Joanna and the Modern Classics

Cover of Brighton Rock with drawing by Graham Byfield of worried man near Brighton Pier

“In those days, any self-respecting teenage bookworm went to school with a Penguin Modern Classic tucked in a blazer pocket” (Rick Poyner, on the 1970s)

Penguin Modern Classics was started in 1961 as a way of packaging 20th literature in new covers. It was so successful it continues to this day, six decades later. 

The covers were mild and well-proportioned. The typeface chosen was Joanna, described by its designer Eric Gill as “a book face free from all fancy business.” Released in 1931 it was based on the traditional “old-style” serifs of the Renaissance but with a 20th century feel. It gave the covers a pleasing literary style, especially when combined with the the often delicate line illustrations and the subtle brand colour, eau de nil (water of the Nile).

Germano Facetti, the recently appointed art director, argued with Hans Schmoller over the typeface, describing Joanna as “scarcely apt for incisive display”. Schmoller, a master typographer and a traditionalist, was uncomfortable with the gradual move to a more contemporary aesthetic on the covers. As head of production at Penguin and recently appointed to its board, he had a lot of influence. Facetti wanted a bolder, more commercial impact, which he later achieved with Helvetica and large, full-colour illustrations (see below).

The difference between the two attitudes is illuminating. Facetti, an Italian, wanted Helvetica, a Swiss typeface, to achieve an internationalist effect. Schmoller, though German, was adept at conveying the Englishness of Penguin using English typefaces and a well-mannered aesthetic. The “Joanna period” seems tasteful and reticent today and reminds us that even though Penguin at that time was a giant commercial empire, it was still in the hands of bookish gentlemen.

Penguin cover illustration by Georg Grosz for Berthold Brecht's The Threepenny Novel//////Book cover of Andre Gide La Symphonie Pastorale with illustration by Giovanni Thermes////F Scott Fitzgerald cover with Cubist-style drawing by John SewellBook cover design by Erwin Fabian for Kafka's The Castle////book cover for Ranz Kafka The Trial with illustration by


Below are three editions of Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull. On the left, the 1962 cover by Hans Schmoller with the template from the John Curtis era of the late 1950s, and an illustration by Virgil Burnett

On the right is the 1965 compromise layout between Schmoller and Facetti, using an adaptation of the Marber grid. Although the title, still in Joanna, is broken up, the overall effect is less fussy.

////Penguin Modern Classic cover with layout by Hans Schmoller and Germano Facetti

Finally, by the later 1960s, Facetti had got his way. The redesign of the Modern Classics had a black background, Joanna was replaced by Helvetica bold and the image is not a commissioned illustration but a full-colour painting by the Expressionist artist, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Facetti’s special knowledge of fine art history and his experience as co-founder of the picture agency Snark International gave him a special talent for inspired matching of text and picture.

The new look presumably was more able to compete in the visual marketplace of colour magazines, billboards and television. This poster-style approach became the brand image for the Modern Classics for years to come.

Penguin Modern Classic new cover design by Germano Facetti


Illustration credits:

Brighton Rock, Graham Byfield

Threepenny Novel, Georg Grosz

Confessions of Felix Krull, Virgil Burnett

La Symphonie Pastorale, Giovanni Thermes

Tender is the Night, John Sewell

The Castle, Erwin Fabian

The Trial, André François

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Milton Glaser has died

Milton Glaser's drawing on Penguin Books cover shows his pen & ink style//                                                    

Milton Glaser, influential star of design and illustration and co-founder of New York’s famous Push Pin Studios in 1954, has died at age 91. 

Glaser mastered every branch of the design profession including advertising, graphic design and illustration, and held fine art exhibitions of his own work. He had a prominent public persona as teacher and communicator about design matters, on an international level. He is probably best known to the general public for his 1966 Bob Dylan poster, and for his 1970s I ❤ NY logo. In more recent years, his psychedelic posters for the final season of Mad Men plastered New York bus stops when I last visited in 2014. 

Glaser was a prolific designer of book covers through much of his career, most memorably in his long series of pen and ink Shakespeare covers for Signet (see below). He illustrated for many book publishers, including Penguin which commissioned a small number of covers in the 1960s. Their rate was £15 per cover (according to Ivan Chermayeff) which doesn’t sound like much but in today’s money is equal to £300 and so probably worth taking on as part of the flow of a busy studio. 

“It was always thrilling to get an assignment from Penguin because you knew they stood for an idea of quality that seemed to go beyond the issues of simple commerce.”

Glaser’s Penguin designs are varied in technique, and include line drawings and watercolours, and have a bold visual impact in the confined space of a book cover. They are amongst the best covers of the whole Marber grid period. 

“Working for Penguin in the early sixties made you feel sophisticated and part of a continuing cultural exploration.”

Milton Glaser's simple pen & ink drawing has a bold impact on Penguin Books cover//../Milton Glaser's simple pen & ink drawing style for bold Penguin Books cover   …. ….……..


Glaser’s long-running Signet Books series of Shakespeare covers are his “masterpiece” in the book cover genre. They ran for several years from the early 1960s. Despite that, these comments from itsnicethat.com could also apply to his Penguin designs:

“His Shakespeare covers seem only half finished, depicting loose illustrations … that trail off in swirling lines to the outer edges of the page. It’s an approach that can be traced to his time in Bologna, studying with artist Giorgio Morandi. This defining moment led to a career-long fascination with omission, or of “What you leave out,” as Glaser puts it.”          – www.itsnicethat.com

Milton Glaser combines pen & ink drawing with watercolour for Signet Shakespeare books //. ////.//Milton Glaser's simplicity in pen & ink drawing and watercolour for Signet Shakespeare books

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Pelham airbrushes Ballard

airbrush illustration of flying tank to represent the Wind from Nowhere

The art director, David Pelham, was a fan of JG Ballard’s early science fiction novels and “their heartless depiction of technological and human breakdown and decay.” In 1974 he approached Ballard about new covers for four impending reprints. 

The two men were well-acquainted through their mutual friend, the artist Eduardo Paolozzi whom Pelham had once used to illustrate an earlier Penguin cover. He went to meet the author armed with sketches and a small test illustration he had airbrushed only the night before.

I still have some of those early thumbnails, and I notice in the margin of one of them are my notes, quickly scribbled at that meeting and obviously suggested by Ballard. The notes say ‘monumental / tombstones / airless thermonuclear landscape / horizons / a zone devoid of time’. (The Ballardian)

Pelham had originally thought of commissioning the German artist Konrad Klapheck whom he admired for his paintings of monumentalised everyday machines such as typewriters and sewing machines .”The dynamic, low eye-line perspective and cold precision of Klapheck’s imagery struck me as a good starting point for a set of visually strong and related covers.”

Konrad Klapheck painting of sewing machine in smooth painting style                                                           Konrad Klapheck, “She-Dragon”, 1964

Pelham’s preparation worked. Ballard agreed enthusiastically and four titles, with slipcase, went into production. Pelham painted the covers himself and they are a highpoint in his time at Penguin, both as cover artist and as art director. “It was a huge pleasure working so closely with Ballard, and I’m pleased to report that the titles in these covers sold very well.”

Cadillac Coup-de-Ville illustrated half buried in sandChrysler Building in Surrealist illustration shown submerged in water up to spireHiroshima atom bomb called "Fat Boy" in surrealist illustration as half buried in sand

The covers are notable for the surreal atmosphere. Each one depicts an object that stands for the premise of the novel. They have an ominous mood, in tune with the entropic tone of Ballard’s fiction: 

“Ransom…looked at the craft beached around him. Shadowless in the vertical sunlight, their rounded forms seemed to have been eroded of all but a faint residue of their original identities, like ghosts in a distant universe where drained images lay in the shallows of some lost time.” (The Drought, 1965)


The four reprints were sold separately but also as a stylish slipcase set, complete with wraparound illustration depicting an abandoned nuclear bomber.

