Penguin by Designers: David Pelham
As part of Penguin Books' 70th anniversary celebrations in 2005, a study day was held at the V&A that brought together distinguished Penguin designers, art directors and typographers John Miles, Romek Marber, Jerry Cinamon, Derek Birdsall, David Pelham and Jim Stoddart. The intention was to examine the changing attitudes to cover design over some five of the seven decades in which Penguin has been the world’s best known and best loved publisher. The talks, and some 250 cover illustrations, have subsequently been turned into a paperback, Penguin by Designers, and we present an exclusive extract from the book here on CRBlog: the full transcript of the talk given by designer David Pelham who started at Penguin in 1968.
David Pelham‘s arrival at Penguin belatedly followed Alan Aldridge’s enforced departure. With experience as art director for a number of magazines he brought a much needed consistency and dignity to Penguin’s diverse fiction titles and, after the departure of Germano Facetti in 1972, to other parts of the list.
"Good afternoon. It’s a great privilege to be here talking to you, and thank you for inviting me to do so.
I studied at St Martin’s School of Art in the 50s and, between leaving there and arriving at Penguin Books in 1968, I gained wide experience by working on various magazines. The first was a posh export magazine called The Ambassador which I left when invited to art edit the art magazine Studio International. Later I spent five years as art director of the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar. During my magazine years I gained many friends and contacts in the art world, working directly with world-class writers, painters, designers, typographers, illustrators, poets, sculptors, photographers and fashionistas, not to mention some very clever technicians.
Consequently, when I joined Penguin I had a formidable stable of talent to support me. Not least among these talents was Derek Birdsall, a brilliant designer of course, but also a powerfully persuasive force, an attribute that proved to be a great help in what turned out to be an extremely difficult job. Older readers will recall those days in the late 60s when I joined Penguin because the company’s identity crisis was then in full swing, and ‘A PENGUIN BOOK’ appeared in 36pt Optima caps across the top of every cover, completely negating any attempt at sensitive design which might appear below it. I don't know how to say this politely but, in spite of all the wonderful work that Romek and Germano – a most brilliant art director – had done in the past, since the departure of Alan Aldridge the visuals on the orange list had been allowed to fall into – shall we say - less capable hands. Consequently, by the time I arrived, the majority of the covers were, quite frankly, a mess.
This of course was due to a succession of undirected knee-jerk reactions and near panic decisions in the post-[Alan] Aldridge design hiatus that had preceded my joining the company. It would appear that I was the last person that Allen Lane employed personally. He was clearly very concerned with what in today’s terms would be referred to as Penguin’s ‘brand image’, and in August 1968 at a private meeting at Sir Allen’s farm we agreed that, in order to re-establish lost ground in the marketplace due to some years of confused identity, I should sweep away the mixed plethora of previous visual conventions in favour of consistency.
It was at this meeting that I suggested that the time may have come to break free completely from existing constricting grids and perceive each front cover as a blank canvas upon which carefully chosen artists might express themselves within the negotiable bounds of a particular title or author identity. The Penguin brand identity would then rely wholly upon retaining orange, blue or green spines, and by placing Tschichold’s magnificent symbol in the top right corner of the front and back covers, unless there was a good design reason for placing it elsewhere. These suggestions were well received and for the following six months Sir Allen would sit alongside me at my desk in Harmondsworth for an hour or so almost daily, keeping a sharp eye on how the new look was developing. Here are three covers utilising existing images.
As I have said, I arrived at Penguin Books with a bank of potential helpers from many different areas of creativity behind me. One such was an old friend from my art magazine days called Eduardo Paolozzi, a well-known sculptor and print maker, and a man of seemingly unlimited knowledge, interests and enthusiasm. My preferred way of working was to seek out an artist who was at least familiar with, and at best an enthusiast of, the text. But when the manuscript of this strange experimental novel by the highly ironic American writer John Barth landed on my desk I couldn’t think of anyone who might respond to such a far-out, intellectually challenging and unconventional work.
In those days I tended to be pondering over covers for some 20 or so titles at any given time. Consequently, over lunch with Eduardo I casually mentioned the name John Barth. He immediately responded with great enthusiasm. ‘Oh John Barth, wonderful; wonderful writer.’ While I had struggled with the manuscript and had found it to be unreadable, here was Eduardo saying he would provide a cover simply for the pleasure of reading Barth’s latest novel. Obviously I was relieved and delighted and this is the cover image that Paolozzi came up with, which was a detail from an existing print. While I found the image nothing more than visually pleasing, John Barth absolutely loved it and found it ‘so appropriate’.
So here we have two people relating to each other in a very elaborated code, well above my head and I’m right out of the picture. It also turned out that it was regarded by Barth enthusiasts – and there are a surprising amount of them – to be a very witty and apposite cover for the book. Quite why I don’t know, and I probably will never know; but what I think I’m trying to say here is that the principle of ‘I can’t but I know a man who can’ often comes into it when dealing with subject matter or specialities outside one’s area of interest or knowledge.
Like the director of a dating agency I sometimes found myself putting authors and designers together because I just had a hunch they would get along.
This was a lovely, lovely book – very beautiful, very delicately written. Brophy was a beautiful writer and her book concerns and explores the identity of a transsexual narrator through a series of reflections and verbal fantasies as he/she waits in an airport lounge for a connecting flight, the destination of which is as ambiguous as the sexual identity of the traveller. It so happened that I had been at Allen Jones’s studio a couple of weeks earlier and I had noticed this female to male image half-finished on a canvas.
So when I noticed In Transit on the schedule I gave Allen a call and he said, ‘But it’s not finished’. So I sent a photographer over to the studio, got a transparency from which we made a large print and then got a brilliant finishing artist, Wolf Spoerl, to airbrush in the background to Alan Jones’s specification. Subsequently Brigid Brophy wrote me a most delightful thank-you letter saying how appropriate she felt the cover image to be.
Just as gallery artists discovered objets trouvés, so graphic artists discovered images trouvées; found images as opposed to found objects, using them in new and unexpected ways. Everyday recycled images prove a godsend to designers, illustrators, print makers and art directors desperately searching for a quick yet effective solution to a graphic problem. Eduardo Paolozzi was not only a very generous and a remarkably eclectic man, he was also nothing less than a master of the found image. His studio was full of quite wonderful things. He was a connoisseur of junk who would sometimes repay my appreciation by giving me prints, toy robots or pieces of sculpture.
Every now and again he’d give me a rather fat file of visually interesting little cuttings that he habitually clipped out of magazines: technological magazines such as Scientific American and wonderful science-fiction magazines and so forth. This image once adorned the cover of a Hollywood film magazine of the 30s which now lies somewhere amongst all his wonderful graphic junk in my loft. About a week after giving me yet another pile of images this title, which included The Day of The Locust, appeared on the schedule. As West based his satirical novella on his experiences while working as a script writer in Hollywood in the 30s, this image came to mind. It was a successful cover and sold a lot of books. It did its job. Thank you Eduardo.
Now let’s look at some covers where the idea was not found but prompted by the words themselves.
This is a ghastly yet wonderful book; a very grim investigation into the brutal murders of a family in Kansas. There were four victims who were shot by two ex-convicts and Capote’s narrative is absolutely chilling, detailing the last moments of the victims and tracing the lives of the murderers through to the moment of their execution. It is what used to be called a ‘factionalised’ novel, and is far more violent than A Clockwork Orange, yet just as wonderfully written.
While I find it quite troubling that such violent events should be narrated so beautifully, nevertheless this is a potent cover that tells the truth, in that judging this book by its cover will not disappoint. It sold extremely well. When considering the cover I noticed that the typographical characters making up the title and author’s name ‘In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’ between them contained four ‘o’s; so obviously I substituted each ‘o’ for a blood spot, one for each of the four victims.
Here is a very light-hearted and funny book, and this is another example of a solution hiding within the problem. All you have to do is spot it. Then, with no more than a typographical tweak, the notion and the pitch of the work is instantly conveyed directly into the mind of the observer. Reps’ reports recorded that this title sold exceptionally well in Golder’s Green.
