Carin Goldberg, designer of book covers and Madonna’s first album, dies at 69

Carin Goldberg, a graphic designer whose pathbreaking work included covers for Madonna’s first album cover and thousands of books, including a series of Kurt Vonnegut paperbacks that reinvigorated the author’s sales and a reissue of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” that echoed a late 1920s motif, died Jan. 19 at her home in Stanfordville, N.Y. She was 69.

The cause was a glioblastoma brain tumor, said her husband, James Biber.

A self-described “pithy, cynical, wisecracking New York Jew,” Ms. Goldberg entered the male-dominated, risk-averse world of design in 1975. She employed “visual innuendo and iconography,” she once said, to “tell a story without telling the story.” Though she designed hundreds of album covers, Ms. Goldberg was most celebrated for her book covers, which John Updike called “bold and festive” and numbered in the thousands.

With a postmodern flair, Ms. Goldberg drew on historical images and typefaces to 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,” Ellen Lupton, curator emerita at the Cooper Hewitt museum, wrote in the design industry magazine Graphis.

For the 1986 reissue of “Ulysses,” the publisher instructed Ms. Goldberg to pay tribute to the book’s 1949 hardcover, which featured an enormous letter U. She designed a cover that echoed the colors and Futura Bold typeface of a 1928 poster by German designer Paul Renner. Designer Tibor Kalman criticized her for “pillaging history,” to which Ms. Goldberg retorted, “We’re all pillagers.”

“I am very suspicious when artists or designers claim they never ‘pillage,’” she told Step magazine. “Not possible. It’s to what degree and the context and intent that matter.”

Ms. Goldberg’s other memorable book covers include “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks, “Sonnets to Orpheus” by Rainer Maria Rilke, and the paperback reissues of Vonnegut’s novels, with edge-t0-edge letter Vs seemingly bursting, like the author’s writing and persona, off the covers.

Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger, design professors at Rutgers University, assessed Ms. Goldberg’s Vonnegut work in their history of book design, writing that those covers “played off contemporary postmodern styles of architectural ornament, reflecting her precise sense of typographic structure and an understanding of architectural education and practice.”

Vonnegut certainly approved. When they later met at a party, he told Ms. Goldberg, “Young lady, you’ve made me a lot of money.”

Carin Goldberg was born in Manhattan on June 12, 1953, and grew up in Glen Cove, N.Y., and Matawan, N.J. Her father worked in the garment district manufacturing evening wear, and her mother was a buyer at a department store.

Intent on working in the arts, she studied painting at the Cooper Union, a private science and arts college in Manhattan. After graduating in 1975, Ms. Goldberg became a designer at CBS Television, then moved to Atlantic Records, followed by CBS Records.

She described CBS as a “mini atelier/art school” where designers were “blessed with an amazing library of new and vintage art and design books and had access to magazines like vintage Gebrauchs-Grafik, Life and Fortune. We were looking at Cassandre, Herbert Bayer, Italian Futurism, Russian Constructivism and De Stijl for inspiration.”

In the early 1980s, she started her own design firm, working primarily on book covers. In 1982, Warner Bros. Records called to ask whether she was interested in designing an album cover for a promising new artist.

“When I got the call, I rolled my eyes,” she recalled to New York magazine. “At that time it had become cliché to have a one-word name, because of Cher.”

The new artist’s name: Madonna.

“I remember thinking, ‘God, it’s going to be one of those,’” Ms. Goldberg said. “So I really went into it with very little expectation. The fact of the matter is that nobody knew who she was.”

Ms. Goldberg styled the cover in black-and-white, with Madonna wearing bracelets all the way up her forearm and her hand resting mysteriously and seductively on her forehead.

“Unapologetically in-your-face, the cover was charismatically smart and sassy,” Debbie Millman, a designer and podcast host, wrote in a remembrance. “But here’s the kicker: The cover conveyed an attitude that was distinctly Madonna long before the singer had cultivated her characteristic bravado.”

“In my wildest dreams, could I have ever imagined?” Ms. Goldberg told New York magazine. “I’m really glad we did a full-face portrait for the cover. I think it helped — even just incrementally. But it’s hard to know. I did my job, it went out there, and life went on. And I will be forever the art director who did Madonna’s first cover, which I suppose is not a bad thing.”

Ms. Goldberg’s survivors include Biber, her husband of 36 years, and their son, Julian Biber.

In addition to album and book covers, Ms. Goldberg also designed covers for the Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review and other publications. She was a popular professor of typography and design for 35 years at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Drew Hodges, one of her former students, recalled taking her classes.

“Hip, arty, smart, funny, and filled with art history,” he told Design Week. “Every project, she would say ‘look at Cassandra,’ ‘Look at Warhol,’ ‘Look at Jim Dine,’ ‘Look at Jasper Johns,’ ‘look at these fonts,’ look here, look there.”

She was “frankly overwhelming,” Hodges said. “She just expected magic.”

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