Nuclear bomber illustrated as abandoned and half-buried in sand foe Penguin JG Ballard slipcase                                        Penguin JG Ballard series shown with four books plus slipcase with airbrush illustrations by David Pelham                                (Boxed set photos from: unsubscribedblog.wordpress.com

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Who was Romek Marber?

portrait of Penguin designer Romek Marber circa late 1960s

On April 1 Romek Marber died at the great age of 94. He had a long and admired career in the graphic arts and his influence on the design culture at Penguin, starting in 1961, is incalculable.

Marber was born in Poland in 1925 and after surviving the War (just), arrived in Britain in 1946. He studied art at St Martins and the Royal College of Art in the early 1950s and, after a period as assistant to Herbert Spencer, editor of Typographica magazine, eventually established himself as a successful designer and illustrator in London. 

In 1961 Marber was invited by art director Germano Facetti to design two Penguin covers for the author Simeon Potter. His design for Language and the Modern Mind was a formalist composition with sans serif type and geometric elements combined with an abstracted portrait in printers dots.      

cover of 1961 Penguin paperback Language in the Modern World by Simeon Potter, designed by Romek Marber

In 1962 Penguin decided to try again with visual covers, to replace the dated typographic covers of the 1950s. Facetti invited three designers to propose a grid to give structure to the cover designs and Marber’s plan won with this explanatory design. You can see my analysis of the grid here.

///Drawing of grid for Penguin Books paperback covers by Romek Marber in 1962

The Marber Grid, as it is called, was tested on a series of crime novels with Marber himself commissioned to supply the illustrations for twenty titles. Having already booked an overseas holiday with his wife he had only a few weeks to complete the job. The assignment came in June and publication – printed books on bookshop shelves – was in October, an extremely close publishing date. Apart from reading the books to get an understanding of their content, Marber needed to build a streamlined studio process to get the work done. This involved drawings, collages, photography and re-photography and other processes. He always worked from home …

“… a table to work on; pencil and pens and brushes…I used a camera in my work, and an enlarger, but I didn’t have a darkroom. I used to wait until it got dark and the kitchen wasn’t in use, quite late at night. I had a screen to cover the window …What I very often found was that clients who came the first time quite liked the slightly primitive way that I worked. It was a surprise to them.”  (Eye magazine interview)

The result of those few weeks was a body of work that has survived the intervening 60 years as a case study in the application of modernist design principles. Marber had achieved a synthesis of creative artwork, much of it with a Surrealist flavour, and Swiss Typographic ideas in the text design and layout, in a branding exercise that preserved Penguin’s design heritage in an updated form.

Penguin Books 1962 Crime with modernist graphic cover design and illustration by Romek Marber…… image shows modernist graphic style of Penguin paperback covers in 1962Cover of 1962 Penguin paperback with modernist abstracted illustration by Romek Marber//////Penguin Books 1962 Crime with modernist graphic cover design and illustration by Romek Marber.Penguin Books 1962 Crime with modernist graphic cover design and illustration by Romek Marber/////Penguin Books 1962 Crime with modernist graphic cover design and illustration by Romek Marber

Those first twenty titles proved a success, increasing sales by a significant margin. Soon the Marber grid was applied across the whole Crime series, and soon after to Fiction, Modern Classics, Pelican and other Penguin imprints. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, Marber’s layout gave much of the vast Penguin range its brand image.  


Marber was a freelance designer. He designed covers for The Economist, New Society and other magazines and produced corporate work for many clients. But that is another story.

