CHATHAM – After very little sleep, illustrator Bob Staake awoke on the morning of Nov. 9 to an email from the art director at The New Yorker magazine looking for ideas for the following week's cover reflecting the outcome of the election.
Staake had already developed some concepts for a cover assuming Hillary Clinton was the victor, so he had to shift gears and wrap his mind around the previously unthinkable for the stalwart Democrat – a Donald Trump presidency.
“I came at it from a lot of different angles,” Staake, the author and/or illustrator of more than 50 children's books, said in an interview in the studio at his Old Village home. A few hours later, after about a dozen concepts, the editors accepted his illustration of a brick wall obscuring nearly the entire cover. The top right section of the wall remains unfinished – or maybe it's being dismantled.
“I like to create covers that are enigmatic in some poetic way,” Staake said about the cover's apparent ambiguity. “I don't want to create a didactic cover – that's the last thing I want to do.”
Eight years ago, almost to the day, Staake also created the magazine's post-election cover after Barack Obama's first victory. That cover, featuring a bright moon shining down on the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, became the New Yorker's all-time best-selling cover.
“It's still not sunk in,” said Staake. “I've done New Yorker covers for the two most important elections of our time.”
While the Obama cover was greeted with praise for its composition and positive symbolism – the reflection in the water resembles the bars of slavery, the Lincoln Memorial represents the breaking of those bonds, and the moon mimics the “O” used prominently in the Obama campaign – the Trump cover created something of a firestorm on social media when the magazine posted it two days after the election.
“That's when it completely blew up,” Staake said. When the print edition came out the following Monday his phone began ringing nonstop, literally. His iPhone maintained a constant buzz with the flow of texts, emails and messages. The cover image was retweeted and shared on Facebook many thousands of times. “It just went absolutely crazy,” he said, although, Staake acknowledges it never reached the fevered pitch of the latest Kim Kardashian kurfuffle. But for a magazine on New York culture, interest was high.
Sparking controversy wasn't on his mind when he created the cover. His goal was to tell the story with a single illustration that communicates the lead story in the magazine while engaging the reader. A good New Yorker cover “really should provide a very simple poetic framework and should really say to the reader 'I've given you a structure here, you flesh it out,'” Staake said. “It really demands to the reader to bring to the table their own thoughts and preconceived notions so they have their aha! moment.
“At the end of the day, it gives them ownership of the idea,” he said. The New Yorker is one of just a few publications where this is the case, he added. “You couldn't get away with bricks on Newsweek or on Rolling Stone. Only the New Yorker could get away with that.”
Along with the Obama cover, prints of which still sell well, Staake is responsible for other iconic New Yorker covers, including the depiction of purple raindrops after the death of Prince and a broken St. Louis arch following unrest there over the death of Michael Brown. The Trump cover is his first for the magazine this year; he said his children's book work – he does as many as five books a year and is currently working on several – often keeps him from spending as much time as he'd like on his own projects and other illustration work, although his drawings regularly appear in The Washington Post, and he's recently started contributing again to MAD Magazine.
The Trump cover was an important one to do, he felt. Staake and his wife Paulette are active with Chatham's Democratic Town Committee and while they were saddened by the election result, Staake said he was heartened that Chatham, known for its conservatism, voted for Clinton. Given the rhetoric of the campaign, the simple, stark image of the wall partially obscuring the magazine's title seems obvious now.
“I look at it – and I'm the guy who created it – and I think of course! Why was it so difficult?” Staake said. There's no doubt that the image resonanted with many people. The magazine's art editor, Francoise Mouly, wrote on Nov. 11, “When we first received the results of the election, we felt as though we had hit a brick wall, full force.” She quotes editor David Remnick, who urged readers in the hours after the results were announced to “combat authoritarianism, to call out lies, to struggle honorably and fiercely in the name of American ideals – that is what is left to do. That is all there is to do.”
To that, Staake adds, “I really wish I didn't have to do a Trump cover.”