June 30, 2011

Notes on design: Design and Fall


Penguin UK has unveiled a new addition to its already robust series of, well, series. Beginning with eight books by Evelyn Waugh (and eventually to include more titles and authors), the new Hardback Classics Editions are given an elegant, minimal design treatment with nothing beyond the title, author, colophon, and decorative border.

Although to American eyes the new design might most quickly conjure the spartan aesthetic of Everyman’s Library, it’s actually a nod to Penguin’s own history. The proportions are closely related to those set out by Jan Tschichold in his design for the original Penguin Classics series in 1947 (above middle) and the Penguin Poets series begun in 1948 (above right). (Faithful readers may recall that I wrote about Tschichold and his work on Penguin Scores earlier this year.) According to art director Jim Stoddart, in the new hardback classics series, “each story stands alone, with extraneous material stripped out, and even the inside pages have been redesigned to follow the classically perfect proportions of the golden ratio.”

As a designer and book lover, I’m torn. While I often admire the creative efforts behind repackaging classic literature (and Waugh himself is very well served in his current US paperback editions, with charming illustrations by Bill Brown), there’s something nice about having a sturdy, timeless hardcover of a well-loved book on your shelf, one you know will follow you from apartment to apartment, always within arm’s reach whenever you want to look up a favorite passage. And with that old standby Everyman’s Library looking increasingly commercial, it’s refreshing to see some classics are still getting printed with almost no marketing material attached.

Of course, who says you have to choose? For many of my favorites, I keep two copies: a tattered paperback for the plane or subway, and a classic hardcover for the bookshelf.

Christopher King is the former Art Director of Melville House.