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The Making of the Sqirl Cover, an Illustrated Story

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Oliver Strand described the look of Everything I Want to Eat, the first book by Sqirl’s Jessica Koslow, as “raw and direct, and it stands out at a time when some cookbooks can be overly precious or overly produced.”

Funny thing is, the process to get the book's cover was hardly direct—indeed, quite a production. It took three or four months, with many conference calls with many people who had many ideas. (For many cookbook authors, this might sound familiar.)

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One of the people on those calls was Scott Barry, the primary designer for the book who described the cover process as “extremely contentious.” Barry, in Koslow's words, "has been here, a secret Sqirl, all along." When Koslow started making preserves, Barry designed the jars, and since that company snowballed into a café, he's spearheaded the creative for all of it. Though he'd been a graphic designer and art director for various companies, he’d never worked on a cookbook before this one.

Barry would be designing the book with feedback and input from John Gall, the publisher's creative director. Gall has designed a lot of very notable book covers in the last two decades. His minimalist, winking design can be found on the covers of 1Q84’s boxed set, The Road, and the redesign of Nabakov’s entire backlist, and in the food world, The Man Who Ate Everything and Lunch at the Shop, among so many others.

Not it! Not it!

Together—and with marketing, sales, production, agent, and editorial teams whispering in their ears, as they do for all covers—they’d have to land on one single cover that clearly communicated a wide array points that each group considered a different level of importance: Sqirl, "everything I want to eat," Los Angeles, California, cookbook, art book, accessibility, yummy food. As Gall put it: “You only have a few things to play with—a picture of food, or not—and some type. What could you do with those few elements?”

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Turns out, that formula can play out in lots of different ways. Here's the very abbreviated journey of how the Sqirl cover came to be. There are dozens, if not hundreds, more iterations where these came from.

The Safe Cover

The first cover said Sqirl (which everyone liked), was type forward (which Barry liked), and had food (which the publisher liked). The dish pictured is a sorrel pesto rice bowl, which encapsulates a lot of what Sqirl and California is about: locally-sourced ingredients, vibrant produce, surprise, health, casual vibes. Avocado.

The publisher loved everything about the cover, said, "This is the one!", but Barry had second thoughts and talked them out of it—it felt expected, too focused on one dish. He wanted to try something else.

The "Everything" Cover(s)

To get the idea of "everything I want to eat" across, the book could have 15 or 20 covers, where you'd never know which food you'd get on the cover of your copy. Some issues of magazines have two or three covers, but something at this scale—and particularly for cookbooks—would be novel. Production-wise, the publisher didn't foresee any issues with printing a book with different covers. But Claire Bamundo, the director of publicity at Abrams, and her team wondered which cover would be used in press, and if people would be thrown off if the book they bought didn't have that image. And still, Barry felt like this design was still comfortably in a territory where cookbooks had gone before.

The Food-Shy Covers

Koslow really didn’t want a full-bleed food image on the cover, where the image comes to the edges of the cover. It's what most cookbooks these days have (see here, here, and over here). So they played around with image-forward covers that led with atmosphere instead of food, taking the book more into the range of an art book. They knew the publisher, really wanting the cover to read "cookbook" because they'd intended to sell the book like so, wouldn't jump on these, so they never sent them along and kept playing with what a cookbook-cum-art book could look like.

The One That got away

The rice bowl image returned on a three-quarter jacket that could come off to show an all-text cover with the Sqirl logo loud and proud. It had food, Sqirl branding and the title were prominent, and it had intrigue with the three-quarter jacket. "I thought we’d really hit it," Barry said.

But the production team didn't: Three-quarter jackets easily get ruffed up in stores and in transit, and they didn't want to risk having books show up to buyers in less-than-perfect condition.

Barry promises the next Sqirl book's cover will be an evolution of this three-quarter jacket idea—possibly a transparent cover. I asked if he meant like those DK kids' books; he said like Tush magazine.

THE NON-FOOD COVER THAT SORT OF WON

All along, Koslow and Barry felt like an all-text cover would be the way to communicate the book well. It's a choice a number of recent, oftentimes high-end cookbooks have gone with. But is it accessible? Strand, in the same New York Times review, explains Koslow's food as "seemingly complicated, but surprisingly simple." And communicating that in one cover can be tricky. As Gall put it: "It can be a very artful cookbook, but the reader has to be able to know they can use it."

But Barry still really loved this idea—the title is so bold it could carry the cover, and "the book would then become a recognizable object in itself." So, the teams struck a deal.

THE FINAL COVER, a compromise

The compromise was to have the all-text cover on the actual book, with a more food-forward jacket over it. If you want to consider the book more art book, just take the jacket off. But what would the jacket look like?

There's an image that's almost full-bleed. It shows the famed rice bowl, but it's not taking up the full frame, which instead is mostly white space. There's life in the image—life of Sqirl, of California. Barry thinks of this image as a food photo; I tend to disagree.

While Barry ultimately wishes the cover had pushed boundaries even more, he understood that out of the necessity of wanting to show people what's in the book, there had to be food on the cover. Because no matter how forward-thinking (which the book certainly is), how artful (also true—there are images from not two but three different photographers), it's also a cookbook people can actually cook from. The cover is, in the end, maybe what the Barry—and Koslow—always wanted: "There’s a lot of cookbooks that sit on your art book shelf, and vice versa. For us, we’re trying to find a book that can sit in both places."

All images courtesy of Scott Barry.

Tell us: Which cover do you lean toward?