Cover Stories

Cover Story: Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body

David High’s jacket design for Hugh Aldersey-Williams’s new book Anatomies merges style and content, epidermis and viscera

By Stephanie Murg September 4, 2013

When asked to distinguish style from content, Jean-Luc Godard demurred. “To me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body,” said the film director. “Both go together, they can't be separated.” Style and content, outside and inside, epidermis and viscera—these were among the intertwined oppositions that designer David High faced, and ultimately embraced, in creating the cover for Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body, a new book by Hugh Aldersey-Williams (W. W. Norton).

Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body by Hugh Aldersey-Williams; die-cut jacket design by David J. High, 2013 (W. W. Norton)

“I wanted to write a book that reacquainted us with the bodies we know so badly,” says the British author, who describes himself as a “lapsed scientist” with a Cambridge education (focused on physical sciences) that all but excluded biology. “I also felt some sort of corrective was needed to the mass of books on the high-tech bio side of things—about the human genome, the wonder of DNA—as I feel this way of looking at ourselves, while obviously essential for progress in science, is not really at one with the way we have learned to understand the body culturally over centuries.”

Having admired Alison Forner’s jacket design for Aldersey-Williams’s previous book, Periodic Tales (Ecco, 2011), and optimistic about the creative possibilities of matters anatomical and biological, High jumped when Norton’s Ingsu Liu offered him the chance to embody, from head to toe, a book that went from ancient body art to plastic surgery. His starting points for the jacket were editor Matt Weiland’s initial description of the project as “an anatomy book for the layman” and an image suggested by the author. “It was a 1940s illustration of the human body, but instead of organs inside there was machinery,” explains the designer, principal of High Design in Athens, New York. “It was something you could look at and immediately understand.”

A 1940s illustration of the human body as a factory suggested by the author of Anatomies got the cover design machine rolling.

High recruited Loriel Oliver, an art researcher at Random House he credits as “really great at finding obscure things,” to scout corporeal images. Meanwhile, he played with the idea of a cover based upon the game Operation, in which players compete to remove red-nosed “Cavity Sam’s” plastic organs. “I did a couple of comps using that idea, knowing that in the past any time I’ve tried to mimic a Milton Bradley game or even use a piece from something like that, it causes trouble and they don’t let you use it,” he says with a chuckle. High also worked up some concepts inspired by a colorful anatomical chart originally used in a doctor’s office. Printed on thick plastic, it was a series of flaps that could be peeled back to reveal layers of arteries, viscera, and bones.

The decision to move forward with the man-on-an-operating-table concept was sealed when High found the image of the slumbering gentleman he would go on to use for the cover. The man’s chest was intact, but not for long. High sliced into the illustrated patient with a die cut that reveals the book’s title foil-stamped onto a bright red casing.

A selection of other jacket design options explored by High. “I had all of them in my ‘back pocket’ in case they didn’t want to go for the die cut,” he explains.

Aldersey-Williams sees the cut-out as a wink at the tradition of elaborate atlases of the human body that began to be produced in the west in the 17th century. “Also the gentleman he shows looks to my eye rather 19th century—I imagine him as a balloonist, perhaps,” says the author, who prefers the U.S. cover to its cluttered British counterpart. “And that was another important time in the development of our understanding of modern anatomy, with works such as Gray’s Anatomy.”

Unjacketed cloth cover of Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body

Further design delights await the reader who strips off the jacket. The stamped title is surrounded by five illustrated body parts, from an ocular socket to a large intestine. High credits editor Weiland with the idea for the concealed organs. “I tried to have them in the right areas, with the eye up and top and so forth,” says High, “but my design sense took over and I thought, ‘Oh, they have to be in a line.’”

Weiland also played a critical role in the eye-catching back cover, which features an anatomical drawing of a woman in a position that mirrors that of the man on the front. The editor cut the blurbs to the bone so that they could be scattered around the figure, functioning like didactic annotations to particular organs (“Playful [and] impressive,” raves the Boston Globe, pointing to the stomach).

Back in his Hudson River Valley “design cave,” High has been hard at work on projects that range from a U.S. Open-themed multi-panel installation for the ping-pong night club SPiN New York to the jacket for Blake Bailey’s forthcoming memoir, projects that, varied as they may be, will be unified in their ability to express what Aldersey-Williams describes as “one bold idea.”

Front and back jackets of Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body

Modest and quick to credit his collaborators, High shrugs. “Restraint is just sort of what I do,” he says. “Sometimes I question it and I start thinking it’s too restrained. And I just can’t help it—I always end up paring it down to the bare essence.”

All images courtesy of High Design

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