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Seventy Penguins

§ Typography

I’ve just come back from a week with Her Indoors in the West Country; a few days in Devon and a few more in Cornwall (there are photos – it’s a beautiful part of the world). While there I bought five books, all of which were Penguin paperbacks.

Penguin are currently celebrating their seventieth birthday by publishing a special series of seventy short paperbacks priced at a measly £1.50 each. The spectrum of authors is astonishing, ranging from contemporary novelists such as Zadie Smith and Hunter S. Thompson, through non-fiction like Eric Schlosser and Simon Schama and classic authors including Roald Dahl, George Orwell and PG Wodehouse, to extracts from key publications in Penguin’s history, such as Homer’s Odyssey and the trial over Lady Chatterley’s Lover. To top it, each book boasts a bespoke cover – the box set was extremely tempting. In the end though I rather randomly bought four of the series: Nick Hornby, Will Self, Franz Kafka and Truman Capote.

Cover of Penguin by Design

The fifth book I bought was Penguin by Design – a Cover Story by Phil Baines. Penguin books have a rather illustrious heritage, with legendary typographer Jan Tschichold responsible for the iconic orange spines, three-pane covers with Gill Sans, and of course serious attention to detail in the typesetting.

Phil Baines takes us through the seventy years of history in the design of Penguin paperback covers, a constantly evolving part of Britain’s culture and design history. The book is lavishly illustrated, with many full size covers, and goes into detail of individual titles. Fascinating too is the coverage of changing role of artists and designers throughout Penguin’s history. It’s a luscious book for anyone interested in typographical-related design.

The book is published in Penguin’s Allen Lane range and as such is finely typeset in Adobe Sabon (a digital incarnation of Tschichold’s typeface). I mention this because the Penguin paperback novels are all too obviously machine-set nowadays, a sad loss introduced when Penguin’s type design department was disbanded in 2003.

As an aside, a few days before I bought the books in Cornwall, Her Indoors and I visited Greenway, a former home of Agatha Christie. Only afterwards did I discover that, in 1935, Allen Laine – the creator of Penguin books – visited Agatha Christie at this same cottage and had his vision of the cheap quality paperback. Christie was one of the first authors to be published by Penguin.