Shows cover design by Romek Marber of early 1960s graphic style in magazine covers///////…/…. 

image shows Romek Marber's modernist grid design for Cunic Partition System

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1984 since 1954

1950s US Signet paperback cover shows literal illustration of Orwell's 1984/////1950s British Penguin paperback of Orwell's 1984 show typographic cover design       Signet 1954 / Penguin 1954

How better to explain the difference between American and British paperback publishing? These two books were published in the same year, 1954, one in the US and one in Britain. At that time, America had a more visual culture and needed pictorial expression to get attention, especially on crowded news stands where many paperbacks were sold. In Britain books were sold in bookshops where they did not compete with the visual covers of magazines, newspapers and other packaged products as on news stands.

This is a fair comparison. Signet was the successor to American Penguin, which Allen Lane had sold off in the 1940s. Kurt Enoch, in charge of production, developed a tradition of vivid pictorial covers in all the company imprints. This Signet illustration is lurid and suggestive, selling the novel 1984 as a sex and sadism tale. It’s wrong and you wonder what a reader would make of it if they bought it based on the cover.

As for the Penguin cover, it is set in the revised version of the 1935 typographic grid, a prim, tidy and mute layout, but at least it doesn’t lie about its contents.

Orwell's 1984 for 1963 Penguin book with illustration by Germano Facetti////George Orwell 1984 Penguin Modern Classic 1971 cover art William Roberts  Penguin 1963 / Penguin Modern Classics 1971                    

Later Penguin reprints of 1984 show the evolution of design taste. In 1963 the art director Germano Facetti made this collaged artwork for the Marber grid edition, a simple graphic that illustrates the moment of Winston Smith’s torture at the hands of O’Brien. An aggressive cover, it shows Penguin was responding to the increasingly visual culture of Britain in the 1960s.

For the Penguin Modern Classics edition in 1971 a more ‘tasteful’ image was chosen from a picture library, the World War 2 William Roberts’ painting, The Control Room, Civil Defense Headquarters, 1942. It alludes to the sinister bureaucratic control described in the novel, especially the Ministry of Truth where Winston works.

Orwell's 1984 Penguin Essential 1998 grunge style cover art/////George Orwell's 1984 Penguin cover 2008 by Shephard FaireyPenguin Essential 1998 / Penguin Essential 2008

These two Penguin Essentials are 10 years apart and they show the evolution of design taste in that decade. On the left is the Grunge interpretation by Darren Haggar and Dominic Bridges. The grainy image and text with the suggestion of surveillance photography give the cover a seedy atmosphere in line with fear and social exhaustion depicted in the novel. 

On the right is a cover by the former street artist Shephard Fairey of Obey the Giant fame. The commission was a clever idea as Fairey’s poster aesthetic is based on Russian Constructivism. The associations of Constructivism, and of Orwell’s novel, with the Stalinist period made Fairey a good choice and his design has a menacing and vaguely communistic flavour.

Orwell's 1984 Penguin book cover 2013 by David Pearson                                                                              Penguin 2013

David Pearson’s 2013 design uses the radical idea of blanking out the title and author. It refers to the book’s protagonist Winston Smith, whose job at the Ministry of Truth was to retrospectively censor by deletion every reference in newspaper archives to political figures who had become “unpersons”.

The design and execution of this idea was difficult and required “just the right amount of print obliteration by printing, debossing, and flattening the type. What’s left is less a letter than ‘a dent.'” It’s an example of art room designers working closely with the printers to achieve the desired result. Art direction was by Jim Stoddart and design by David Pearson.

Jim Stoddart: foil & deboss tests:

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Three lettered covers

Penguin book cover in lettering for Nabokov ……

The art of illustration flourished at Penguin during the 1960s and 70s under a series of art directors whose tastes in cover design were more graphic than typographic. And lettering, the illustrator’s answer to type, was sometimes used instead of pictures. 

Bend Sinister: Vladimir Nabokov wrote to Penguin that he wanted no more pictorial covers insisting on typographic cover designs in future. Art director David Pelham recalled that “for added gravitas, he signed this dictum in a large hand, his signature heavily underlined with a flourish, seemingly to show that he meant business”.

