Vintage Classics – Suzanne Dean on ten years of covers

Vintage launched its Classics imprint ten years ago with a series of 20 books, pairing a classic work with a contemporary title. The new brand had a bold design and ushered in a cover and spine treatment that is now instantly recognisable. Since then, a range of design approaches have marked Vintage Classics out as a home for well-crafted individual covers, innovative collaborations and some of the best series design in recent years. The design team regularly shares its work via its CMYK blog.

As the imprint celebrates its tenth anniversary – with a new animation that you can watch below – we talked to Creative Director Suzanne Dean about how the original series took shape and how its design approach has evolved. With a new edition of The Handmaid’s Tale just released, complete with a striking Noma Bar design (see below), we also asked Dean to pick some of her favourite and most memorable cover designs to date.

Creative Review: What was the original aim of the Vintage Classics brand and how did the first cover designs for the series reflect its intent? How did Vintage look to differentiate its classics from the others series out there?

Suzanne Dean: When we launched the Vintage Classics list ten years ago the marketplace for classics was very different. The main rivals for a slice of the sales were Penguin Classics, Penguin Modern Classics and Oxford University Press.

The original brief for the series design was to find a gap in that marketplace and to give Vintage Classic a distinct and recognisable identity. It was a huge project for our small design team.

Jane Austen series, with watercolour patterns by Leanne Shapton

There were 20 titles in the launch. The idea was that a classic title was paired with a contemporary Vintage title, for instance The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis was paired with Tom Jones, Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith with Crime and Punishment.

Vintage, unlike their rival publishers, extend the word ‘classic’ to mean literary works by iconic living writers (Amis, Barnes, McEwan, Rushdie) – like a promise for the future that these books are here to stay.

We had to develop a design that could work over hundreds of disparate titles, that wouldn’t date rapidly, but still felt modern and approachable. I felt the word ‘vintage’ allowed a certain playfulness. ‘Vintage’ implied the word classic, so I came up with the idea of positioning ‘Vintage’ with the author’s surname, in the top right hand corner of every cover. This also allowed us a freer grid for the imagery and title lettering giving us a consistency within the design.

Vintage Classics’ Charles Dickens series, with cover illustrations by Ellie Curtis

We chose a red spine because we needed a bold colour that stood out from other publishers. Vintage Classics became instantly identifiable by their red spines, so successfully in fact, that this red was subsequently used in the rebranding of the imprint Vintage four years ago.

The design team worked up competing sets of classic designs that were then shown to focus groups consisting of ‘archetypal ABC1 readers’. The first was a very commercial option. Everyone in editorial, sales and marketing initially preferred this approach, but it was hated by the focus group. They didn’t want to be talked down to. The focus group felt such a narrative cover was too prescriptive. And they certainly didn’t like foil!

They much preferred the second route, which was more subtle and refined. In these, more was implied with the cover imagery. The designs didn’t patronise its readers, and allowed room for their imagination. These designs were stylish and witty.

The style of the Vintage Classics list was agreed and our designers were delighted with this result. We were given free rein with the briefs and everyone wanted to work on the series.

Anne-Louise Knudsen’s cover for The Scarlet Letter

CR: In terms of cover design, does a book that’s regarded as a ‘classic’ require a different approach from that of a contemporary title? What are some of the challenges you face when dealing with a well-known book?

SD: Classic titles by their nature have been interpreted many times over. Some already have iconic covers, so it can be a challenge to come up with something new that feels authentic to the text. This can also be what is so fascinating when working on such briefs.

Today, ten years on from our launch, it is an even busier marketplace. Many more publishers have started up their own classic imprints. So how do you encourage a classic book buyer to pick up your edition rather than one of another publisher? The cover plays an obviously integral role in creating a desirable object, and beautifully designed things sell better than badly designed ones.

The best classic covers are when you can create a new take on a title. I particularly enjoy commissioning an unexpected illustrator or photographer. When I present a new classic design at the cover meeting, there is less pressure from Sales and Marketing to conform to certain expectations, and therefore we have more opportunity to push design boundaries and get the covers through the approval process.

Marimekko textile designer Aino-Maija Metsola’s paintings on the Virginia Woolf series

CR: How has the approach to designing covers for Vintage Classics changed over that time?

