“A book jacket is a kind of poster. It is designed not only to draw attention but also to protect the cover from light, dirt and abrasions until the book is safely in the hands of the buyer . . . The true garment of the book is its cover; the jacket is merely the raincoat.”
(Tschichold, 1946a cited in Bringhurst and Tschichold, 1991, pp. 161-162)
Penguin has always been known for their strong, design-led covers. The original horizontal, colour-coded grids devised by founder, Allen Lane were revolutionary. They were then developed by the disciplined philosophies of the eminent designer, Jan Tschichold in the 1940’s. Penguin has never been afraid to push the boundaries and give their designers the space to be experimental. By carving a niche for themselves through their clever use of design, they have developed a brand identity; a feat which many publishing houses would love to repeat.
Recently, they commissioned Coralie Bickford-Smith to re-design the covers for the ‘Hardback Classic’ list and the result is a ‘modern nostalgia’. They are witty, visually exciting and very tactile. Every year since 2008, she has worked on a selection of classic titles which Penguin have then released at the time; building a library of classic titles that all have a common visual identity.
Jan Tschichold, whose influence at Penguin continues, once said “It is a pity that the cover, the true garb of the book, is so frequently neglected in favour of today’s multi-coloured jacket.” (1958, cited in Bringhurst and Tschichold, 1991, p. 10)
The first thing that is noticeable is Bickford-Smith’s decision to do away with the dust jacket, instead chooses to follow Tschichold’s design philosophy. Many mass-market, hardbacks still have their title and author stamped and foiled on the case, which is usually covered in an imitation cloth, like Wibalin, before being wrapped in a separate glossy jacket. In contrast, Bickford-Smith intentionally utilises the cover to engender a feeling of age and nostalgia; “These titles explore my obsession to create beautiful, timeless artefacts for people to enjoy, cherish and pass on. Sumptuous, tactile books that evoke a rich heritage of bookbinding while retaining fresh appeal to modern readers”. (Bickford-Smith, 2013)
She employs the standard stamping and foiling technique on these ‘Classic’ covers to print a large, illustrative design, pairing differing foil and cloth colours to good effect. The decision to use a limited two-colour palette came about through necessity, cost and the colour limitations of the cloth and foil (Bickford-Smith, n.d. cited in Sherman, 2010), but this has added a twist of modernity and a given the series a distinct, visual identity. Each cover design features a patterned background which is inspired by the story and no two colour pairings are the same, making each title individual within the series. It could be said that she is aware of the collectability of classic titles and their perennial popularity. Therefore, the covers have been designed to look as appealing on their own, as well as part of a whole library, encouraging multiple purchases. The sans-serif typeface remains the same across the series, with the book title and author name placed at opposite ends of the cover and set a small point size. This allows the design to take precedence over the author name and title; a tactic which rarely takes place in mass-market cover design. Given the reputation of these novels, the author’s name and book title do not need to be presented brashly in order to catch the eye; the design is distinctive enough on its own.
They also draw inspiration from old leather book bindings, which were often tooled and highlighted with gold, echoing the nature of the literature they protect.
Using this established iconography makes the books feel older and more valuable, thereby justifying the higher cost of a hardback title to the consumer. There is a definite appetite for items that counter the ‘mass-market production’ feel across society as a whole and I think this has influenced these covers. They play on the nostalgia for the printed word in a time when most content is consumed in digital form. Coralie Bickford-Smith has faithfully followed the design philosophies that have influenced Penguin covers over the years, but she has brought her own interpretation. Her work has given these books a renewed desirability; they are presented as a valued object with respected content, rather than a disposable, mass-market paperback.