What was to be done? Pelham showed the letter to the designer John Gorham who requested the assignment to do all the Nabokovs on the list. “I later realised that John wanted to design them because he had seen a beauty in the style of the signature.” The cover layout shown above was used on all the Nabokov series with the grand signature contrasted with the humble title in the corner. 

Nabokov approved the new design that solved his austere demand and “simultaneously conveyed a mood of warmth and humanity quite befitting the elegance of the prose.”*

Harper Lee Mockingbird Penguin cover art lettering by Birdsall

To Kill a Mockingbird: one of Penguin’s biggest hits was designed by Derek Birdsall using the blurb that would normally be seen on the back cover. In itself this was a radical idea. But Birdsall took it further by having it written out in crayon in a childlike hand. He recalled that “I tried to get my son to do it, but he failed miserably”. Christopher Birdsall was then aged ten, a similar age to Scout, the narrator of the story. In the end, Birdsall senior who was a talented letter artist, probably wrote it out himself.

JP Donleavy novel Penguin cover art Alan Aldridge psychedelic

Meet My Maker: the mercurial Alan Aldridge modernised the image of Penguin in the mid-1960s and dragged it into Swinging London. He was an inventive letterer and did several cover designs with words rather than pictures. This design, from a series of JP Donleavy lettered covers, certainly “swings”, it has a flavour of psychedelia, the illustrative style that Aldridge helped create. It was published in 1967 and designed during Aldridge’s reign as fiction art director at Penguin.

It was probably executed to his design by his associate Harry Willock, the technical expert in the art room who had a long partnership with Aldridge. In his excellent design blog Graphic Journey, Mike Dempsey gives a fascinating outline of Willock’s career. He explains how the great beauty and wonder of Aldridge’s work owed much to the precision and polish that Willock brought to the work, including the Beatles Illustrated Lyrics and other famous productions.

* Quotations from David Pelham are from Penguin by Designers, 2005, published by The Penguin Collectors Society.

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Penguin’s Grunge Essentials

In 1998, Penguin awoke from decades of slumber to regain its reputation for good cover design. One of its first projects was a series of modern classics packaged as Penguin Essentials, under the General Art Director John Hamilton. 

According to designer Phil Baines “Hamilton commissioned leading illustrators and design groups to produce all-over designs. There is no obvious unity to these covers except the boldness of their execution, and the use of prominent designers and illustrators helped to achieve that goal.”

I remember discovering these new books when they first appeared and thinking, at last Penguin is back. Now with two decades of hindsight, you can see the strong influence of Grunge aesthetics and of David Carson on particular. The scratched, rubbed and blurred fragmentation of Grunge was all the rage in the 1990s, with designers like Carson in the US and Vaughn Oliver in the UK becoming stars of the design world. 

The Penguin Essentials series was aimed at a young market, “new buyers whose disposable income was being spent on music and clothing.” The designers Hamilton invited, including Banksy and Tomato, were not book cover designers as such, so the series avoided the trade look that Penguin as a brand has slumped into. It worked, the series was successful and helped set up the company for a new era of leadership in style, exemplified by the arrival of David Pearson and others in the coming years.

The Penguin Essentials series is still running on a much expanded list but still with its vibrant contemporary cover designs by innovative designers. 

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                 Cover designers: Junky by Chris Ashworth + A. Sissons / Riddle of the Sands by Paul Cohen / A Clockwork Orange by Dirk van Dooren / 1984 photographs by Darren Haggar and Dominic Bridges / Ballad of the Sad Café photographs by Scott Wishart.

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Louisa Hare’s Shakespeare covers

Penguin Shakespeare cover art Louisa Hare illustration /

The Penguin Shakespeare covers of the mid-1990s had an appealing restraint and simplicity. They were based on the First Folio of 1623 titled, “Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, Published according to the True Original Copies.”

The designer was Louisa Hare who had acquired a Heidelberg printing press along with a collection of metal type. She set up a studio near Stratford-upon-Avon, called it First Folio Cards and started producing small gift cards with her letterpress equipment. The Penguin covers successfully adapted the visual idea of the cards onto book design; the series lasted over a decade and became the official edition of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

/ /////////…////./

Louisa Hare’s cards feature a short quote from Shakespeare taken from the Folio, along with a contemporary illustration.

Every card is printed using traditional letterpress methods from blocks on finest quality textured card using hand mixed inks. The use of blocks gives the added dimension of impression into the card offering texture and character. The cards are not glossy but tactile – the method of their manufacture differing little in principle from that used in Shakespeare`s own time. To date there are over 130 original designs. The text used is facsimile of the 1623 First Folio editions of Shakespeare`s works. Each extract is either colourfully decorated, or more usually illustrated.

She sold the cards through the The Globe Theatre, RSC, Stratford and similar outlets. They seem to be no longer available. Click here to watch a video of Louisa Hare printing the cards.

      ///Luisa Hare at work with letterpress printer

For a further article about Penguin Shakespeare’s, go to The Partial View: Shakespeare Series

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Petra Börner’s Selected Poems

Penguin Selected Poems cover art Petra Borner

Penguin’s Selected Poems is a short series from 2006 on modern poets. The cover images feature the work of Petra Börner, a Swedish designer living in London. She divides her time between commercial assignments and personal artistic work.

Penguin cover art by Petra Borner////Penguin cover botanical illustration by Petra Borner

Börner’s distinctive designs are made with cut paper, starting from colour studies and pattern designs for textiles and fashion, then cut using a scalpel. “Infused with warmth and bold character, her artful handcrafts and paper-cut creations exude a modernist charm.”

I work manually, though the final artwork is often digitized. Repetition is key to defining my interpretation of a theme or subject within a specific composition or pattern, so the process usually starts with series of sketches from objects, collages of images or photographs. I sketch with marker pens, collage, pencils or brush and ink and later I might finalize the artwork as a more structured collage cut in paper, a painting or a drawing or sometimes as an embroidered piece. – from an interview with Illustrator’s Lounge

illustration poster by Petra Borner////     poster of illustration by Petra BornerPetra Börner’s prints are for sale on her website petraborner.com and her designs have also been adapted to fashion and furniture – see the website of her New York agents Hugo & Marie.

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Penguin Plays with grids

cover of Penguin Plays book showing old-fashioned graphic style////cover of revised Penguin Plays book with 1963 Swiss-style grid by Denise York

In 1963, the dowdy layout of Penguin Plays, shown on the left, was replaced by a fresh colourful grid designed by Denise York, shown on the right. The new designs have a modular format with three horizontal sections that naturally echo 1930s Penguin covers.

They are an expression of the Swiss Typographic Style, especially the 1960s theatre posters of Josef Müller-Brockmann shown here:

example of Swiss Typographic Style as reference to Penguin Plays cover grid ////example of Swiss Typographic Style as reference to Penguin Plays cover grid

The sections are strongly coloured with either two or three colours that cleverly generate further hues through overprinting. The series title, Penguin Plays, is set in large dotted type suggesting theatre lights, while the titles and authors are in neatly arranged Helvetica. The back covers continue the grid with author portraits taking up two bands, but otherwise maintaining the simplicity and functional order of the front (see below).

/.//////                    These components were the typical qualities of Swiss design thinking that flourished at Penguin in the 1960s – the Marber grid, the African Library grid and the Penguin Specials all reflect this same approach in different applications.

The modularity of the Swiss method was particularly suited to book series where individual illustrated covers could not be justified. A grid could supply a recognisable format while allowing variations through colour or photography. You can see how bold and energised they look when placed together, as they were in bookshops. And in the context of 1960s Britain, they would have looked as contemporary as the original Penguins looked in 1935. 

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