Design is everything (not made by nature) for Penn State alumnus Chip Kidd

Art by Chris Ware for “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami, first American edition, 1997, published by Alfred A. Knopf. Jacket design by Chip Kidd.
Art by Chris Ware for “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami, first American edition, 1997, published by Alfred A. Knopf. Jacket design by Chip Kidd. Photo provided

Once described as “the closest thing to a rock star in graphic design” by USA Today, Chip Kidd is the artist behind some of the most iconic works of art of the past three decades. Last year, Kidd, a class of 1986 Penn State graduate, donated his immense archives to the University Libraries.

Making his name primarily in designing book jackets and covers, including the universally recognized “Jurassic Park” skeleton on the cover of Michael Crichton’s novel, Kidd also worked for literary luminaries such as Cormac McCarthy and John Updike while also writing his own graphic novels and books.

The exhibition “Everything Not Made by Nature Is Design,” running until the end of April at Penn State’s Eberly Family Special Collections Library, highlights a massive array of pieces from the talented artist’s brilliant and storied career.

“It’s a very ‘complete’ archive, because he has basically kept everything he’s ever made,” said Alyssa Carver, the Kidd Collection archivist. “It means that it’s possible to really trace the creative process over a long arc of time, and there’s potential for researchers from different disciplines to put the pieces together in a number of ways. Something that I appreciate about his work its equal embrace of both high-brow and pop-culture influences. Many of his successful designs are a mash-up of the two sensibilities.”

This trademark of Kidd’s has been a constant throughout his award-winning career. While many artists seem to stray from what they know best and get bogged down trying to reinvent themselves, Kidd has evolved in sync with the technology he uses while keeping his designs bold and fresh.

“I was actually surprised at how many of his aesthetic interests appear to have remained consistent over the year. One part of the exhibit shows some of his PSU student work and sketches next to books he designed later in his career that I think show some similarities” Carver said. “Kidd learned to do design with rulers and pencils and manual cut-and-paste techniques, and now of course he uses (digital programs such as) Quark and Photoshop, etc., but he uses these tools in a unique way that is very informed by his pre-computer background. So the span of his career bridges this interesting sort of transition period, and his archive contains large amounts of both analog and digital material.”

In addition to simply being able to marvel at Kidd’s incredible career, this exhibition will also help to serve as both a learning tool and an appreciation of the graphic design medium as a whole.

“The acquisition of the Chip Kidd Archives furthers our goal of building strong collections in book design and the graphic arts,” said Sandra Stelts, the curator of rare books and manuscripts at the library. “There is much to learn from looking at the evidence of Kidd’s creative process as he works through his ideas from beginning to end, and Kidd’s correspondence and close collaboration with authors will be of great interest to students of graphic design and visual culture.”

“We created this exhibition to showcase a significant recently acquired collection,” said Tim Pyatt, head of the Special Collections Library. “We wanted to show the diversity of content in the collection to highlight how it might be used for research and instruction.”

Aside from what is available to view, perhaps what’s most unique about this exhibition is the quantity and diversity of pieces on display. Given the enormity of Kidd’s work, it makes perfect sense that “Everything Not Made by Nature Is Design” is being held in the largest exhibit space in the library.

“Chip Kidd is not only a creator but a collector, so the display includes his original design materials and also items collected by Kidd, such as Batman memorabilia and other objects of inspiration,” Stelts said. “We hope our viewers will see the challenges of preserving and maintaining the physical materials while at the same time making them available for scholarship and teaching.”

“Unlike a museum exhibit or an art gallery show, this is not a ‘greatest hits’ collection or career retrospective,” Carver said. “There are things on display that nobody’s seen before: unique sketches and drafts of designs, rejected cover ideas, student notebooks, correspondence with other artists, as well as other types of design, like posters and music packaging. There’s a lot of visual interest, and different kinds of artifacts to see, which is nice since museum or library exhibits can tend to look more homogenous, like just having a lot of pieces of paper in a display case.”