If you love book covers, you can thank the British and American Arts and Crafts movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If you love book covers with both historic and modern elements of design, you can thank Alice Cordelia Morse, an American artist, designer, and teacher whose work in bookmaking went far beyond the cover. Morse, who also illustrated books and experimented with various bookbinding techniques, knew the artistic and commercial value of exceptional book design. Her legacy? Enchanting, inspiring designs that echo the emphasis of the Arts and Crafts movement: beauty and (and in) practicality.
Morse was born in Ohio but raised in middle-class Williamsburg, Brooklyn (Morse may be one of the first, but certainly not the last, book geek to call Williamsburg her home). Morse studied art and design the Woman’s Art School of the Cooper Union in Manhattan, then continued her studies in stained glass under renowned painter, designer, and stained glass artist John LaFarge. While she was working in the women’s glass studio of Louis C. Tiffany’s firm, Morse started receiving commissions for book cover designs. Eventually, she returned to Cooper union to attend graduate school. For the rest of her career as a designer, Morse worked mainly in book covers. She was known for her ability to incorporate Gothic, Celtic, and Arabic flourishes into her designs. Additionally, Morse experimented with 16th-century bookbinding techniques.
While some artists protect the originality of their designs, guarding their secret recipes for success, Morse wanted to create accessible art that could be copied by others. Imagine the generosity and artistic goodwill that fueled the Arts and Crafts movement: art for all! Morse’s code to appealing design was created to be cracked. Consider the floral, symmetrical, and repetitive shapes that adorn Morse’s gold-embellished covers. Without a doubt, these designs are art. But they are also part of a greater artistic-commercial landscape: the art, craft, and business of book production.
Perhaps the most telling (and compelling) part of Morse’s story is the end: did she die a renowned designer? Did she skate comfortably into old age on the laurels of her artistic merit? Hardly. After years as a commissioned artist and designer, Morse graduated from a teacher education course at the Pratt institute and began teaching art education in Scranton, PA. Eventually, she became the district supervisor for art and drawing in area schools. After Morse retired from teaching, she went back to New York and gave nearly 60 of her book covers to the Metropolitan museum. Why does Morse’s shift from creation to education matter? Morse’s emphasis on sharing art with others harkens all the way back to the philosophy behind her cover designs: art is for everybody. It isn’t high, mighty, or untouchable. Like my design? Here, copy it. Know what I know. Then teach it to somebody else.
Mary Ryan Karnes is a freelance writer and a Master's candidate in fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi.