Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More

Goldberg, Carin

Profile by Ellen Lupton, published in Graphis magazine, 2001.

Armored with a nimble sense of humor and a knack for the beautiful, Carin Goldberg survived the culture wars of the 1980s and fearlessly navigated the techno-hyped 90s. What’s next for this master of design? The remarkable career of Carin Goldberg reflects one woman’s ability to tap into her cultural moment and create a series of icons that have functioned in the brutal arena of retail sales while also engaging—head-on—the cultural debates internal to the design profession. Known promarily for her book covers and jackets, Goldberg helped reinvent this field in the 1980s and successfully navigated its second renaissance in the early 90s. Today, she is heading into new waters, leaving behind an area of design practice that has become increasingly corporate and codified.

Goldberg’s work has always been tied to the cultural sector, but not to the elitist sphere of museum identities and academic publishing. A New Yorker to the core, she entered the profession by way of mass media. After graduating from The Cooper Union in 1975, she learned the trade from art director Lou Dorfsman at CBS Television, producing ads for TV Guide in an all-male, old-school, cut-and-paste bullpen. She soon became an art director herself, creating ads for CBS Records. But her passion was for design, not art direction, and her inspiration came from the work of Paula Scher and Henrietta Condak, who were producing witty, visually sophisticated album covers for CBS Records. Working in the classical music division at CBS, Goldberg created designs that combined type and image in a loose, decorative manner, as seen in her cover for Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons.

Goldberg left CBS Records in the early 80s to start her own business, working independently for the music industry and then, around 1984, for book publishers. Post-modernism had become the battle cry in art and architecture. The modernist ideologies of functionalism, truth to materials, and purity of form were under attack, as new values of decoration, pastiche, and eclecticism bubbled to the surface. Like her contemporary Louise Fili, Goldberg brought these ideas to the field of book cover design, then a stale medium trapped in convention. In Goldberg’s 1985 cover for Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, she borrowed from the graphic style of the Vienna Secession, creating densely ornamental lettering locked together within a heavy linear framework. Her design is directly modelled after Josef Hoffmann’s 1903 identity for the Wiener Werkstatte.

Post-modernism was not a singular movement, and its attack against modernist orthodoxy yielded a diversity of positions that divided—and energized—graphic design in the 80s. Tibor Kalman, who did more than anyone to keep that decade interesting, attacked the work of Goldberg —and many others—at the AIGA’s national conference in San Antonio, Texas, in 1989. Kalman lambasted her Rilke cover for “pillaging history.” A few years later, he minted the phrase “jive modernism” in reference to visually-based references to early twentieth-century art—references that, he claimed, ignored the utopian, revolutionary basis of the avant-garde while producing empty, commercially-driven decoration.

While some designers were embittered by Kalman’s polemics, Goldberg responded to the uproar with a sense of humor. Her work had been pushed into a fray that was dividing the design world, and it was more exciting to be part of the fight than to be left out at the margins. “It didn’t kill me,” she recalls. “I was surprised by the intensity of the discussion.
While I was busy pillaging history, Tibor was busy pillaging the vernacular. We were all pillagers.”

Goldberg’s use of history is part of its own historical continuum, that of New York pop design. She employs historical imagery sporadically, not programmatically, referring to past styles not to as a matter of principle, but as a matter of appropriateness. In fact, modernist quotations are few and far between in Goldberg’s work, just as they are in the work of Paula Scher, who outraged many Swiss-educated designers for parodying Herbert Matter in a poster for Swatch in the late 80s. Goldberg and Scher both came of age under the ascendence of the Push Pin designers, who forged an indelible American design ethos—at once artistic and commercial—that freely incorporates diverse styles. For Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast, as well as for younger designers like Goldberg and Scher, early modernism is just one source of imagery among many—it is no more sacred than the rest of visual culture’s rich archive of idioms. Goldberg has even quoted herself quoting Josef Hoffmann—in her design for Women on War, she rendered a similar compositional device with sharper, more angular forms.

