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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