The Collector

Famed Graphic Designer and Obsessive Collector Chip Kidd Lives with Superheroes

The art director and book designer's passion for all things Batman has transformed his penthouse on New York's Upper East Side from a bachelor pad into the ultimate man cave.

Known especially for his heroic skills as a creator of book covers, graphic designer and author Chip Kidd is also an obsessive collector of all things Batman. Top: The holdings on display in his penthouse apartment on New York’s Upper East Side venture beyond items only associated with the Caped Crusader.

What I knew about superheroes could fit on the head of a pin — or at least it could have until recently. Thanks to my good friend Chip Kidd, I can now distinguish between Superman (the great immigrant story: boy comes from faraway place — Planet Krypton — and makes it here on earth) and Batman (child has everything taken away from him, parents murdered, must rebuild his life). Superman’s alter ego is Clark Kent, cub reporter for the Daily Planet of Metropolis. Batman’s is Bruce Wayne, a playboy, philanthropist and industrialist who lives in the besieged city of Gotham, a thinly disguised Manhattan. Superman has super powers. Batman’s physical strength and moral resolve are decidedly human. Given a choice between the two, Kidd would pick Batman.

To prep for my recent interview with him, I YouTubed old episodes of the Batman TV show, which dates to the late 1960s, watched animated versions as well as the films directed by Tim Burton (campy) and Chris Nolan (terrifying) and screened other superhero flicks in which grown men and women sporting masks and form-fitting costumes, often with capes and other paraphernalia, fly through the air — like a bird! like a plane! — to preserve world order and defeat the bad guys.

All of which is to say I am still only a rank amateur. Chip Kidd, on the other hand, is a true connoisseur of the superhero genre — and, yes, it is a genre, as he’ll tell you, and often one as literary as any other.

Superheroes aside for a moment, Kidd has had a long and revered career as a graphic designer. He’s worked for Alfred A. Knopf for most of his post-college life (more than 30 years). He’s created memorable book covers for such luminaries as John Updike, Haruki Murakami, Cormac McCarthy, David Sedaris, Jay McInerney, Michael Crichton, Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt and this year’s Nobel Prize laureate in literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, to name-drop just a few.

Kidd has written two novels and 16 nonfiction works, including two books about Charles Schulz and his beloved “Peanutsstrip. He also coauthored, with Lisa BirnbachTrue Prep, the sequel to The Official Preppy Handbook.

This September saw the publication of Chip Kidd: Book Two (Rizzoli), a monograph encompassing his cover designs and other projects from the past 10 years. A sequel to Book One, which spanned covers from 1986 to 2006, the new 320-page tome takes readers from 2007 to 2017 and includes introductions by Murakami as well as authors Orhan Pamuk and Neil Gaiman. It’s catnip for anyone fascinated by book jackets and what goes into their creation.

 

In Kidd’s penthouse, a pair of Eileen Gray chairs sit atop a rug also of Gray’s design. He has a watercolor study she did for the carpet framed on a wall.

Left: Kidd bought his multilayered aluminum tubing and glass desk from Lost City Arts in the 1980s. It’s a reproduction of a 1930s original. Right: A poster advertising the French release of a 1949 Batman movie hangs over the bed in the apartment.

Left: A pair of early-1970s Peter Hamburger sconces, designed for Knoll, flank the apartment’s fireplace, in front of which sits a screen by Karl Springer. Right: Kidd’s nickel-plated chair came from a military-grade plane or helicopter; the vintage soda-syrup bottles on the radiator are in the shape of spacemen.

Left: Kidd bought his 1930s china cabinet nearly 30 years ago and now uses it to display a green cubist 1920s Stangl tea set, a 1930s set of Staffordshire bone china and Atomic Age salt and pepper shakers, likely from the 1940s. Right: Hair dryers from the 1930s and ’40s stand in front of a shaving mirror and a fan from the ’50s.

 

Kidd also authored 2012’s New York Times best-selling graphic novel Batman: Death by Design and several short stories featuring the Caped Crusader, all published by DC Comics, which brings me back to the Dark Knight and that Upper East Side penthouse. Kidd may own that apartment, but it is fully occupied, 24/7, by more than a thousand objects primarily dedicated to the graphic designer’s favorite man, if not of steel then of mettle. Yes, there’s that old saw about boys and their toys, but this is — and Kidd would be the first to admit it — his magnificent (albeit eccentric) obsession.

The apartment is only about 850 square feet, but its wraparound terrace brings it closer to 1,500 square feet of space. Chip moved in in the spring of 1994 and has hung onto it ever since, although he is now married, to the poet and librettist J.D. McClatchy, and spends most of his time at their place downtown. He swears he will never give it up — and why should he? The contents represent a lifelong devotion.

