David Skolkin grew up an hour’s drive north of New York City and went to college at the University of Rochester, where he studied psychology and photography. “And then I moved to Manhattan and got a job. I come from a New York-centric family, from Mad Men country. It was just what you did,” he told Pasatiempo. “I got my first job through a friend of my parents.” He worked as a grunt in the advertising industry for a year or so, and then an entry-level opportunity opened up at a busy book-design studio, and that sounded like good experience, too.
“There were tons of art students trying to get this job. I didn’t really have that background, but the woman who hired me tried to avoid art students because she thought they came with preconceived notions that she didn’t like. She wanted someone to tissue mechanicals, wax galleys — the things an underling did in those days. She hired me and that’s how I fell into book design,” he said. He worked at the same company for 13 years, learning every aspect of the craft and business.
As time went on, Skolkin began vacationing in Santa Fe and going on retreats at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiú — not for explicitly religious reasons, but out of a longing for quiet and natural beauty. After five or six annual visits, he realized he had fallen in love with the land, and he began having fantasies about moving here. On his next visit, he started thinking seriously about just how he could he could make a living in the City Different — and he was offered a job as a designer for a children’s pop-up book company located in town.
“So I made the leap. I moved out here. And it’s the typical Santa Fe story, because the job fell apart within a year. I panicked. I’d had a good job in New York! I liked my boss! Now I didn’t even know how I was going to eat. I call that time my personal earthquake.”
Another family connection came through. Stanley Marcus, president of the Neiman Marcus department store, had a home in Santa Fe and was a friend of his sister’s father-in-law. Marcus wrote letters of introduction for Skolkin to curators and business owners around town, leading Skolkin to a part-time job as the art director for Museum of New Mexico Press. He continues to serve in this capacity, designing the large, beautiful hardcover catalogs that accompany exhibitions.
Skolkin’s challenge is to make works of painting, photography, and sculpture that are bound between covers resonate as strongly with a viewer as the pieces would if they were displayed in a gallery. Among his recent museum press projects are ¡Órale! Lowrider: Custom Made in New Mexico by Don J. Usner, and Mabel Dodge Luhan and Company: American Moderns and the West, edited by Lois P. Rudnick and MaLin Wilson-Powell. This single part-time gig was what allowed him to stay in Santa Fe and build a client base for freelance projects. He has become an expert in art books, with deep skill at presenting other people’s art on the page. In 2007 he co-founded Radius Books with David Chickey, Darius Himes, and Joanna Hurley. Radius is a nonprofit fine-art book publishing companylocated in downtown Santa Fe. He is also partner in Skolkin + Chickey, a graphic design firm that focuses on fine-art books and book packaging, with clients ranging from museums to individual artists to major publishers like Rizzoli New York.
Skolkin entered the book-design industry just as computers were on the way in and manual production was on the way out. “I really learned to do it the old-fashioned way — being an apprentice and cutting type with a razor blade. Back then, there were typesetters, compositors, and all these people who worked on different parts. Now the designers does all of these things,” he said. The most significant change he has noticed in the overall look and style of art books over the last three decades is the switch from editorially driven content to visually driven content, where the images in an art book are the design priority, rather than fitting images in around the words written about the art. “Design meetings were run by editors, and they determined content and the look of a book. Now, the visual elements drive the design, and the text is considered another visual element rather than the main content.”
Of his career, Skolkin said he feels very lucky to have had the connections he needed to build a reputation in the art world. “The irony is that I work much harder in Santa Fe than I ever did in Manhattan. I was just another spoiled kid. No one who knew me would have expected me to move to the desert and become a workaholic, but I have been really, really busy for about 18 years.”