On the Art of Pairing Cover Art With Literature

Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover

by J.M. Suarez

7 September 2016

The kind of detail and broader thinking that goes into creating a singular design aesthetic for a Penguin series is often imaginative, clever, and beautiful.
cover art

Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover

US: Aug 2016

“These days books are bound in ideas.”
—Audrey Niffenegger, Foreword

“I want us all to see the material in a way that we never would have otherwise. If it looks like a familiar classic, start again.”
—Paul Buckley, Introduction

Though not the first book Penguin has published on its cover designs, Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover is a wonderful addition to its previous releases. A publishing company that certainly takes pride in its design history, this collection in particular is a delight because it’s a recent history that makes it feel both current and timeless; a revamped series that has met with a great deal of well-deserved success. The book does an excellent job of laying out and explaining just how it’s managed to do so in such a short amount of time.

Paintings, drawings, collages, and typography—these all come together to pair stories with images. There’s no “right” approach, necessarily, but some books seem destined for particular art forms or imagery. However, it’s when the unexpected choice works its magic that a special marriage between creative forms occurs. This collection is filled with examples of creative, surprising, and even moving design that not only complement a classic book, but can also, at times, even enrich a story in visceral ways.

Edited, and with an introduction by Paul Buckley, Penguin Classic’s Creative Director, this collection is as lovingly curated and impeccably designed as expected. The book is divided by Penguin Classic series: Penguin Galaxy, The Black Spines, Deluxe Editions, Drop Caps, etc. and each section includes commentary from artists, designers, editors, and authors. The insight they provide vary in detail, but they all help to illuminate the process, as well as offer a glimpse into the kind of collaboration involved in creating such a unique interpretation of a classic story.

Striking covers such as Ivan Brunetti’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, C.C. Askew’s The Master and Margarita, and Ross MacDonald’s The Greek Myths are clearly steeped in the comic and graphic novel tradition, and they work equally well here. They’re the kind of illustrations that immediately draw attention for both their familiarity and their seeming incongruity to the stories they represent, and because they can do both simultaneously, they’re successful in creating a memorable and thought-provoking design, exactly the point of the series.

Similarly, the Penguin Galaxy and Drop Caps series all make excellent use of typography to express a theme or feeling associated with a particular book. By using the synchronicity of the letters in Dune to create a cover that works by simply turning the identical shapes to create individual letters is a brilliant exercise in design. In addition, Drop Caps use typography in conjunction with color in such a way as to offer a stunning overall design that works for standalone books, or for the series as a whole, as they all come together for an alphabetical rainbow display.

The kind of detail and broader thinking that goes into creating a singular design aesthetic for a Penguin series is often imaginative, clever, and beautiful. In marrying so many elements of style to create one seamless imprint, Penguin Classics has been endlessly creative in the artists they choose and the freedom they grant them. It’s only in trusting designers and illustrators to do their work, as opposed to handing out specific assignments of predetermined imagery, or even just allowing a vintage design to represent a book indefinitely, Penguin Classics has managed to create a visual language that stands up to the stories they enfold. It’s no easy task, yet the willingness to experiment and play comes through consistently and wonderfully.

The various collections that make up Penguin Classics all share one thing, and that’s that they all convey a care and thoughtfulness for design—and the way that it works with, and enhances, a classic book—that comes through clearly time and time again. Even when up against roadblocks imposed by an author’s estate, as in the case of Saul Bellow’s Herzog, designers are able to rise to the challenge and create (or repurpose, as the case may be) beautiful work.

The challenge of creating a visual companion to a book that’s often regarded as larger than life is a seemingly daunting task. Buckley’s view that there’s more freedom in design precisely because it’s all been done before, has merit, but it would be impossible for many designers to fully separate from an assignment of such potential weight. When paired with the history and distinction of the Penguin publishing house, that weight may seem inescapable, yet the work showcased in Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover never reveals that pressure.

Though other designers (such as Chip Kidd) and publishers (such as McSweeney’s), have been instrumental in reinvigorating and garnering attention for book cover art, Penguin Classics has taken it’s tradition of smart and iconic design and continued to reflect contemporary sensibilities without forsaking Penguin’s own historic artistry, maintaining and adding to an already impressive legacy.

Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover


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