The Penguin Books
Marta Borrell decided to work in editorial design on the day she visited the Penguin offices in New York. At home, she’s got a wall covered with magnetic paint that she usually decorates with postcards from the box Postcards from Penguin, including 100 of the most iconic historical covers from this imprint. And at her office in the Random House building in Barcelona, where she’s head of the Design department, she’s got the Penguin Composition Rules dictated by Jan Tschichold, the German typographer that gave the penguin imprint its iconic look, and who’s revered as a god among designers.
Thus, we can imagine Borrell’s reaction when she was told that the Penguin Classics would finally be published in Spanish –one of the consequences of the merger between Penguin and Random House, having as a result a behemoth of a publishing house–. It was in her hands, and in those of her team, completed by Roksanda Duru and Yolanda Artola, to give Hamlet, Macbeth, Robinson Crusoe –translated by Julio Cortázar– Quixote and the hundreds of classics to appear on the collection, a new look. “They all have the same black band and a full bleed image that changes from book to book. What we wanted to do was to make the classics interesting for the general public, make them less boring and give them a modern touch”, says Borrell. That is quite obvious, for example, on the new version of Lazarillo de Tormes, with an illustration by young María Hergueta that links it to those minimal posters that succeed on the Internet but which rarely end up making the jump to official posters on their paper versions. Although Borrell loves them all, she also highlights the covers of Galdós’ Misericordia, Lope de Vega’s Castigo sin venganza, Blasco Ibánez’s Cañas y barro, and those of Dostoievski’s short stories, Garcilaso’s poetry and Larra’s essays.
As it happens with many other design landmarks, Penguin covers weren’t born out of opulence, but austerity. When Allen Lane founded the publishing house in 1933, classics were only within reach of university students and scholars, or of those born within a house with an inherited library. Lane’s idea was to turn that upside down and make them accessible to everyone. Pricing was crucial: each one would cost a sixpence, exactly the same –and it’s not a coincidence– of what at that time one had to pay for a pack of ten cigarettes. The aspect those most democratic of books should have wasn’t a trivial matter, but one of the central parts of the project. It should be utilitarian, standardised and repetitive, in order to lower production costs, but also hugely attractive. Lane, who had inherited an interest in editorial design from his uncle John, founder of the Bodley Head imprint, which produced exquisite volumes illustrated by artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, used to say that he didn’t understand why cheap books had to be ugly, “since bad design costs the same as good design.” Their initial format, with a three colour code (orange for fiction, something that has been maintained as the symbol of the publishing house, green for noir novels and blue for biographies) was in line with the clean and pure style that many artists, illustrators and architects running away from the pre-war climate in continental Europe were importing to Great Britain.
All around the world, graphic artists revere Penguin, but, ironically, upon its birth, those artists were almost ignored. Allen Lane himself created the design for the covers and sent an apprentice from the office, Andrew Young, to London zoo to sketch a penguin. After that, printers and editors adapted the design to each book, so that each title looked slightly different from its predecessor, until in 1946 Tschichold arrived to put things in order. The author of the famous eight Penguin Composition Rules that now hang from Marta Borrell’s office was obsessed by regularity and used to tick off those in charge of producing the layout when they tried to be far too creative with it, even though he allowed himself to change it a bit when creating the 500 covers he himself designed.
Despite all of that, many of the most remembered covers weren’t created by him, but by Germano Facetti, an Italian graphic artist that managed to translate London’s effervescence in the sixties and seventies to the publishing house style and appointed pop illustrators such as Alan Aldridge, who ended up working as Creative director in 1965. A year after that, he created one of the most reproduced Penguin covers of all times, The Penguin John Lennon. From that decade we could highlight as well the cover of To Kill a Mockingbird, with a calligraphic typography used nowadays as a sign of modernity, or the one for Lady Chatterley’s Lover. This book, written in 1928, wasn’t published in the UK until 1960, when it finally evaded the Obscene Publications Act. Its publication is usually used to mark the beginning of a liberated Great Britain, and it came with a cover up to the task, sporting a phoenix.
Each decade has its own Penguins. From the seventies we got the psychedelic curves of Roal Dahl’s Kiss Kiss and the Science Fiction Omnibus; from the eighties, even though it was published in 1979, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, and from the nineties, the Penguin Essentials, a restyling of some of the key titles in the catalogue. In the last few years, the house has celebrated itself with special editions of the classics, designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith; the above mentioned postcard box, and the book Penguin by Design. Now, the penguins in Spanish are an addition to this long tradition. They cost a little more than a sixpence (from six to around thirteen euros for the thicker volumes), and are, like their forefathers, practical, recognizable and pretty.