Pierre Faucheux is the great unknown among French designers of the second half of the 20th century and probably the most influential one. In fact, one of the few prominent references to his person was made by his admirer Massin in L’ABC du metier: “He creates dynamic, powerful and convincing covers”, he praised his master. Another of the scattered recognitions to Facheux’s work was given by historian Richard Hollis. He highlights the fact that he was one of the few designers that invented a genre: “Faucheux is unique in having created a genre. In the years after World War II, as ‘architecte du livre’, Faucheux invented the ‘livre objet’”.
In his autobiography Écrire l’espace, Faucheux gives as much importance to his job as a graphic artist as to his architectonic vocation and his closeness to Le Corbusier. The most interesting part of his memoirs is, without a doubt, when he explains his work for Le Club Français du Livre in a moment, 1946, in which everything needed to be constructed from scratch. It isn’t a coincidence that he was finally labelled an “architect of books”. In the after-war period, the French publishing sector was absolutely shattered: out of print titles and abandoned catalogues. Publishers Lhopital and Carlier had the idea of copying the North American “Book of the Month Club”: buying books through a monthly subscription. In the same way in which, according to Faucheux, later on they got the idea of pocket books from the US as well.
The most interesting thing about the Club Français du Livre, seen today, is how inventive they were with the few resources they had at hand. With André Noël as production manager they experimented with silk and sackcloth bounding. They used die-cuts in interior pages and applied stampings of a size never seen before on the covers. Since they didn’t have to compete with anyone else in the bookshop window, they allowed themselves to use techniques and solutions far removed from the most commercial ones: “The reason of their success was that there was nothing before”, said Faucheux himself. And the presence of the designer in the printing house premises, exploring possibilities in all the steps of the production process, often very rudimentary, guaranteed that each volume was as different in its look as in its content: a singular object.
One of the typical features of these editions was their “deroulements”. Along the few first pages of the book, sometimes taking up a whole fold, the designer created a sequence in which, in a sort of trailer, he visually explained the contents of the book. Sometimes it was simply to make it visually attractive for the reader. “We offered the reader a whole series of iconographic, symbolic and typographic associations to honour the act of reading and give him more information”.
Surreal and Dadaist influences were very evident, as it’s obvious with Faucheux choosing a print taken from a book by Breton for his first design. Faucheux ended up designing catalogues of L’Écart absolu for Breton a few years later. According to Faucheux “I introduced notions that were completely alien for publishers and printers: the intransigent election of the type fonts. The demand of readability. The scale of the unexpected relationship between elements of the work. In order to achieve authenticity there were unmentionable documental sources to which I added a limitless diversity when it came to layout and techniques”.
Other designers who made notable covers and deroulements for book clubs were Massin, Jacques Darche and Jacques Daniel. According to Massin, ten years later these same designers started creating collections of livres de poche. They didn’t copy the American formula, more advertising-oriented, but explored their own discoveries more in depth even, dug deeper in the avant-gardes and developed their own language, one we could almost call a national French style, closer to the humour and surrealism of Polish, rather than Anglo-Saxon, graphic designs.
Faucheux designed hundreds of covers for different livres de poche collections. Among them, it calls our attention, above all, the collection Libertés de Pauvert, in which he adapted the spirit of the book-object to the most economic means possible: a minimal format, Kraft-paper covers printed on one ink only and only typographic abstractions on the cover. The only economic concession he made was the black trimming, one of the most distinctive elements of the collection.
It’s possible that these exceptional books might have gone unnoticed precisely because they were never sold in bookshops. Ironically, it was this means of distribution, so isolated from market competitiveness, what allowed for such creative freedom. Leaving aside their artistic merits, they also served the purpose of being a school for many professionals of the field. And their influence ended up defining the appearance of books for a whole generation.