Carin Goldberg, a graphic designer who brought an inventive postmodern sensibility to book and album covers, died on Jan. 19 at her home in Stanfordville, N.Y., in Dutchess County. She was 69.
Her husband, the architect James Biber, said the cause was a glioblastoma brain tumor.
Ms. Goldberg, who had trained as a painter, was a scholar of designs and typefaces, particularly those of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which she reimagined in elegant and witty combinations on the covers of hundreds of albums and thousands of books.
She designed covers for best sellers — her cover for Oliver Sacks’s “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” resembles a 17th-century title page — and for more esoteric fare, like Rilke’s “The Sonnets to Orpheus,” for which she channeled the vintage typography of the Viennese decorative arts movement Wiener Werkstätte.
For Madonna’s first album, in 1983, she framed the young singer’s face with her name, the O’s slyly rendered in red. Her covers for classical music albums were distinguished by “an airy open style that balanced ornament and white space,” Ellen Lupton, curator emerita at the Cooper Hewitt Museum of Design, which has more than two dozen of Ms. Goldberg’s work in its collections, wrote in a tribute.
Ms. Goldberg came of age as a designer for CBS Records in the late 1970s, a time when the field of graphic design was dominated by a kind of corporate modernism — think minimalism and Helvetica type.
She and others began looking to the past for inspiration. Her cohort included Paula Scher, who was for a time her boss at CBS; Lorraine Louie, who was putting her stamp at Vintage Books on covers for hot young authors like Jay McInerney (“Bright Lights, Big City” is a touchstone of the era); and Louise Fili, then the art director of Pantheon Books and the creator of the sultry cover for “The Lover,” by Marguerite Duras, published in 1985.
A 1989 article in Print magazine championing the four women’s work was headlined “The Women Who Saved New York!” Its author, the design historian Philip B. Meggs, wrote admiringly of their “flagrant disregard for the ‘rules’ of proper typography” and their “fascination with kinky and mannered typefaces that were designed during the 1920s and 1930s.”
To Ms. Goldberg, that history was crucial. “Without a sense of design history,” she told him, “graphic designers are lost in space.”
One of Ms. Goldberg’s most recognizable and buzzed-about works was her cover for Vintage’s 1986 reissue of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Her brief, as she often recalled, had been to riff on a 1949 edition of the book by the celebrated designer E. McKnight Kauffer, considered a masterwork of book design, in which he had enlarged the “U” and flanked it with a slender “l.” Her version set the title at an angle and rendered it in vivid colors — a flourish that paid homage to an even earlier work, a 1920s poster by the German designer Paul Renner showcasing the modernist sans serif typeface he called Futura.
“I rationalized that Joyce was a modernist,” Ms. Goldberg said in an interview with the influential graphic designer Sean Adams. “That was my hook.”
It caused a furor in the tribal world of graphic design. The activist designer Tibor Kalman assailed the work at an industry conference, accusing Ms. Goldberg of “pillaging history.”
She was unfazed by the ruckus. “I was surprised by the intensity of the discussion,” Ms. Lupton recalled her saying years later. “While I was busy pillaging history, Tibor was busy pillaging the vernacular. We are all pillagers.”
Carin Goldberg was born on June 12, 1953, in Manhattan, and grew up in Glen Cove, on Long Island, and in Matawan, N.J. Her father, Martin Goldberg, owned a company that sold evening wear. Her mother, Edith (Snyder) Goldberg, had been a buyer for the department store I. Magnin before her marriage.
Carin graduated from the Cooper Union in Manhattan with a degree in fine arts in 1975. She hoped to be a painter, but decided she did not want to live like a pauper.
She took her portfolio to CBS and was hired as an assistant designer for CBS Television. After a few years she moved to record packaging, first to Atlantic and then back to CBS, where she worked as a designer under Ms. Scher.
Unlike the company’s television operation, which she said taught her the craft of design but adhered to a strict corporate image, CBS Records allowed designers to play.
“We were also blessed with an amazing library of new and vintage art and design books,” she told Mr. Adams. “We were looking at Cassandre, Herbert Bayer, Italian Futurism, Russian Constructivism and de Stijl for inspiration.”
“All of that stuff,” she added, “totally thrilled us.”
She left CBS in 1982 to start her own business, creating designs for books, records, posters and media companies, including the The New York Times. She married Mr. Biber in 1987.
Mr. Biber recalled the day she received a phone call from Warner Bros. Records asking her to design a first album for a young pop singer. She covered the phone with her hand, he remembered, and rolled her eyes at him. “Get this,” she mouthed, “her name is Madonna!”
Describing the shoot with the photographer Gary Heery to New York magazine in 2015, Ms. Goldberg said that Madonna arrived “ready-made.”
“She knew who she was,” Ms. Goldberg said. “We didn’t have to worry about styling her.” They put Madonna’s music on and asked her to dance. “It was short, it was sweet. She did everything we asked her to do. She said thank you.”
Ms. Goldberg chose a close-up portrait for the album cover — she had directed Madonna to bring her rubber-bangled wrists up to her face — and framed it with Madonna’s name, black on the right and white on the left, except for the red O’s.
“It was so subtle but also so naughty,” said Chip Kidd, a veteran book designer. “I didn’t get the music but I definitely got the design.”
In addition to her husband, Ms. Goldberg is survived by their son, Julian, and a brother, Stuart Goldberg.
For nearly four decades, she taught design at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
“Carin’s work was stylish and smart and formally inventive,” said the author and book designer Peter Mendelsund, who is now the creative director of The Atlantic. “She was also formally restless. Every single great book cover she made was different from the rest.”
In 2004, Ms. Goldberg was among a group of eminent graphic designers who were asked to design posters that would be sold to benefit the Books for Kids Foundation. Each artist was asked to design a poster using a different punctuation mark.
Michael Bierut, a partner at Pentagram, the global design firm, was given the semicolon. For his entry, he enlarged a photograph of Colin Powell, then the secretary of state, and sliced it in half.
Ms. Goldberg, who was given an ellipsis, reproduced the familiar Life magazine logo, set it in the top left-hand corner and, in the bottom right, deployed the word “death” in pale Gothic letters that disappeared off the page. In between, afloat in white space, were three enormous black circles. The result was bold, witty and profound.
Mr. Bierut was both deflated and exhilarated by her efforts. “All of her versions operated at this level of contemplative depth,” he said. “Mine was a stupid pun. And she was thinking about the meaning of life.”