Reflections on a Penguin-iversary
By Phil Patton August 17, 2010
Reflections on a Penguin-iversary
By Phil Patton August 17, 2010
Reflections on a Penguin-iversary
By Phil Patton August 17, 2010

Reflections on a Penguin-iversary

The clerk was sent to the zoo. Twenty-one-year-old Edward Young was a junior member of British publishing firm The Bodley Head when he was charged with creating the logo for the new Penguin line of books in 1935. So he headed for the London Zoo to find living models in full feather.

The story has been much told but it is time to retell it: Penguin Books turned 75 years old this summer and is reiterating its founding legend in multiple media, including a book, a design-your-own-cover website project and an iPhone app.

A store display celebrating Penguin's 75th anniversary and a create-your-own Penguin cover

The young Mr. Young was charged with his task by publisher Allen Lane. While returning from a weekend in the country visiting one of his authors, Agatha Christie, Lane noticed how station shops offered a poor choice of books to rail travelers.

He came up with the idea of inexpensive paperbacks, sold at sixpence each, then the price of a pack of cigarettes and packaged with a similar philosophy: a logo and name, simple type and color coding (orange for fiction, blue for biography, green for crime).

The first 10 titles included work by Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie, and Ariel, the biography of Percy Shelley by Andre Maurois, a once-popular title no one reads anymore. The second 10 included Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man. The first million Penguin books sold in 10 months; three million sold in the first year.

Penguin covers for The War of the Worlds, Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Grapes of Wrath. Flickr: scatterkeir

This founding myth, however, is not quite so neat a tale as Lane told. The idea and very name, Penguin, were inspired by Albatross, a German publishing firm that produced similar paperbacks from about 1932 on. Germany had paperbacks even earlier, and later the coverless Reklam series was even cheaper and smaller than English paperbacks.

Still, in the United Kingdom, and soon the United States, the impact was huge. “The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence,” declared George Orwell in 1936, “so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.”

But it is Penguin's design that was novel and has kept its story alive all these years. Penguin's original cover design was rightly chosen among the great British designs honored in a set of commemorative postage stamps, celebrated along with the Anglepoise lamp and the Spitfire fighter airplane.

Lane made books into packaged goods, like the cigarettes and chocolates beside them on the railroad shop racks. The basic cover design—with its side-glancing bird, “Penguin Books” in the cartouche above the author and title names set simply in Gill Sans—remains a classic. But it was refined and systemized by the great Jan Tschichold between 1946 and 1949, and then redefined and given new life by Germano Facetti in the 1960s. Under their influence Penguin became an exemplar of book design.

The Penguin design program was the subject of a show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2005, accompanied by a book by Phil Baines, Penguin by Design: A Cover Story 1935-2005. And the evolution of the logo was included in Patrick Cramsies' The Story of Graphic Design; the character's modification began almost immediately, from the original side view to its basic head-on form established just before World War II.

Creating a four-page booklet of design guidelines, Tschichold established a grid system that regulated almost every aspect of the design. These also governed the classics line, established in 1945.

The Italian designer Germano Facetti gave the line a new format in 1961. Facetti in turn hired the Polish-born designer Romek Marber to redesign the Penguin Crime series. It was typical of the evolution of Penguins: Marber produced a new template, with hopped-up green, sans serif type and abstract illustrations.

I somehow ended up with one of those Penguin Crime books. It is probably the oldest Penguin I own: a 1962 detective mystery by Simenon (the prolific mystery writer left off his given name, Georges) about Inspector Maigret and his scruples. The price: two shillings, sixpence. The cover—or really, the illustration—is credited to Edwin Marks: a corny graphic of figures on a seesaw and a photograph shot through a repro screen apparently the grade of mosquito net.

I am not sure how I ended up with this Simenon, except it was sometime in the early 1990s. Could I have stolen it from a bed-and-breakfast while traveling in the U.K.? It is in remarkably good shape, considering. While early Penguins are rare, millions were made, and they often turn up—usually tattered and torn—in used bookstores.

Copies of Penguin Crime series books in the author's personal collection

We forget how cheap they were. By contrast, a recent series of Simenons—with an odd golden-section-inspired shape (4.625 inches by 6.5 inches, or 12 by 16.5 cm)—is wonderfully and richly designed. But at $13 for a book that a mystery fan will read in a few hours it seems wildly over priced. (The cover credits the series to Jesse Marinoff Reyes.)

Like most book folk, I have a good number of Penguins on my shelves, runs of orange, black and green spines here and there signaling several volumes of a single author. In college I was a heavy Penguin user. So were we all, in my ambitiously intellectual circle, between reading Hegel and Levi Strauss and Foucault. A friend asked for birthday presents by the linear inch of Penguins. By one accounting, done in 2005, the Penguin classics catalog included 1,082 titles and a complete set would weight 750 pounds and occupy 77 linear feet of shelf space.

The stern black-backed classics contrasted with the lighter-orange bound British and American titles. How many hues of orange survive exposure to the sun in my collection! My copy of Wilkie Collins Woman in White for some reason is a Creamsicle shade of pastel orange.

There was special satisfaction in finding a British-only mid-1970s edition of an American title, of Nabokov's Ada, with an orchid on the cover. Or a Faulkner in Adriatic pale-green binding instead of the familiar U.S. vintage livery. (Today's green, by the way, is a harder, more metallic verdigris than the old softer, creamier hue.)

The format for the Penguin Classics included using a a great painting or sculpture on the cover. These changed over the years: Great Expectations went from a fairly confusing detail from a Turner of a country blacksmith, to a mournful twilight gate from Caspar David Friedrich. But usually it worked. You can learn a lot about book by playing the game of picking an imaginary piece of Penguin cover art: learn about a painting by deciding what novel it would be right for.

The classics were reformatted in 1986 and 2003. Later formats for the classics included more color coding: purple for Latin and Greek classics, red for British, yellow for continental and green for books in other languages.

The Classics list grew at Penguin. The inclusions were surprising and refreshing: my own shelves include Ernst Junger, the long-lived World War I hero and Nazi apologist, and Charles Siringo, the cowboy memoirist.

Of late, Penguin designers seem more focused on individual covers, of which there are some good examples and some merely competent. To show it still values design, the company offers special editions and projects. In 2004 art director Jim Stoddart and junior designer David Pearson came up with the Great Ideas series, which gave short classics new covers using typography and graphics of the era of their origins. Recently, the company called on Pentagram and a team led by Angus Hyland to create a new cover format, using multiple illustrators, for a new issue of two-dozen Nabokov titles (alas, they are not sold in the U.S.) The company has also hired Ruben Toledo and Chris Ware for covers and gotten attention with its recent tattoo artist series.

The Designer Classics of 2007 included five titles published in editions of a thousand and created by name designers. Ron Arad's version of Dostoevsky's The Idiot had no cover but an acrylic slipcase or box with Fresnel lens and visible glue in the spine. Manolo Blahnik did Madame Bovary!

Penguin's latest design successes feature unique choices of cover artists for individual titles or authors. But with such enterprises, Penguin may have emphasized the individuality of design too much. Its long-term achievement has been due less to standout individual efforts than to powerful but flexible formats and systems. And while these systems go back to Allen Lane and Edward Young, it would be mistake to read Penguin's lesson as a triumph of the D.I.Y. amateur that is so often mistakenly offered up today. It was the superbly experienced, professional art directors—Tschichold and his successors—who cleaned up, stipulated and enforced formats. They are the ones we should thank.

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