Whenever I am cosseted in the dusky atmosphere of a second-hand bookshop (one of my loves), my eye always scans the shelves for the familiar orange and green spines of 1950s/60s Penguin covers.
Above and below current displays at Waterstone's in London. Vintage Penguins and Pelicans originally sold for 2 shillings and 6pence are now on sale for £3.
I still feel that dispensing with that instantly recognisable piece of practical branding was a foolish mistake on the part of Penguin’s management back in the late 1960s. Ever since there have been attempts to resurrect the styling, but mostly based on a saleable nostalgia squarely aimed at younger readers born many decades after the original covers ceased. This new audience finds the uniformity and simplicity of these covers far more sympathetic to their taste and a good-looking accessory, plus they make their bookshelves look neat.
For me, it was the green-spined crime covers that I always went for because of the stark graphic symbolised images, effective in part because of the colour restriction. More often than not, when a designer is restricted, they rise to the occasion, as did the creator of Penguin’s crime series styling, Romek Marber.
Germano Facetti (1926 – 2006)
In 1960, Germano Facetti took up the post as Penguin’s art director and immediately set about harnessing the talents of some of the most outstanding graphic designers and illustrators working in Britain. Facetti had noted the cover designs for The Economist created by Marber, so he was invited to join the coterie of distinguished Penguin designers.
Born in Poland in 1925, Marber experienced the horrors of the Nazi regime. He was deported to the Bochnia Ghetto in 1939 and narrowly escaped being sent to the horrific Belzec death camp. In 1946, as a 21-year-old, he arrived in the UK, where he was reunited with his father and brother.
In the 1950s, he studied at St Martins School of Art and went on to the Royal College of Art, where he joined a bevy of talented designers: David Gentleman, John Sewell, Dennis Bailey and Raymond Hawkey among them. Penguin had a long tradition of cherry-picking RCA graduates to illustrate their covers.
Marber was initially commissioned by Facetti to design a few fiction covers and then invited as part of a three-way competition to create a new look for Penguin crime, Derek Birdsall and John Sewell being the other two in the race. But it was Marber’s logical solution that came out on top, and he went on to design 71 covers personally with many other designers, including George Mayhew, John Sewell, Facetti and many illustrators working within Marber’s design discipline.
Marber's box of tricks
Marber’s now-classic horizontally fragmented cover structure has never dated and still stands up as an outstanding piece of 20th-century modernist design.
Above just a few of the 70 odd covers designed by Romek Marber
Many designers worked within Marber’s cover grid, and eventually Facetti extended its use beyond crime to general fiction and non-fiction.
Alan Aldridge Penguin's fiction art director from 1965 to 1967
One of the young designers to surface in the mid-1960s was Alan Aldridge, who was commissioned by Facetti on a number of covers. He later took over the reins from him as fiction art director.
Aldridge inside the box
As is the way of all young Turks, they rarely want to go with the existing order; within a very short space of time, Aldridge dispensed with the Marber grid, leaving designers, illustrators and photographers a blank canvas and full colour to work with.
Aldridge covers out of the box
And so ended Penguin’s instantly recognisable house style. But, as they say, what comes around goes around.
For more on the designers mentioned in this post just click onto the individual names: