The art of the great cover-up

Front Cover
December 21, 2001

Printed sheets needed bindings to hold them together. Bindings had to be protected by paper wrappers that could be discarded when one got them home. Eventually - 1894 is Alan Powers's earliest example - publishers realised that the wrapper could become an integral part of the book and help to sell more copies. The origins can probably be traced further back to the eye-catching covers designed for children's books by artists such as Walter Crane in the 1870s, which, although aimed at the young, had to be attractive to the grown-ups who actually bought them. There was clearly some resistance in the trade to applying the same approach to adult books.

The history of book jackets is thus a fairly brief one when set against the long history of the printed book - but, with the earliest examples a whole century away and with many thousands to choose from, Powers has set himself a daunting task. Whether any or all of his choices can really be classified as "great" must be a matter of opinion, but they certainly include many memorable images and display a variety of graphic styles. They also provide a visual survey of publishing styles during the past century, or at least British ones - there are hardly any Continental or American examples. The choice is narrowed further by being confined almost exclusively to fiction.

On the whole, jacket design has not attracted the leading artists of the day, so it is good to be reminded of some prewar examples by artists such as Vanessa Bell (for her sister's books), Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Rex Whistler, Barnett Freedman and especially E. McKnight Kauffer, whose work on book jackets shows a close affinity with the art of the poster, in which he excelled, and reminds us that the two skills have much in common.

For the most part it has been the graphic designers, many of them uncredited, to whom publishers have turned to cope with the design problems that arise whenever words and images have to be brought together and it is to them that this book is most likely to appeal.

One can of course dispense with images entirely, as was brilliantly demonstrated by the typographical jackets designed by Stanley Morison for Victor Gollancz in the 1930s, or by some of the hand-lettered and typo-graphical examples reproduced here. On the other hand, the images may be so powerful or complex that the problem can be solved, or perhaps avoided, only by putting the information into a label or, as in the case of this book, a strip. The result, however achieved, will have to hold its own among strong competition in the bookshop window or greatly reduced on the publisher's website. It seems strange that we should be shown hardly any jackets for books that are themselves illustrated. Combining appropriate lettering with an existing image, so that the jacket will reflect the inside of the book, is not always as straightforward as it may appear. The complete absence of any children's books makes this omission even more noticeable.

One or two individual publishers are highlighted. Faber and Penguin have both experienced a radical change in design policy. Faber's image was for many years dominated by the work of their distinguished in-house designer Berthold Wolpe, using either his own typeface or freehand lettering, probably making a subsequent redesign inevitable. Penguin's classic and unmistakable house style, devised by Jan Tschichold, gave way to a pictorial approach under Germano Facetti in the early 1960s, bringing them into line with other paperback publishers but inevitably submerging their visual identity. Both cases raise the question whether a distinctive house style can help to boost sales or becomes a cul-de-sac from which the publisher eventually wants to escape.

True to its title, this book sticks, with a few exceptions, to the front. But books are three-dimensional objects that also have a back and, most important, a spine. It could even be argued that the spines eventually do all the work since books are likely to spend most of their lives on a shelf. Publishers neglect them at their peril. It would have been interesting to see how some of these many talented and inventive designers had managed to deal with this necessary feature.

Book jackets and covers are, as Powers rightly says in his excellent introduction, "a selling device". The questions remain: how to sell them and to whom? Which of these 300 examples turned out to be "selling jackets" and how many ended up on the remainder shelves is not recorded and need not affect our enjoyment of their diversity.

Ian Mackenzie-Kerr is a book and jacket designer at Thames and Hudson.

Front Cover: Great Book Jackets and Cover Design

Author - Alan Powers
ISBN - 1 84000 421 5
Publisher - Mitchell Beazley
Price - £20.00
Pages - 144

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments