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:


Art and the Modern Classics

painting of The War Room shows bureaucrats at work to illustrate Orwell's 1984 government control                                                                      Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell, 1949

painting of The War Room shows government bureaucrats at work during world war 2                                William Roberts, The Control Room, Civil Defense Headquarters, 1942

In the 1960s, Penguin art director Germano Facetti revised the cover design for Penguin Modern Classics. He wanted a bold, impactful look, with large full-colour images and sans serif headings to match. His new layout used existing artworks instead of commissioned illustrations as before. The images were from the history of art and were carefully matched to the contents of the book, they were chosen for their thematic aptness and were from the same period as the book.

The selection of image depended on Facetti’s understanding of the text. His knowledge of what cultures produced what kind of imagery at a given moment is prodigious, backed by a visual memory and a systematic storing of reference. (eyemagazine.com)

Facetti’s method is shown in these covers for the three key dystopian novels of the the twentieth century, Nineteen Eighty-Four, We and Brave New World. Note how well each painting reflects the content of the book, as summarised in their backcover blurbs:

1984 presents a nightmarish regime of totalitarianismmass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of all persons and behaviours within society. The Ministry of Truth deals with propaganda, the authorities keeping a check on every action, word, gesture or thought.

The painting on the cover is by the English artist William Roberts and shows the workings of a wartime department. 

Abstract geometric shapes in different colours used to illustrate novel's idealistic dystopia  …        Penguin book: We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1921
Painting: Suprematist Composition by Kasimir Malevich, 1916

We “tells the story of persons known as numbers living in the One State. All numbers live by a rigid timetable, performing exactly the same motions in time with one another.”

Suprematism was a Russian avant-garde movement at the forefront of the new abstract art. It concentrated on purity of form and reduction to elemental shapes.

Fernand Leger painting of abstracted mechanical shapes as metaphor for futuristic society ….                    Penguin book: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1932                                        PaintingMechanical Elements, Fernand Léger, 1924

Brave New World satirizes the idea of progress put forward by the scientists and philosophers.”

Léger’s paintings at this time were inspired by his wartime experiences, the excitement of industrial technology in conflict: “I was stunned by the sight of the breech of a 75 millimeter in the sunlight. It was the magic of light on the white metal.”