Wolpe, Albertus and Faber’s classic covers

In 1958, Faber & Faber asked a young German typographer to create a series of bold covers for its new paperbacks. He didn’t disappoint

When Allen Lane founded Penguin Books in 1935 and began approaching London’s publishers for the rights to reprint their leading titles in cheap paperback editions, their response was less than enthusiastic. The publishers feared that paperbacks would undermine the market for hardback books, and with hindsight it seems surprising that any of them agreed, but some were convinced Lane would soon go bust and saw no harm in taking his money before that happened. So he got his titles, and Penguin sold over three million paperbacks in its first year.

Faber & Faber initially refused to sell the reprint rights to any of its titles, although some did go to Penguin in the years that followed. It was not until the late 1950s that Faber launched a paperback imprint, as Peter Crawley, who joined Faber in 1948 as an assistant to his father WJ Crawley, explains. “Peter du Sautoy [one of Faber’s directors] came back from America saying that there were an awful lot of books now being published over there in paperback,” Crawley recalls. “So it was really the fact that the Americans were dealing in paperback books in a big way that sparked our interest.” The books were also marketed as ‘paper-covered editions’, which, says Crawley, was his father’s idea. “He wanted them to be distinctive. He didn’t want our books to be thought of as ordinary paperbacks.”

The first 12 titles were announced in Faber’s 1958 Spring/Summer catalogue and included William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, JW Dunne’s An Experiment with Time and the first of several science fiction anthologies edited by Edmund Crispin. The editions sold well and contrary to a prior stipulation from the company’s Book Committee, titles were reprinted. They were larger and more expensive than the paperbacks published by Pan and Penguin, and in keeping with their upmarket ambitions they were advertised in Vogue. But what really set the books apart was their eye-catching covers, most of which were designed in-house by Berthold Wolpe.

Wolpe had been born in Offenbach in Germany and began his career as an apprentice in a bronze foundry, followed by four years as a student of Rudolf Koch. In 1932 he visited London and met Stanley Morison, who had seen some of Wolpe’s bronze inscriptions and invited the young German to design a printing type of capital letters in the same style for the Monotype Corporation. The typeface, Albertus, was first shown in 1935, the year that Wolpe emigrated from Nazi Germany to England. Lowercase and weighted versions were subsequently added, but when war was declared in 1939 Wolpe, along with other German nationals, was relocated to Australia. He was permitted to return to England in 1941, and it was then that he joined Faber’s production department.

Artists such as Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Graham Sutherland and Rex Whistler were frequently commissioned to illustrate Faber’s dust-jackets, but the war brought with it the need for austerity and Wolpe resp-onded with bold new jackets based solely on calligraphy and typography. His use of Albertus and hand-painted lettering became strongly identified with Faber jackets in the years that followed, and continued from 1958 on Faber’s paperback covers.

For these, the ‘FABER paper covered EDITIONS’ name was printed in reversed-out Albertus on a solid black strip down the cover’s fore-edge. This created difficulties when dust-jacket illustrations were reused as they paled beside the fore-edge strip, which loomed incongruously and made the covers heavily one-sided. Wolpe’s designs, on the other hand, offset the vertical strip perfectly, his eclectic mix of typography, freehand lettering and geometric blocks of colour producing bold but balanced layouts in which the strip becomes an integral – indeed essential – part of each design.

That is not to say that all his covers worked (some do show signs of being hastily dashed off) but Wolpe’s designs for the paper-covered editions have been curiously overlooked. Yet it’s here that some of his finest work can be found. Rendered in a style that was uniquely his own, these were not just paperbacks, they were paper-covered works of art. 

James Pardey is a writer, web designer and founder of fine art publishers, wire-frame. Framed prints of Berthold Wolpe’s Faber cover art for Dante by TS Eliot, Endgame by Samuel Beckett, Non-Stop by Brian W Aldiss and A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin are available from wire-frame.net/fineart.html

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