SD: The competition between different publishing houses is intense, and consequently there are new bold initiatives of design and marketing. A new series look will ignite a classic book’s marketing and publicity campaign.

My current favourites are the Vintage flapped paperbacks. These series are devised as special editions. Every year I am given a new theme, six titles and free rein. Themes have varied from Dickens and Austen to The Russians. The first series we published was a one off set of Jane Austen novels, with watercolour patterns by Leanne Shapton. They were so successful that we now publish a new theme every year.

There have been some great collaborations. A series of Bronte titles using charcoal drawings by Sarah Gillespie. Nature classics interpreted by Timorous Beasties. Last year I commissioned Marimekko textile designer, Aino-Maija Metsola, to paint this short series of Virginia Woolf classics. I felt she would be able to give a modern interpretation of the Vanessa Bell covers. They subsequently won best book cover design at the V&A Illustration awards and best series design at the ABCD awards.

The Russians series featuring pattern designs from the collection of Susan Meller

CR: What have been some of your personal design highlights from the books that Vintage Classics has issued?

SD: This answer will change depending on what project I have recently finished. Just published is a beautifully printed edition of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, illustrated by Noma Bar. The front cover has a debossed title and author, with no printed typeform that allows room for Noma’s powerful graphic illustration.

This is an instance of where you can get approval for something on a Classic title that would be frowned on for a new, contemporary title. Striking versions of 1984 and Brave New World also illustrated by Noma Bar are due to be published in February.

New edition of The Handmaid’s Tale, with covers designed by Noma Bar

I loved working on The Russians. The Master and Margarita is one of my favourite books and so I leapt at the chance. These titles have existed in many formats over many years and so I had to consider what I could do to entice readers to our new editions. I really wanted to design a series that readers would cherish, collect and keep.

Inside cover of new edition of The Handmaid’s Tale, designed by Noma Bar

During the research process I became more and more interested in the mix of different patterns typically found in traditional Russian dress. I decided that Russian textiles would allow me to incorporate pattern into the design to evoke a sense of place and era without being narrative. Nearly all the textiles used in the cover designs come from the collection of Susan Meller, author and founder of The Design Library, New York.

Anthony Burgess covers by Isidro Ferrer

A highlight can be down to the work of an illustrator. I love the work of Isidro Ferrer, and I was lucky enough to commission him for a brilliant series of illustrations for Anthony Burgess covers. These are such clever witty images.

I still much admire the embroidery by Anne-Louise Knudsen of a large letter A on the cover of The Scarlet Letter. It is beautiful in its simplicity.

I also very much like our hugely successful series of unusual 3D covers such as Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (below), illustrated by La Boca and A wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami illustrated by David Foldvari (below). The 3D covers leap out at the reader when viewed using traditional red-and-blue glasses, which are included with each book.

Brave New World cover by La Boca; A Wild Sheep Chase cover illustrated by David Foldvari

CR: Finally, how is Vintage celebrating its ten year anniversary?

SD: Design is at the heart of Vintage Classics, so the first thing we’ve done is to create an animation showcasing some of our favourites from over the decade (shown, top of post). The team was inspired when we visited the William Kentridge show Thick Time, at the Whitechapel Gallery.

We bought six volumes of an Encyclopaedic Dictionary, 1889, which we used as our background to animate the covers, in the design studio, using a variety of techniques.

Over the past ten years, authors from across the Vintage imprints (which include Jonathan Cape, Chatto and Windus, Harvill Secker, Yellow Jersey and Square Peg) have been instrumental in shaping Vintage Classics, whether writing introductions or spreading the word about lost gems.

They are also, of course, great readers themselves, and their writing has been shaped by the classics. So the second thing we’ve done to celebrate is ask them to tell us their favourite Vintage Classics.

It was fascinating to see the responses come in and we now have a list of the top 10 Vintage Classics as chosen by Vintage authors which will be at the heart of our campaign this autumn. They are: The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov; Collected Stories, Alice Munro; Middlemarch, George Eliot; In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust; The Complete Short Stories, Franz Kafka; War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy; Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert; Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut; If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller, Italo Calvino; Aubrey’s Brief Lives, John Aubrey.

Vintage Classics’ CMYK design blog is at – see also @CMYKVintage

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