While on the subject of typography, here is a brilliant solution by my old friend Alan Fletcher for Mind The Stop. I just think there’s nothing more to be said: the cover says it all in an instant. This brilliant little book said it all a long time before Eats, Shoots and Leaves, and I refer to it at least three times a week. We’ve just seen three cover designs which have been solved with typographically inspired ideas, and which convey the raison d’être of the book in an instant. The same minimalist approach to instant communication can also be inspired by everyday objects supporting a graphic idea.
While this deceptively throwaway minimalist technique catches the mind almost as quickly as it catches the eye, such austere approaches are obviously better suited to covers of reference and non-fiction titles, where the need to convey subject matter alone tends to be key. While there is seldom need for mood in the covers of handbooks, fiction covers need to be more user friendly, as the designer John Gorham instinctively knew when he took up the following challenge.
Thankfully, a highly skilled designer may not be put off by austere impositions. Impositions in this case imposed by no less a being than Vladimir Nabokov. I showed the designer John Gorham a letter from Nabokov firmly stating that, with the exception of Lolita (which was the title that eventually released Nabokov from the chore of teaching), that he wanted no imagery or representation of his characters on any of his covers – nothing of any kind. He only wanted what he called ‘lettering’. For added gravitas he had signed this dictum in a large hand, his signature heavily underlined with a great flourish, seemingly to show that he meant business.
The late and lamented John Gorham, a brilliant designer and highly accomplished and sensitive ‘letterer’ himself, having studied the signature for a moment, begged me to give him all the Nabokov titles to design despite the limitations imposed by the author. I later realised that John wanted to design them because he had seen a beauty in the style of the signature that I had missed. Somewhere in the Penguin files there should be a further letter to me from Nabokov expressing his approval of the new design: a design that on the one hand fulfilled a most austere brief and on the other hand, with the help of sensitive lines and superb colour combinations, simultaneously conveyed a mood of warmth and humanity quite befitting the elegance of the text. Very clever.
I thought that – as we have two very famous icons here, Penguin and John Lennon – why not let the images do the work. If in doubt, you only have to look at the spine to see that it’s The Penguin John Lennon. This may possibly be the only commercial paperback ever to be published without a single word on its front cover. Possibly the first, and equally possibly the last.
Here’s a bit of fun. A book for the greedy. I asked John McConnell if he could do something witty with it and he did. He came up with this idea of making the book look like a stack of one hundred dollar bills. The book was also wrapped with a belly band with the title and author printed on it, and when you riffled the corner of the book it felt as if you had a million dollars in your hand.
John added further wit to the idea by then designing a counter pack in the style of a black attaché case, the kind that a Mafioso would use to pay off drug money or whatever. Sitting there, open on the counter in a bookshop stuffed with what appeared to be bundles of one hundred dollar bills it was guaranteed to attracted a lot of attention. A great idea from a great designer. That was an example of the book pretending to be something else. I have always been fond of such visual tricks and illusions.
This is a regional comedy about a youth who attempts to escape his dull working-class existence through fantasy, consuming industrial quantities of Woodbine cigarettes the whilst. Waterhouse appears to employ the humble Woodbine as a kind of sociological lodestone to remind the reader constantly that Billy is somewhat less than the image he is putting out. So here is another example of a book pretending to be something other than a book. The classic Woodbine packet was lovingly parodied by that quite extraordinary illustrator Tony Meeuwissen. Look at that detail: it’s quite remarkable.
I’m sure that everybody knows this series. Some love it, others hate it, but whether you like it or not let me tell you the story behind this series. Hans Schmoller – God bless him – called me one day and told me that the printer Hazel, Watson and Viney had a large amount of cream coloured cover-weight stock cluttering up their warehouse. I happened to know that it was left over from a rethink on some Shakespeare covers, but that's by the by.
‘There’s a lot of it and it belongs to Penguin Books,’ they said, ‘and do you still want it?’ Even in those days warehousing was expensive, as was the stock itself. So Hans asked me if I could help out. As his request coincided with a planned re-covering of all Evelyn Waugh titles in the Penguin list I said that I thought I could help.
