Roy Kuhlman (1923–2007) was an American graphic designer, artist and photographer. He originally practiced realsim but made the transition to abstract ion and is best known for the mid-century modernist book covers he designed for Grove Press, the iconic publisher of controversial and avant-garde literature by authors such as D.H. Lawrence, Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.
Kuhlman was one of the first to apply Abstract Expressionist concepts to graphic design. Grove’s owner Barney Russet described his designs as an attempt to “go between being a purely creative act and a commercial one.”1 Fred Jordan, Grove’s editor-in-chief from the late 50s through the 1960s, agreed: “He didn’t design a book cover. He did an abstract work of art.”
Kuhlman’s designs for Grove were primitive, expressive, playful and enigmatic, providing a visual representation of the counterculture and revolutionary texts. His creative use of typography, high-contrast photographs, and almost childlike illustrations, combined with an unconventional use of colour and space, are the hallmarks of his style.
To solve design challenges presented by small budgets, he would often use only two or three colours, which he layered to create additional hues. He experimented with hand-drawn type, moiré patterns, photograms and blurred images. He used simple cut-out geometric shapes and public domain images overlaid with patterns or swatches of colour.
His work was conceptual, as he occasionally used symbolism in his book covers to portray concepts expressed in the book, rarely reading the manuscripts prior to designing the covers.
His designs were the perfect counterpoint to Grove’s texts. As primary designer, his unique style became the publisher’s visual brand identity.
Kuhlman sought inspiration from many sources, and throughout his career he paid homage to most of the modern styles and movements, including the Surrealists, the Abstract Expressionists, Russian Constructivism and the Pop Art movement. He was most inspired by the simple cutouts of Matisse, the pointillism of the Impressionists, the collage art of the Dadaists, the geometric abstraction of post-war minimalism, the photograms of Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy Nagy, as well as the typography of the Victorian era.
He paid tribute the work of many great twentieth-century artists and designers, including Paul Rand, Alvin Lustig, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Piet Mondrian, Victor Vasarely, Josef Albers, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and many others. And in all these emulations, he masterfully transmuted their styles into his own unique expression.