Collective action

As the third series of Penguin’s Great Ideas is about to go on sale, we look at publishers’ attempts to make not just readers, but book collectors of us all….

You’d really need one of Pete Frame’s diagrams to unravel the complex series of relationships, references, nods and homages that soon became evident with what seemed like a simple idea for a feature: to look at the newly prevalent trend for short, discrete series of books that, through their concept, branding and design, assume an identity and an attitude that make them highly collectable and desirable objects. Series that transcend the norms of pub­lishing and give the lie to the perceived and much exaggerated imminent death of the printed page.

Every story I write for cr starts and ends with Penguin. This is no exception. Having made us avid book-buyers in 1935, Penguin seduced us with hardbound collectable illustrated books, sporting patterned covers inspired by the enemy: King Penguins (right, top), launched in November 1939, were based closely on the German Insel-Bücherei (right, bottom). Edward Bawden, Paul Nash and Enid Marx had created a vogue for patterned papers which other British prewar series, like Zodiac, also used to bring both uniformity and variety to their covers.

Under Jan Tschichold, and Hans Schmoller, Penguin made strong (and economic) use of pattern  with Elizabeth Friedlander covering both Penguin Miniature Scores and umpteen Penguin Poets (see Italian Verse, below, left). Stephen Russ later developed the concept with abstract designs that somehow encapsulated the contents while Penguin Poets have maintained a consistent design quality throughout six decades, as the recent Petra Börner collages for ten Selected Poems eloquently demonstrate (three shown, left hand page).

David Pearson, one of Penguin’s most notable contemporary designers, immersed himself in this rich heritage when working on the Great Ideas series. Even after his subsequent departure from Penguin, patterns also offered the perfect solution for yet another cover commission. Without access to the contents of French publisher Zulma’s contemporary fiction series (OK, he doesn’t speak French), Pearson compromised with an inspired modern take (Pascal Garnier titles, left). “The patterns need to be forward-thinking,” he explains. “They’re non-repeating, so straightaway there’s a flow. Introducing narrative to the cover interests me. It made sense for literary fiction.”

The subtle eloquence of pattern and its ability to suggest narrative and atmosphere is well demonstrated in Virago Modern Classics’ 30th anniversary hardbacks (shown below). “We considered cover designs from the period of the book,” explains senior designer Rachael Ludbrook. “But that was too restrictive. We tried instead to match the design with the spirit of the book.”

“We wanted to use female textile designers,” adds commissioning editor Donna Coonan, “because they were so pioneering. The oldest is by Marion Dorn from the 1930s. She designed moquette fabrics for London Underground, geometric rugs for Eltham Palace and had her own textile design business. It seemed a nice way to combine the art and literature of the period.”

All the textiles already existed, except for Barbara Hulanicki’s commissioned pattern for Valley of the Dolls. “It’s nice to produce a book that’s a lovely object, rather than just trying to sell itself by being loud,” adds Coonan. “We used a simple label; we wanted the patterns to dominate. The result looks both forward and back, and defines a modern classic: informed by the past but accessible today.”

Dust jackets were never considered. “The texture matters,” explains Ludbrook. “The book is tactile and feels like fabric. We tried coarser finishes, like linen, but the colours didn’t work so well on them.”

Virago deliberately kept them to a collectable eight titles. Similarly, Harper’s Perennial series (two shown, below, top left) only comprises 15, but that was still enough to initiate minor nightmares for designer Petra Börner. Art director Julian Humphries jokingly suggested that one single illustration spread across all 15 covers would be cheaper. What he didn’t factor in was having to replace one or two of the original books, giving Börner the additional task of redesigning the whole illustration to incorporate the replacements.

Börner was best known for her collage work, but what attracted Humphries were her sketchbooks, which he had seen on her agent Dutch Uncle’s website.

“She’d drawn one page onto the next so they overlapped,” he says. “I was struck by how beautiful they were. It was still quite tricky to make 15 books, designed by the same person, look completely different, but keep a consistent look. I wanted to go black and white, to be quite sophisticated, stylish. Petra deliberately left negative space, to bring a little pace, and also so they’d stand alone as indi­vidual books; that was important. She was fantastic; she interpreted everything we gave her brilliantly, gave us two or three options every time and still managed to work it all in together.”

“I’ve always kept the sketchbook style; it’s a kind of thought process for me,” adds Börner. “I use it to think about things and develop ideas, but it had always been quite private. Most of the process is done by hand. That’s how you start thinking: these lines could become something. It’s like making a sketchbook of the series: a narrative through the illustration.”

The concept also had to engage the authors, or their representatives – the books are all relatively recent and branded as ‘prizewinners, bestsellers, modern classics’. One disgruntled author could scupper the whole concept, but they generally applauded the project, and despite two actually wanting someone else’s cover, it was ultimately a relatively painless, if extended, process.

Penguin, which perfected the concept of the collectable series with Great Ideas, Journeys and Loves, has now applied this thinking to other areas. Senior cover designer, Coralie Bickford-Smith, under the direction of Jim Stoddart, has made some fascinating inroads into Red Classics, the ‘popular’ version of Penguin Classics proper.

Small subgenres have emerged, with specific identities. A range of Boy’s Own-style yarns adapt a graphic and typographic approach relevant to the text and period, just like the original Great Ideas. The Thirty-Nine Steps evokes multiple Hitchcock references, tinged with a nostalgic wash. But it’s not always straightforward: “They’re not facsimiles of old books,” explains Coralie. “The Man Who Was Thursday [shown below] takes cues from Futurist and Dada typography; a treatment appropriate to both the early 20th-century setting and the anarchist subject matter, though not a feature of mainstream publishing at the time.”

Equally compelling is a horror subseries, sporting yellow covers (despite their Red identity), and numbered on the spines (always irresistible for the collector!). “The inspiration was Romek Marber’s amazing two-tone covers for 1960s Penguin Crime,” she adds. “Taking his photogram process as a starting point, I constructed my covers from cyanotypes. This primitive photographic process, with its ethereal texture and indistinct lines was ideal for ghostly tales, while the bold graphic elements and colour scheme were selected for maximum visual impact. I chose uncoated stock to replicate the feel of the original cyanotypes.”

Romek Marber: there’s a name engrained in Penguin design history. David Pearson has shamelessly (and brilliantly) captured his essence, even down to the spurious 3/6 price, with one of the forthcoming third batch of Great Ideas.

Here’s an object lesson for young designers: rules might be made to be broken, but it helps to know them first, and even love them a bit. “David knows what he’s doing and the ethos is built into him,” as explains Penguin Press art director Jim Stoddart. “His crazy idea [for the initial Great Ideas] took a lot for people here to get their heads around. But it definitely helped us consider why we were publishing them. They’re outside runners; so there’s a freedom to be creative with the covers.”

Having used red and blue for the first two series, a different colour was essential. Maybe Marber had a hand in steering Pearson towards Penguin’s traditional Crime green.

“Green’s not a selling colour,” says Pearson. “It’s much harder than finding the right red or blue. Most reds sit nicely against black or white; green doesn’t have that presence.”

This set is very different: it’s an obvious reflection of both the growing confidence of the team (Pearson always brings in his ex-tutors Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon, and fellow former student Alistair Hall to contribute some of the covers). Originally this ensured that the project had an in-built level of quality control (“typophiles can be very unforgiving if you get it wrong!” Pearson explains) and that collectively, the covers would appear varied and interesting. “When Phil got involved I was struck by how confidently he used the space,” adds Pearson, “and it’s this fluctuation in scale that helped provide pace to the series. Phil’s approach opened my eyes and made me realise that I too could push the idea further than I had originally imagined.”

Add to this the mental space that Jim Stoddart allows, the fact that the briefing session for the third series took around ten minutes, and you have a potent mixture of the ideal team and the perfect client and a clear invitation to take series three to an entirely new level. “Last time I thought I’d moved it on,” Pearson adds. “I was getting more confident as a designer, so the decisions were getting bolder. This series is almost more image-led – getting rid of some of the white and flooding the cover with information. Predominantly white covers (with the green) would be a bit vague. But it’s led by the list – with more contemporary titles you can bring in images. We’ve got overprinting for the first time, so all of a sudden you’ve got a much denser palette: rich black as well as normal black, you can underpin grey with green, you can use different shades of green on top of different shades of grey. It really does help you realise a much broader spectrum – that’s just me learning more as a designer. I didn’t know about overprinting when I did the first series: it’s nice to bring that in. It’s like starting from scratch, you’ve got these new ideas.”

This new series presents a range of styles and approaches that occasionally stop you in your tracks. If such a thing exists, they’re like good jazz: ensemble playing, beautiful solos, variations on themes … and wild improvisation. Mmm, nice.

David Pearson and Petra Börner are currently developing a hush-hush project together. That sounds and feels just right: another inspiring jam session in the making.

Steve Hare is a writer, book collector (15,000 and counting) and trustee of the Penguin Collectors’ Society

 

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