Riverhead Books, New York City
“Helen Yentus, award-winning art director of Riverhead Books, is a star magician of the very first order. She is dedicated to pushing the boundaries of physical design. Far from working in the lone-artist model, Helen brings collaborative and inspiring energy to the entire Riverhead art team and to collaborations with external talents.”— Madeline McIntosh, president, Penguin Publishing Group
Whether we realize it or not, we are all familiar with Helen Yentus’s work. She created the cover for Elizabeth Gilbert’s blockbuster Eat, Pray, Love, assembling what Penguin Publishing Group president Madeline McIntosh calls “the now-iconic image” with words made of pasta, prayer beads, and flower petals. A decade later, Yentus reunited with Gilbert to create the cover for Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, due out this month.
“To create a cover for something that is about creativity is about the most difficult and challenging project to have to work on, because you are trying to communicate this intangible thing,” Yentus says. “And to narrow it down to one image is even more difficult.”
As if that hurdle weren’t enough, Yentus was determined to capture what she calls the “explosive emotion” of Gilbert’s writing. The quest led her to using Holi powder, the extremely colorful dust thrown by the celebrants of the Indian festival of Holi in what Yentus calls “a most ecstatic experience.”
“At first,” Yentus says, “I was using the powder like a stencil in a static way.” But she couldn’t achieve the sense of explosive movement that she was after. So she took a different tack, building a 3-D set with cutout letters that spelled BIG MAGIC and throwing Holi powder at them. A photographer captured the powder as it flew into the air and onto the letters. The result is “a bold jacket featuring saturated color from billowing bursts of Holi powder,” McIntosh says. Captivated by the process as much as the work itself, the Riverhead team produced a making-of video that can be viewed on YouTube.
Yentus is behind the world’s first 3-D-printed book cover: a bioplastic slipcase for the deluxe limited edition of Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea. Yentus collaborated with Brooklyn-based MakerBot and describes the project as “an amazing experience.” “I had no idea how they did what they did, and they had no idea how we did what we did,” she says. “It was so interesting, especially because they were coming at it from such a different perspective.” The project earned Yentus a 2014 ADC Art & Craft Design Award and won the book heaps of media attention.
Despite the splash the 3-D cover made, Yentus doesn’t know if it’s something she will do again. For Yentus and her team at Riverhead, “it’s more about what is the right thing for each author,” she says. “I come at each project from a new angle. What we’re focusing on at Riverhead is finding new ways to present books that we love and authors that are dear to us.”
This attention to design is remarkable given that not even five years ago, Yentus says, “there was a real fear that cover design would be irrelevant and there was a lot of talk among cover designers and art directors about whether we would have jobs in a couple of years.” Now Yentus has noticed that people increasingly fall in love with books as physical objects, in a shift similar to the renewed affection for vinyl LPs in the age of digital music.
Though Yentus is praised for inspiring others, she looks at it from the flip side: “If you want to know what drives and inspires me, it is the people I work with who are doing things in a way that I would never have thought possible. I can’t say enough about the incredibly creative and shockingly relentless team working on bringing our books and our authors forward.”