swimmer. Bacon’s cover eventually became the basis for the poster to the Stephen Spielberg adaptation.
Born in Ossining, New York in 1923, Bacon was not a delicate artist, despite his broad impact on graphic design. After taking a job at an advertising agency in high school, Bacon began doing small designs for local jazz machines (besides graphic design, jazz was a lifelong passion) before eventually getting involved in publishing.
Bacon was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and died of a stroke at a nursing home in Fishkill, N.Y. He was survived by a son and a sister.
Read the New York Times’ obituary of Paul Bacon for more details on his extraordinary life and career. Then go to your book shelf and read a novel with a Bacon cover as tribute to the man. Don’t worry: you’ve definitely got one.