On a balmy afternoon the day after Halloween and the horrifying terrorist attack on West Street in Manhattan, we sat across from each other in his lair, sinking deep into two Eileen Gray chairs. There, we pondered his superhero fixation, wondering where Batman is when we need him.

 

In something of a dream come true for him, Kidd partnered with artist and illustrator Dave Taylor to create a new installment in the Batman universe, writing Death by Design for DC Comics in 2012. It became a New York Times best seller.

He released Go (Workman Publishing) in 2014 to help children get as excited about his creative field as he is — even after some three decades in the business.

Chip Kidd: Book Two (Rizzoli), released earlier this fall, is as much an annotated portfolio and how-to manual as it is a monograph encompassing the designer’s previous 10 years of work.

Kidd included his cover design for Gulp (W. W. Norton & Company), Mary Roach’s 2013 pop-science book about the human digestive track. “I realized I need to show the start of the process in as palatable a way as possible,” Kidd writes, “as opposed to the end of said system. Ahem.”

Haruki Murakami, whose book covers Kidd has designed for years, contributed one of Book Two’s three introductions. The others are by authors Orhan Pamuk and Neil Gaiman.

 

Kidd began collecting Batman objects at the age of two, in 1966, when the TV series starring Adam West as the Dark Knight and Burt Ward as Robin came out.

How and when did you start your Batman collection?

At around the age of two, in 1966. That was when the TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward debuted and briefly took the world by storm. I still have my original Batman lunch box. I built up the collection when I was in college [at Penn State] and ever onward.

Was your intent to turn this apartment into a shrine?

The word shrine makes me a little uneasy. I still think of it as an adorned living space.

Approximately how many objects do you have here?

There are hundreds of thousands of items — the toys, the art and the books. It is pleasantly complicated in that regard.

What’s most valuable?

Hard to pinpoint, but several of the original comic-book artworks are worth a good bit, as are some of the Japanese tin toys.

Why Batman?

I’ve never known how to answer this. I think it’s a combination of so many things, not the least of which is the design aspect, however unaware I may have been of that at a young age. But it’s no mistake that the series from 1966 started things off for me — especially with the striking use of bold typography like the “POW!” and the “ZAP!”

 

Kidd says he thinks “the design aspect” of Batman and his world may have been at least part of what attracted him to the superhero. “The initial series started things off for me — especially with the striking use of bold typography like the ‘POW!’ and the ‘ZAP!’ “

Apart from Batman and signed first editions of the books you’ve designed, what else is on display?

My furnishings, like these Eileen Gray chairs. Under the chairs is one of her rugs, and on the wall is an original watercolor study she did for the rug.

You also collect pieces by Warren McArthur Jr.?

I have two of his aluminum-tubing folding chairs, but the main attraction is a multilayered oval desk of aluminum tubing and glass that he made in the thirties. Mine is an excellent copy in the bedroom that was produced by Lost City Arts in the 1980s.

What does the apartment mean to you personally?

It is my sanctuary, something of a live-in art project over which I have total control. It also represents my sense of “success” in New York City: a penthouse on the Upper East Side that I bought myself, filled with all the things I dreamed about having as a child. It just feels so damned good for me to be in it. I’d like to think that entering it gives one an idea of what it’s like to be in my head.

 

Shop Batman on 1stdibs

 


Chip Kidd’s Quick Picks on 1stdibs

“This is in my entrance hallway in New York. I haven’t seen another one for sale in a looooong time. Rietveld is definitely one of my industrial design heroes.”

“Perfect for a condo near the water. I have a version of this in my place in Palm Beach. This aqua color is rarely seen in this design.”

“Of all the things I put on this list of 1stdibs picks, I covet this one the most. It’s completely insane, and insanely beautiful. I love the original version, which is made of wood, but this one — which is made of 30,000 Lego blocks, takes it to a whole other conceptual level.”

“I’ve had a pair of these in my living room for more than twenty-five years, and I can attest that they are the most comfortable chairs I have ever had the pleasure to flop down in. They have an exquisite design by my hero Eileen Gray, which she based on the concept of lounge chairs on the deck of a grand ocean liner.”

“In addition to the great simplicity of this design, I love the visual lightness of the glass globes juxtaposed with their considerable heft.”

“I have one of these Lucite chairs in Palm Beach. Mine is sans the blue caps on the ends of each piece, but I think they add a nice touch. And the seat is actually quite comfortable, believe it or not.”

“The crazy thing about this is that I love it so much as sculpture, I’d be reluctant to put anything on it. But I’d get over that and have custom glass sheets made to rest on the shelves. And then I’d use it for books, most likely.”

“For sculptural purposes only — definitely not for kids.”

“Why do I love industrial lighting from this period so much? Who knows? But I definitely have a fetish for anything that looks like it belonged on the set of an old Flash Gordon serial.”

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