My original idea for using up this cream stock was to print details of art déco architectural features on it in soft pastel colours. I could see it clearly in my mind’s eye and passed a detailed brief over to the design group Bentley/Farrell/Burnett to style all of Waugh’s covers in the way just described. For whatever reason they ignored my brief and came up with this series look. Initially I rather resisted it, but as everybody – particularly marketing – seemed quite in love with it I went along with it. Years later, at a party, I bumped into Bron Waugh and in the course of conversation asked him what he thought of the quasi art déco covers that Penguin had put on his father’s titles. ‘Rather fun,’ he said. ‘Got a cigarette?’ That’s all he said about them, and we then went on to talk about other things. I was rather surprised. I was hoping he would hate them.
As you well know, Penguin Specials addressed topical and often contentious political and social issues, as did Roger Law and Peter Fluck, both brilliant illustrators in their own right, both political activists who felt restricted by the graphic limitations of a two-dimensional page. To give their potent satirical ideas yet more visual clout they experimented with three-dimensional illustrations made out of plasticine. These models were about three foot high, and required a lot of plasticine which, in such quantities proved to be expensive.
Consequently the moment Luck and Flaw – as they were called – had a good transparency of their latest creation, the model would be mashed up and recycled; so you can reasonably suppose that Jeremy Thorpe’s head on Tuesday may well have become Marilyn Monroe’s left breast by Friday. When all set up under lights in the studio awaiting the photographer, these models possessed an uncomfortable and eerie presence, a quality that I am sure inspired Roger and Peter to add the frenzied animation that led to the phenomenon of Spitting Image.
How thrilling it must be to see your creations rise up from the drawing board, moving and speaking, making political points and entertaining millions. Smear was never published; it disappeared from the schedule in circumstances that remain mysterious.
Oh, we had such trouble with this cover! It was the late 70s and representatives of Women’s Lib from both within and without the company came down hard on us, and me in particular because, as a result of considerable pressure from the marketing department, I put this lively and apparently sexist illustration by Kathy Wyatt on the cover. The book pulls few punches and my feeling was that those who found the cover tasteless and vulgar – and there were many – probably hadn’t read it.
While the book remains tasteless and vulgar it also remains screamingly funny, energetic, and a bloody good read.
Consequently, Virago very wisely republished it in 1999. I find their choice of cover illustration not only interesting but also more than somewhat exonerating.
I met Jim Ballard through Eduardo Paolozzi. They were great friends. I was very familiar with Ballard’s work, having been a great admirer from way back. I admired the bleak style of his catastrophe novels – this being The Drought – and their heartless depiction of technological and human breakdown and decay. Grim perhaps, but wonderfully written. Drawn to the romance of his apocalyptic imagery I wanted to illustrate his covers myself. Consequently I quickly airbrushed this postcard sized image to show him the idea and talked to him about his other titles in the list. That’s how we started out. Here’s the finished job. I did a series of four which I think we have here to look at, together with a slipcase which we don’t.
It was a huge pleasure working so closely with Ballard, and I’m pleased to be able to report that the titles in these covers sold very well.
This has become quite a well-known image. However, something that none of these images can’t convey is the urgency and speed at which some of them had to be created. Neither can the images convey the additional complications created by author demands and in the case of film titles, director demands. They also cannot convey how different, difficult, laborious and slow the technical side of the process was in those days. While schedules varied, some were very tight indeed.
Barry Trengove had designed a delightful cover for the Penguin edition of A Clockwork Orange and then the movie came along. While the Penguin marketing department was desperate to tie in with the film graphics, the director of the movie Stanley Kubrik wasn’t at all interested in tying in with the book. Consequently I was given the task of commissioning an illustration that gave the impression of being a movie poster. Sadly I was subsequently let down very badly by an accomplished airbrush artist and designer (whose name I will keep to myself), who kept calling for yet more time and who eventually turned in a very poor job very late. I had to reject it which was a hateful thing to have to do because we were now right out of time.
To give you an impression of what it was like working in those pre-computer days, there was no pressing of buttons and getting a result there and then, no emails or jpegs or instant typesetting. No quick way of trying this colour or that colour. No. In those days you often found yourself working around the clock because everything technical took so long.
Well there I am, late in the day and having to create a cover for A Clockwork Orange under pressure. Already seriously out of time I worked up an idea on tracing paper overnight, ordering front cover repro from the typesetter around 4.00 am. I remember that my type mark-up was collected by a motorcycle messenger around about 5.00 am. Later that morning, in the office, I drew the black line work you see here on a matt plastic acetate sheet, specifying colours to the separator on an overlay while the back cover repro was being pasted up by my loyal assistants who had the scalpel skills of brain surgeons. I had wonderful assistants, absolutely wonderful.
Then more motorcycle messengers roaring around London in large crash helmets; and some days later I would see a proof. In those days, that was quick! Since those times I have often been amused to notice that my hurried nocturnal effort of so long ago appears to have achieved something of iconic status, for I've seen this cog-eyed image on fly-posters in Colombia, on t-shirts in Turkey, and put to a variety of uses in Canada, Los Angeles and New York. Because I did it, I spot it. Its like walking into a room where a party’s going on and, although the room is buzzing with conversation, if somebody simply mentions your name in conversation you immediately pick it up because it’s so familiar.
A wonderful book. Penguin had a most gifted copywriter called Meaburn Staniland who wrote the most sparkling back cover blurb. Of the central character of this book he wrote, ‘Gully Foyle, liar, lecher, ghoul, walking cancer, obsessed by vengeance, he’s the 24th century’s most valuable commodity but he doesn’t know it. His story is one of the great classics of science fiction.’ Yes Meaburn you were right, his story really is a great classic and I wanted a portrait of Gully Foyle on the cover: but you can’t do that. You can’t depict such a portmanteau character in a conventional portrait because his likeness is no more than a cleverly arranged series of words. That is what he is.
So I took a leaf out of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s book and drew a composite portrait made out of debris. If you have a copy of this book you might actually see Gully Foyle on the cover. He’s a tiny white spot to the left of the portrait’s left eye, adrift in space, because that’s where we first come across him, barely getting by, living in the tangled remains of a drifting spaceship that has exploded. So my portrait of Gully Foyle is also a humble homage to a great hero of mine, the first Surrealist, the Italian Mannerist Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
I love these double images. I’ve always been very intrigued by interchangeable images that can’t both be perceived at the same time. I think that when I commissioned Peter Brookes to do a cover for Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Hermit of Peking I probably mentioned that fact to him, because he picked up on it very nicely. Very clever drawing, very clever indeed. A brilliant illustrator then and a brilliant political cartoonist now. Boy, how he can draw.
More interchangable imagery – just for the fun of it; because this has nothing to do with Penguin Books: it’s simply a logo I designed for a friend’s yacht called Brigand. He wanted a skull and cross bones, but with a difference; so I produced this. The client loved it but Disney didn’t. I got into a bit of trouble with The Disney Corp but they let me off with a warning. I just like an image that gives you two hits in one. You get more for your money.
Throughout my career marketing departments have been the bane of my life. In 1967 I walked out of my job at Harper’s Bazaar in a hissy fit brought on by the marketing department’s persistent attempts to drag the editorial pages down to the creatively mundane level of the advertising pages. However, during my years at Harper’s Bazaar I had the good fortune to work with some of the world’s finest photographers. One highly talented and sensitive man I particularly enjoyed working with was Barry Lategan. Consequently when I found myself once again being confronted by a bullying marketing department wanting to re-cover all Edna O’Brien’s titles with female nudes I had visions of Allen Lane turning in his grave.
However, by commissioning the job to Barry Lategan I was able to keep everybody happy, including myself. Barry fulfilled my brief perfectly by supplying a series of transparencies of great elegance and sensitivity. While I don’t think that the end result was quite what the marketing department had in mind, everybody appeared to like them, they offended nobody, and Edna’s titles received a noticeable boost in sales as a result of the re-covering.
Talking about photographers, I wanted to use this very famous photograph of Camus by Henri Cartier-Bresson for the cover of A Happy Death. Those who know the photograph will recognise that it has been cropped quite severely left, right and top. When the proofs arrived I sent a couple of copies to John Hillelson at Magnum, Cartier-Besson’s agent. Panic! ‘You’ve cropped a Cartier-Bresson! Nobody crops a Cartier-Bresson, not ever!’ I felt like the transgressor in a Bateman cartoon. I could see the caption: ‘The man who cropped a Cartier-Bresson photograph!’ It was awful: would we have to pulp? Would we have to reprint? Would I end my days in a smelly Algerian jail?
In the hope of avoiding such misery I wrote a humble letter of apology to Hillelson at Magnum with a view to him sending it on to Cartier-Bresson. The reply was charming and elegant, and I thought, ‘Yes. You too have been the victim of a marketing department at some time in your career; I recognise the scars.’
It was a generous and sweet letter acknowledging that the picture had to be cropped for such an application. He understood.
And so we come to the final curtain. I left Penguin in 1980 largely due to this dreadful cover, others like it, and an increasing frustration with the unions. Covers like this were being wrapped around pages of bulked paper to fatten out ‘the product’ and to give additional ‘perceived value’. When, from time to time I overheard people in the marketing department referring to books as ‘the product’, I knew that it was time to jump. The marketing people had won. Although the company was back in profit, the price that had to be paid was far too high for me. Thankfully today’s team has brought back the original ethos of Penguin – an ethos that befits a company of such distinction."
Text taken from Penguin by Designers, published by the Penguin Collectors’ Society (£15.00). The book is available online only from www.penguincollectorssociety.org. Of the 1,250 copies published, the first 100 have been numbered and signed by the authors. Penguin by Designers is edited by Phil Baines and Steve Hare. The remaining copies are available at £20.00 each (additional postage applied to all copies sold abroad). ISBN 978-0-952-74017-9.
I am researching the work of Australian-UK designer, Barry Trengove (1932-2006). If anyone knew Barry and his magazine, puiblication' branding work, I would appreciate any thoughts. I am aware there was an obituary posted on the D&AD site .
Hi - I need to reach David Pelham. Do you have any agent or publicist I could reach ?
Thank you in advance.
This is for a great project opportunity.
+ 33 1 46 59 13 69
I am so pleased to have found your webite and find so much information on David Pelham. He is my cousin and sadly I haven't seen him for 45 years.
He may remember me and my twin brother Anthony.
Anyway I would love to hear from him.
My brother Anthony Pelham and I are trying very hard to make contact with our cousin David Pelham.
Anthony (Tony) is trying to do a family tree and we would love to hear from him with any information that he has regarding the Pelhams.
Please phone me on 01373 832203
Fantastic Fantastic work...!
Had a very satisfying discovery/connection moment with this article. I've had David's "Kites" book for years--discovered in a second hand store-picked it up based on its beauty. Bought it not knowing anything about Davids other work–which I now realize has been around me for years, too.
how can i get in touch with David Pelham, as i have a question re: one of his penguin covers? ta from Johnny.
My twin sister Annette has already put in a request for David Pelham who is my cousin to contact me.
I am compiling a family tree which David may be interested in what I have found so far.
If he could contact me by e mail tony.pelham@btinternetcom it would be greatly appreciated.
It would be fantastic to get in touch after all these years.
Anthony (Tony) Pelham
Did anyone ever manage to contact David? I'm basing my Uni dissertation around some of his work :-)
Hi, If you send me an email I can try and get a contact for you.
Thanks Mark. I have emailed you, cheers.
Clockwork Orange was a defining book/film for all of us, (especially the ones living here in London), and ever since I saw your design the first time around, I get a creepy feeling.
I am surprised you say that Kubrick wouldn't talk to Penguin about working on the design together as obviously they drew a LOT of inspiration from your design. Sure, it is not indetical by any means, but come on, it is obvious for anyone to see.
I am a huge admirer of David Pelham's work. I first saw his designs at an impressionable age and I have long sought to obtain some prints. Are any commercially available?
You can win a Pelham Clockwork Orange print in the Gallery competition in this month's CR
I recently purchased David Pelham's book Trail and would love to contact him. I am basing my university module around his work and would love some advice.
Could anyone please tell me how I can get in contact with him? It will be very much appreciated.
Yikes! For one frighteningly ghastly moment I thought that David (pardon my informality) had included 'The Far Pavilions' as yet another gem from his Penguin stable. Quite a relief when the reason for its inclusion was explained. As David suggested, and I totally agree, it's the kiss of death when 'the suits' get involved with the creative process.
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