Everybody can recognise a Penguin book. The delicious orange and cream bands, reminiscent of a carrot cake, are as much a feature of 20th century British design as a red telephone box or a London taxi.
Sadly though, Penguin books have not looked much like this since the mid 1960s, and when we think of classic Penguin designs we are normally thinking of those from the 30s, 40s and 50s. The reason for the success of the Penguin design is the reason for the success of most iconic designs: simplicity.
The colours of these books are immediately recognisable, and the simple shapes allow for infinite variations. Aside from the conventional horizontal bands of the late 30s and 40s, the narrow vertical border of the 50s (which, intentionally or not, is mirrored in contemporary rail tickets), and the thick orange top bars of the 60s, there are a wide range of lesser known Penguin series.
For example, the Penguin Illustrated Classics series from the late 1930s feature beautiful wood engravings, each book featuring the work of a different artist. The Penguin Poets range from the 1950s combined the poetry of dozens of different poets in dozens of different languages with brightly coloured, intricately drawn abstract patterns which reflected the mood of the poetry within.
Towards the end of the 1960s, improving print technology meant that colour photography slowly made its way into book design. Though the old-fashioned block colours of the mid- 20th century hanged around through the 70s, by the time most people reading this were born, mass market book covers had become the gaudy, glossy and faded shadows that still swell seemingly every charity shop on the planet.
However, the future does not look quite so bleak; during the past ten years the rise of eBooks has forced publishers to provide a reason to buy a physical copy, and book design is slowly regaining its former glory. Mass-produced colour photography has emerged from the wilderness of the 80s and 90s, and across all aspects of visual culture vivid colour and vivid clarity has reinvigorated design.
I’ve recently discovered five relatively-unknown publishers with a good taste in design. Fortunately it seems that good book designers also have pretty good taste in literature. I have avoided saying this so far, but in these five instances you can indeed judge a book by its cover.
All of these books should be available on the internet; finding them in bookshops may be harder, but the London flaships, as well as less mainstream booksellers should have some of the following on offer.
The Pushkin Press – founded in 1997, they specialise in lesser-known translations of 19th and 20th century European literature. Their books are beautifully bound in squat, card-covered editions, normally with either a preface or an afterword and a full page author photograph. The standard of the texts is very high. They also do translations of contemporary novels in all manner of different covers.
The Man Who Walked Through Walls, Marcel Aymé; The Age of Flowers, Umberto Pasti; The Allure of Chanel, Paul Morand.
New Directions Publishing - Relatively unknown in the UK, in America New Directions books are a bastion of intelligent, engaging literature combined with sublime book designs. Almost all of these titles are available online. Their website also features a page of author photos which you can scroll through; in this case you may even judge a book by the appearance of its author! Like the Pushkin Press, ND books do a vast range of lesser known authors, (including a wonderful version of the notoriously untranslatable Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau) as well as many minor books by big names.
The catch is that most of these titles are not available in the UK, plus many of the books shown on the website have been out of print for decades, meaning the internet is probably your best bet. Regardless, the range and quality of the literature from this press combined with the creativity of their covers makes them too good to pass over.
Recommended: Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau; Illuminations, Arthur Rimbaud; The Lazy Ones, Albert Cossery
White’s Fine Editions - The range of books on offer here is a little less exciting, but if you are looking for a smart copy of classics, they might be for you. The Pocket Classics range come with thick white covers with colourful embossed cover art, an introduction by a famous author and ribbons for page-saving, all for £6.99. The website seems to have disappeared for this company and they show no indications of publishing anything else anytime soon, but the books that do exist are still available in most branches of Waterstones across the country.
Recommended: Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë; Great Expectations, Charles Dickens; Doctor Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
Four Corners Books – expensive but exquisite, Four Corners Books emphasise the importance of design just as much as content. This company do a range of both literature and art books, all of which have their own unique design relating in some way to the book; no two books by this press are even a similar size let alone the same design. For example, their edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde takes the format of a magazine (the format in which the book was originally published in 1890), soft covered and filled with fashion photography from 1980s Paris.
Vanity Fair by William Thackeray comes in a fat, bright pink hardback edition with monochrome illustrations of Becky Black. On their website the artist, Donald Urquhart states that ‘I wanted to sideline all the secondary characters…the way that I’ve done it, the chapters she’s not in, there’s no pictures’. The range here is small for the time being, but with any luck Four Corners will continue to be innovators of book design for some time to come.
Recommended: Vanity Fair, William Thackery; Beauty Is In The Street: A Visual Record of the May ’68 Paris Uprising, Johan Kugelberg & Philippe Vermes; Brian Wilson: An Art book, edited by Alex Farquharson
Daunt Books - a group of six bookshops throughout London, all with attractive wooden shop fronts, large book displays in the window and an expert range of titles inside. Recently Daunt has begun publishing and currently have fifteen to twenty titles out, all in very attractive editions. I couldn’t find a list of all their titles but they are all available through their website and their bookshop.
Recommended: Kalimantaan, C.S Godshalk; The Architects, Stefan Heym; A Compass Error, Sybille Bedford