Remembering Richard Eckersley

As we honor our 75th anniversary this year, we recall and celebrate some of the most influential people in the Press’s history. 

Richard EckersleyRichard Eckersley

(1941–2006)

What do writers, editors, designers, and colleagues do when a beloved and talented friend dies? If the friend is Richard Eckersley, they write achingly beautiful remembrances and publish a lovely small book, trying to capture, somehow, his essence. Such is Remembering Richard, more than a hundred pages of breathtaking essays that try, with much success, to describe and memorialize Richard Eckersley—an attempt to hold onto this quiet man who made such a powerful impact.

The facts are these: Richard Eckersley was a Brit of immeasurable talent who joined the University of Nebraska Press in 1981 and worked there until his untimely death. The New York Times ran an obituary. As did the Guardian in London. And the Irish Times. During his tenure, he designed hundreds of books, jackets, covers, layouts, catalogs, posters, and all nature of items associated with scholarly publishing. He started his career in the era of hot type; he ended having been dragged into the world of desktop publishing. In fact, his tour de force, a masterpiece design for Avital Ronell’s Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech in 1989, was his first grudging foray into the new world of Aldus PageMaker. He never looked back.

His design esthetic was precise, spare, elegant, subtle, restrained, exacting, deliberate, intentional. He knew that the difference between an eighteen-point headline and a twenty-point headline could ruin or perfect a composition. That leading was important. As was white space. His colleagues remember that he could instantly seize upon why a coworker’s design wasn’t working, and he would offer a gentle suggestion that righted all of it.

His hiring was deemed “brilliant,” by Bill Regier, former press director. “Probably the most brilliant hire in the history of university publishing anywhere,” Regier said.

In Remembering Richard, former UNP director David Gilbert, who hired Eckersley, wrote that the press determined that hiring a designer of first rank, who had stature and reputation, would help the press attract writers of similar caliber. Eckersley was working at a small art school in Pennsylvania, and his visa was expiring. Gilbert eventually enlisted Nebraska’s U.S. senator to smooth the visa process. Gilbert was correct: important authors came to Nebraska hoping to win the imprimatur of a Rickard Eckersley design.

Eckersley was born in London during World War II; his father was also a graphic designer. Richard and his siblings were sent to the north of England to escape the blitzkrieg. There, living with his Methodist minister grandfather, Richard learned to revere books as nearly sacred objects to be approached with clean hands and to be handled gently, a habit he retained throughout life.

After he graduated from Trinity College Dublin with degrees in English and Italian literature, he studied graphic design at the London College of Printing. His father was head of the graphic design department and both of his brothers also matriculated. There, he met and married Dika Lagercrantz with whom he had three children. A graphic designer, she eventually also joined the press. They came to the States after leaving the innovative Kilkenny Design Workshop in Ireland in 1980.

Among his many accolades: the Carl Herzog Prize for book design in 1994; exhibits of his work in museums, including the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York; innumerable publishing awards; and raving critical reviews. In 1999 he was named Royal Designer for Industry by the English Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce; his father had won the same award in 1963.

Although he excelled at producing designs for modern writers such as Ronell, Jacques Derrida, and L. C. Breunig, his work in producing an oversized art book, Karl Bodmer’s America, in partnership with Omaha’s Joslyn Museum, and the thirteen-volume Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition were exceptionally noteworthy projects.

Colleagues remember the details of Eckersley the person. He was reticent until his tongue was loosened by alcohol and then the stories unfolded, often in hilarious detail. He wore blue corduroy pants most often with a tweed jacket over a woven shirt, buttoned to the top. No tie. He had a sloped posture and walked silently with his hands clasped behind his back, head down. He wore round, wire-rimmed glasses. He had an enviable head of brown hair.

He was generous with his time. He loved jazz piano and English football. He routinely rode a bicycle to work, even in the coldest of winters. He was never intentionally cruel; although when perturbed, a single sharp barb could end a conversation. His quiet ways and his reputation and stature intimidated new hires, but they soon learned of his gentle nature. He had a special coffee mug that no one was to use. He effaced the definition of melancholy.

Richard died in his sleep on April 16, 2006. His ashes were spread over a favorite river in Ireland, where he loved to fly-fish.

Profile by Kim Hachiya