Goldberg’s historical sources have ranged from Victorian ephemera to everyday icons. For the cover of In Pursuit of the English, she combined diverse fonts in a densely knit composition recalling letterpress posters. This typographic block repeats across the bottom of the cover, invoking a make-ready sheet retrieved from the printer’s floor. Her design for Unravellling consists of a small typographic label—reminiscent of nineteenth-century packaging—that punctuates a pale, soft photograph of eggs cradled in a woman’s hands. [figure 5] One of Goldberg’s most exquisite pieces, her jacket for John Fowles’s Wormholes, is an homage to the great modernist designer Alvin Lustig. Not a quotation of any single work, Wormholes employs simple strips of color to depict books stored on a shelf. Recalling Lustig’s color palette and his simple, cut-paper forms, the cover successfully invokes a mid-century feeling—and avoids the clichéd image of old leather books.

Whatever her historical references, Goldberg’s work always responds to its own cultural moment. Her earlier work carries the unmistakable flavor of the 80s, as seen in the widely spaced geometric letterforms peppered across the cover of Where Water Comes Together with Other Water, illustrated by her long-time collaborator Gene Greif. Goldberg used a similar typographic approach in her series design for the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. The bright, optimistic qualities of these pieces reflects the neo-modern formalism that permeated design in the 80s, not only in graphics but in architecture and interiors. Michael Graves’s Portland Building of 1980 was emblematic of the age, with its deliberately flat, ornamental distribution of small geometric elements across its cubic shell.

The 90s took a grittier turn, and in the field of book covers, a new sensibility took shape. At Alfred A. Knopf, art director Carol Devine Carson encouraged her team of young designers to experiment with elements of the strange and the sinister. Chip Kidd, Barbara de Wilde, and others created book covers at Knopf that used coffee stains, strands of hair, and oddly cropped photographs to strike an attitude that is mysterious, sometimes perverse, and always literary. The post-modern 80s had come to a close, and the introspective 90s had begun.

The cultural shift away from happy formalism towards darker, more ambiguous visual narratives is seen in Goldberg’s own work in the 90s. Her cover for The Blindfold combines out-of-focus letters with a tiny, embossed photograph of a figure; these oddly informal elements conflict with the grid of colored rectangles that bluntly divides the cover. On the cover for Hungry, a spare, label-like field floats across the belly of a nude female torso, suggesting repressed desire—gustatory or erotic. Jilted features a photocollage by Man Ray, in which a female nude is annotated with flat circles of color that both censor and celebrate her erotic potential. Mother Said presents a plain black purse—a vessel of maternal secrets—embraced in quotation marks. The Plawright’s Voice pairs black-and-white curtains with a warm wood floor; A Visit Home depicts a domestic interior ominously x-ed out with police tape. Such designs use images of normalcy to project a sense of unnease and possibility.

Some of Goldberg’s most intriguing work of the late 90s went unpublished. For the cover of The Honey Thief, for example, Goldberg proposed several beautiful and poetic designs that went unrealized. The same happened for An Ocean in Iowa and Black Rubber Dress. Goldberg became increasingly dissatistfied with the cover and jacket business, a fact linked not to changes in cultural appetites or prevailing styles but to changes in the industry itself. Whereas the 80s and early 90s were vibrant times for freelance cover and jacket designers, the field gradually became dominated by in-house design departments. Marketing divisions became more involved in approving designs, and freelancers, relying on art directors to advocate their work within publishing houses, were not close enough to the process to prevail against in-house designers.

Goldberg took this change in climate as an opportunity to shift the direction of her career. She is relocating her family—architect Jim Biber and their son Julian—from a charming but remote town in upstate New York back to Manhattan, where she can be part of the day-to-day fray of the design process and pursue more ambitious, large-scale projects. As a cover designer, Goldberg worked in relative solitude, creating single images with tightly circumscribed functions. Now, she is working as a magazine consultant and is designing total publication projects. No longer satistified with just the cover, Goldberg revelled in creating the entire marketing campaign and catalog design for the Type Directors Club’s annual competition in 1999. [figure 19] Even more exciting is a self-authored book, Catalog, to be published by Stewart Tibori and Chang in 2001. The book transports photographs from a 50s mail order catalog into a series of spare pages, where disembodied bras, girdles, and shoes float with serene dispassion. These mundane accoutrements of middle-aged womanhood—designed to lift, separate, and constrain—are liberated under Goldberg’s hand into icons that are at once funny and erotic. The book seems prophetic of Goldberg’s own transformation as she outfits herself for the next phase of her career. Her sexy sense of humor will surely prevail.