Women on Top: Jenny Volvovski

Jenny Volvovski is one-third of the design company ALSO. One of her solo projects is a series of redesigned book covers called From Cover to Cover, one of which was featured in a published collection/analysis of redesigned “Lolita” covers called Lolita: Story of a Cover Girl.

From Cover to Cover began with Jenny’s dream of having a library of books with covers she designed. Working with specific limitations she set for herself—consisting of, in her own words, “green/black/white for color, Futura/typewriter/handwriting/(and Caslon Italic) for text, and scans/drawings/photography for the image”—she uses this ongoing project to honor her favorite books.

What’s the first book you remember loving with all your heart?

Most definitely “Mary Poppins.” My mom read it to me as a kid. Whenever we went out, we pretended she was Mary Poppins and I was Jane, and Michael was lagging very far behind. Sometimes we’d turn around and say, “C’mon Michael, catch up!” to make it seem a bit more real.

When did you first get into graphic design?

Early on in high school. I had always taken art classes, but had trouble starting with a completely blank page. Graphic design is a perfect combination of creativity and problem solving. There are countless solutions, but there is also a starting point.

How did you choose the specific limitations for this project?

When I started the project, I didn’t set any specific limitations, and found myself doing a lot of Google image searches. The last thing I wanted to do was spend more time on the computer, so the first rule I created was to make my own imagery to push myself to experiment more. For example, for “The Secret History,” I made a cardboard stencil and sprayed diluted ink to leave an imprint in the snow. For “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” I printed out the design with the text and taped it to a back of a glass container, then poured one kool-aid mixture into another, and took photographs as they mixed. For “Dune” I poured sand on my scanner (saran-wrapping it first), and wrote the title directly in the sand. “Annihilation” was another scanner experiment—I moved a sheet of paper pre-printed with the title along with the scanner head, creating a warped look to the text. The other limitations I came up with were mostly to make the book covers look cohesive as a set, but I was also really inspired by the limited color palette of the Penguin Crime Series by Romek Marber. I started out sticking to my rules pretty faithfully, but as time went on, I began breaking them. I veered away from the green color palette for both “Lolita” (how could it not be red!) and “C” (it had to be blue to reference carbon paper), and am constantly sneaking in new typefaces that were not part of the original set.

Was one cover harder to design than the others?

There are a couple of books I haven’t made covers for yet, so I guess those are automatically harder then the others. Sometimes, if I find the book very uninspiring, I am less enthused to make the cover, although some of the more successful covers I made were for books I really disliked. I find that strong feelings are a good motivator, whether positive or negative, it’s the in-between that’s harder to work with.

Do you have a favorite cover that you designed? Was one more rewarding to you than the others?

I absolutely loved reading “Remainder” by Tom McCarthy. It’s a book I think about most often (aside from “Mary Poppins”). I am not sure it’s my favorite cover, but it was one I really enjoyed making. Without giving too much away, the story is about a man who becomes obsessed with the idea of recreating and re-enacting specific moments from his life over and over again. For the cover, I used wintergreen oil to transfer the title of the book over and over, mimicking the protagonist’s actions.

You talk about design choices for specific book covers in both of your write-ups (Huffington Post and You+Me), and it’s fascinating to hear how much thought went into each one. That said, this is a totally self-serving question: “Disgrace” is a favorite of mine, both the book and your cover. Can you speak a little about what went into that design?

“Disgrace” was an easy one, and I believe it was also the first one where I broke one of my cardinal rules of making my own imagery. I have a collection of typography books that feature type specimens going back a hundred or so years. The more extensive type sets would feature extra “characters,” one of which was typically a pointing hand—I am assuming for use on signage. The hands are laid out at different sizes and pointing in different directions, which seemed like the perfect image for a book about accusations and finger pointing.

In your write-up for the Huffington Post, you said that for From Cover to Cover you had to “relate to what’s in the book, but also not give too much away.” Did you find yourself studying every book very closely in order to style your covers and achieve this middle ground?

I definitely try to, but since I don’t have a client for this project, and don’t seek feedback about the work, I don’t really know how successful the covers are. I am sure most of these would never be approved by a publisher because they are too illegible or subtle in reference, but since this is a personal project, that is not something I am concerned with.

And lastly: If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?

It took me a terribly long time to think of someone for this answer, mostly because I kept worrying that the person I picked should also want to have dinner with me. I was told I was overthinking it, which is quite likely. So, I am going with David Foster Wallace. I’ve only read one collection of essays of his, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” and am slightly scared of starting, but not being able to finish “Infinite Jest,” so I am certainly not an expert on his work. But, I absolutely loved his wit, criticism and sentence structure. I think we have a similar approach to observing and analyzing the world around us, he just happens to be able to put it in writing.

All image credits to Jenny Volvovski.