Reading the Classics

Penguin is celebrating 60 years of its Classics range – a series that has consistently set the standard for book jacket design. Steve Hare traces the Classics’ rich design heritage and reveals the future plans for one of publishing’s great imprints

Penguin’s founder, Allen Lane, was fond of sweeping statements: some, nuggets of profound truth, others, glaringly obvious. The only books worth publishing were “sixpenny, or six guinea ones”; and “good design is no more expensive than bad”; and that the publishing achievement of which he was most proud were the Penguin Classics. Today, and with reasonable allowance for inflation, the company is still dipping profitably into The Penguin Book of Near-Mythical Clichés, and proving Lane right yet again.

Penguin Classics started in 1946, eleven years after Penguin’s initial series had swept all before them. A few Classics found their way into the main series, and in 1938 there was also a brief experiment with ten Illustrated Classics, art directed and occasionally decorated by Robert Gibbings. In contrast to the multi-coloured crime and fiction, however, the new Penguin Classics were post-war austerity incarnate. Their muted covers lurked in a guise of army camouflage: the various cover elements were not so much designed as assembled.

Today, the mention of Penguin Classics conjures in most educated minds the colour black: the bold rebranding by Germano Facetti in the early Sixties. It was bold, not least, because he had simply thrown away the existing design of Jan Tschichold, who’d used his brief tenure to impose a strict and perfectly balanced consistency on this series and the entire Penguin imprint, whilst systematically revolutionising the relationship between British publishers and printers.

Penguin Classics remain at the heart of Penguin; a constant foot in the door of the educational establishment, the core of their backlist, and a significant repository and resource of global culture and history. They are where James Bond rubs shoulders more or less comfortably with Karl Marx, and some 1400 more of “the best books ever written”. More than that, they’ve maintained a near-constant grip on the importance of design and branding throughout their 60 years, even at times when the fiction list forgot such fundamentals.

After several variants of Facetti’s design, Pentagram’s Angus Hyland was appointed to rationalise the cover design in 2003. Facetti had brought the Classics in line with his overhaul of the Penguin list, strengthening the brand presence, and attracting a new generation of readers. But his iconic design had inherent problems that were never fully resolved. Picture research, always of the highest quality, was hampered by the need to source images with neutral areas, so text would not be fighting with image. Steve Kent’s 1985 update, which isolated the branding and title in a black box, still compromised the background image; and long titles were clearly a nightmare to set. Pentagram’s proposal subtly referenced Penguin heritage by splitting the cover into three (albeit asymmetrical) horizontal bands, to strengthen the brand image, retain the signature colour, allow the image an uninterrupted presence; and permit any combination of author and title length, by ranging them left instead of centre.

Ultimately Pentagram’s concept was slightly, but significantly, modified. The substitution of Futura for Gill, and the resumption of centred text were among the elements changed to give the series a more global, rather than what was perceived as an essentially British, feel. Nevertheless, the Penguin brand benefited substantially from this new look. In previous incarnations, Hyland argued, “the penguin device became a little negative thing that just disappeared into a blob. The most fundamental crime was actually on the Classics: to reverse it out. They’re in a market where brand makes a difference, and Penguin had perhaps the only really strong brand in literary publishing; so it can own Classics.”

Pentagram were then commissioned to overhaul the brand architecture of Penguin and the entire Pearson organisation, which ultimately involved redrawing the Penguin device: Edward Young’s 1935 effort, hastily sketched at London Zoo, and subsequently refined by Tschichold.

Redrawing an iconic brand logo; that takes confidence.

In-house Penguin designer David Pearson couldn’t resist the challenge when he took on the job of updating Penguin’s Popular Classics. This series of cheap, out-of-copyright reprints without any critical apparatus had appeared ten years previously in response to the runaway success of Wordsworth Classics. Pearson’s approach often follows a pattern: starting from a point in Penguin history as inspiration, and then paring away every spurious element until only the pure essence remains. It has the effect of making historic reference entirely contemporary, immensely practical and with an appeal that is irresistible. “We just want them to look approachable,” says Pearson. “I really like the mix of ultra-traditional and ultra-modern. They have to look like a value equivalent, so we’re using paper like newsprint, which ironically makes it feel like a better quality product. Thinner paper flattens down better and creates a really satisfying block.”

The books will trickle into shops at the end of the year. This is probably because they’ll make such an impact, compared to the existing editions, that shops would otherwise return all their old stock. This mix of old and new is a technique that Pearson perfected on two series of Great Ideas (see CR Sep 2004; Oct 2005).  Each presented a stripped-down version of a Classics title, for a general audience. The runaway success of the venture was undoubtedly down to their design, which reflected the era of the text and commanded attention in shop displays, looking like books with their covers torn off to reveal their title pages.

This lucrative combination of editorial and design reworking has become an annual event, with this anniversary year’s offering the very different Epics series, designed by Estuary English, aka Tony Lyons. “These are pushing a very edgy angle,” explains Penguin Press art director Jim Stoddart. “Many films and even games are based on Classics, and Epics was an opportunity to pick up on the excitement, drama and bloodiness in so many Classics; written so long ago and yet so vibrant now. They’re in a similar vein to Great Ideas, but Epics is almost a punk aesthetic for a younger audience.” They were designed specifically for the anniversary: “We thought it would be good to say something about stories,” adds Penguin Press editorial director Simon Winder. “It was a less successful series for that reason: effectively it wasn’t content-driven, it was birthday-driven. It was partly a promotional tool, as well as being these interesting stories, so it was a mixed message.”

This minor setback looks certain to be reversed early next year with Winder’s latest wheeze: Great Journeys [6&7]. “For years we’ve thought we should have some of the greatest Victorian travel books, but they’re really massive and boring,” Winder adds. “Half of Wallace’s Malay Archipelago is just unspeakable; but the other half is the best writing about Borneo ever. So here is a 900-page unpublishable Classic that we couldn’t honestly force into people’s hands except in the form of Great Journeys, using the really exciting bits. It has all the virtues of Great Ideas but with almost no barriers to entry beyond curiosity.”

David Pearson has taken a very different approach, working to an invisible framework that recalls Penguin’s 1950s vertical grid, a tentative step towards abandoning purely typographic fiction covers. Pearson reverses this to use illustration as a framing device; it unifies the series, gives a taste of the contents, and cleverly presents a viewpoint that is either infinitely expansive or overwhelmingly claustrophobic. He commissioned two illustrators for this work, the Brazilian Pipa and Victoria Sawdon. “It’s more of a subtle delivery than Great Ideas,” says Pearson. “They’re mood boards for that particular place. I wanted them to be quite bookish; the border is like a pattern. There’s a big nod to the Illustrated Classics and the vertical grid. That’s stage one. Then it was just a case of paring it back to very simple elements. Each book has a signature colour and variable maps. I’ve gone a bit flouncy with the ligatures. There’s absolutely no reason why I should, except I’m not actually doing the illustration: I need to have some fun!” And there can be no better indication of a brand that is utterly confident, that it is prepared to take occasional punts, and enjoy themselves immensely in the process, despite the additional workload that invariably accompanies such ventures. To this end, Penguin Classics’ “six-guinea” idea was to approach five designers not immediately associated with book design and give them the choice of any book from the Classics list to design as a one-off limited-edition collector’s item, now inevitably known as Designer Classics. Thus Paul Smith, Ron Arad, Fuel, Manolo Blahnik and Sam Taylor-Wood (see previous page) have produced five true objects of desire in perspex slipcases which will go on sale in hand-numbered editions of 1,000 at £100 each.

“There’s an opportunity here,” Adam Freudenheim, Penguin Classics publisher admits. “As books become downloadable, the book, as object, becomes increasingly desirable; and there’s much more of a sense of the excitement of a physical book. And you can tap into that with Designer Classics.”

“It’s fed on from the Pocket Penguins, seventy creatives doing whatever they thought [CR May 05],” says Jim Stoddart, who initiated the project. “Paul Smith picked Lady Chatterley’s Lover; he was born near Nottingham. It’s brilliant: this embroidered flower detail is just lovely. They’re all lovely. Ron Arad was very keen to rethink the whole process from scratch, to the extent that he’s doing his own box design.” Sam Taylor-Wood photographed fellow artist Harland Miller, coincidentally a painter of enormous Penguin covers, for Tender is the Night. Manolo Blahnik produced an exquisite watercolour illustration for Madame Bovary; whilst both Fuel and Arad chose Dostoyevsky titles, with designs that are similar only to the extent that neither has a hard cover.

“The hope with Classics is constantly to make readers see they’re not some other kind of reading,” says Stoddart. “Our task is to constantly show them in a new way; make people realise they can relate to them. If we can do that with the covers we’re doing our job.” “A lot of people lack an entry point into the list; they’re intimidated by the Classics; the size of the list, how much they haven’t read,” adds Freudenheim. “So we’re changing the way that we treat black Classics. You’ll see different versions of the same book on the shelves. And with the Modern Classics the idea is to have fresh covers that are edgier, very much design-led, as with Camus and Kafka.” “The writing we sell is creative and incredible, and it deserves to be represented with a great cover,” adds Stoddart. “Why play safe? Writers can be quite outrageous or adventurous in their writing, and so should the covers.”

My initial pitch for this feature was to celebrate Penguin Classics’ 60th anniversary with a nostalgic look at their design over six decades: the new Popular Classics bringing the story full circle with its subtle reference to the series’ origins. It soon became clear that such an approach would necessarily ignore some of the most exciting and original work in book design today. Here is a brand that’s by no means ready for its bus pass; and while Penguin has undoubtedly involved some of the iconic names of the past and present in Classics book design and typography, they’re equally concerned with nurturing a new generation of outstanding design talent; whilst sensibly attracting new generations of readers. “Much as we acknowledge the past, we do look forward,” Jim Stoddart rightly claims. “You can absorb the past and appreciate it better by looking forward.” Here’s to the next sixty years.


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