I could be forgiven for thinking that I’d been propelled back to the 1950’s to purchase a book, prior to popping into a Lyons Corner House for afternoon tea. But no, I was very much in the 21st century, browsing in a little independent bookshop in London’s Clerkenwell.
The past few years have seen an explosion in the cosy, comfort blanket styled book covers harping back to a gentler age of book selling. This was long before publishers referred to books as ‘units’ and those nasty big America firms arrived to gobble up most of our independent publishing houses that operated in and around London in the 1940s to 1970s.
The latest rash of covers evoke those innocent days of the Morris Traveler, Bakelite telephones, picnic hampers and the BBC Home Service’s Two –Way Family Favorites, purring away on the Echo portable radio. All whilst leisurely picnicking, set against a Betjemanesque green and pleasant land of yesteryear…
Classic Series published by White’s Book designed by David Pearson 2009
Everyman’s on going Pocket Poets series designed by Barbara de Wilde
Another of Bickford-Smith's recent designs for Penguin Classics hardbound covers
Having eradicated most of John McConnell's strong Faber & Faber house style of the 1980s to the late 1990s (above). They have now gone all 50's with their latest poetry series (below)
These new/old covers are to be seen with as a design accessory. No vulgar foil blocked doorstop paperbacks or modernist helvetica in sight. Sporting one of these polite covers, it says of the reader, “I care about what I read”. Well, at least, what they look like. “No clinical Kindle or iPad downloads for me”.
The covers convey a kind of nostalgia that many find appealing but who never actually experience the times that they are replicating.
What this latest design phenomenon has done is to promote a more craft based approach, and perhaps, it has rediscovered printing and illustration techniques that are in danger of fading. But I have a sneaking suspicion that most of these techniques are produced using the latest sophisticated digital technology.
Because of the sheer volume of design required for the insatiable appetite of the publishing industry, it tends to take the lead in new (or old) trends, to be followed later by the design industry at large. Of all the publishers, Penguin have been responsible for successfully exploiting their own design heritage and in the process have put a new spin on the collectibility aspect of books through their covers. And of course it was Penguin who started it all in the first place…
Penguin Poets Series designed by Stephen Russ in the 1960s.
Or did they?
One small independent publisher, Persephone Books formed in 1999 by Nicola Beauman, preempted the 21st century revival of non-selly covers, evoking a more sedate sensibility of reading. Their series design features are dove grey with small cream title panels and decorative full colour endpapers, often featuring fabric from the original year of publication...
These were bang on for Persephone's target audience – women of a certain age, wanting books by women published in a certain age – when first introduced a baker’s dozen years ago.
Located appropriately in Bloomsbury, they sell their books at the front of their offices in a charming shop style space along with tea towels, fabric, aprons, cards and mugs, all capturing the sprit of the past. ..
They even have afternoon tea talks and film showings related to their publications. The result is a highly successful publishing house of great integrity, increasingly loved by their ever-growing international readers…
Persephone’s personal gift-wrapping service adds that special touch from a bygone era.
Pastiches of the past have occurred in British graphics many times. The late 1960’s to the 80’s saw a lot of graphic designers turning their backs on the prevailing Swiss style, in favour of something more formal. In the hands of great designers like John Gorham and Nicholas Thirkell they produced a tranche of beautiful work…
Another cover by Thirkell for V&A publications in 1990 while he was at Carroll, Dempsey & Thirkell.
And these delightful title free poetry books published in 1994 also by Thirkell at Carroll, Dempsey & Thirkell
I suppose it is inevitable that in these uncertain times of economic strain, finding solace in the past offers a little comfort.