Iconic Book Design: Wolpe, Albertus and Faber’s Classic Covers
James Pardey writes …
When Allen Lane founded Penguin Books in 1935 and began approaching London’s publishers for the rights to reprint their leading titles in cheap paperback editions, their response was less than enthusiastic. They feared that paperbacks would undermine the market for hardback books, and with hindsight it seems surprising that any of them agreed, but some were convinced Lane would quickly go bust and saw no harm in taking his money before he did. So Lane got his titles, and Penguin sold over three million paperbacks in its first year.
Faber & Faber initially refused to sell the reprint rights to any of its titles, although some did go to Penguin in the years that followed. It was not until the late 1950s that Faber launched a paperback imprint, as Peter Crawley, who joined Faber in 1948 as an assistant to his father W. J. Crawley, explains. “Peter du Sautoy [one of Faber’s directors] came back from America saying that there were an awful lot of books now being published over there in paperback,” Crawley recalls. “So it was really the fact that the Americans were dealing in paperback books in a big way that sparked our interest.” The books were also marketed as ‘paper-covered editions’, which, says Crawley, was his father’s idea. “He wanted them to be distinctive. He didn’t want our books to be thought of as ordinary paperbacks.”
The first twelve titles were announced in Faber’s 1958 Spring/Summer catalogue and included William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, J. W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time and the first of several science fiction anthologies edited by Edmund Crispin. However, those who read the announcement may have wondered about Faber’s enthusiasm for the venture:
Faber Paper Covered Editions are paper-backs with a difference. Here is no series of books stream-lined to a uniform shape and type size to sit pretty on the bookshelf … Given the necessary encouragement the publishers intend to produce books of every kind in this economical style, since it appears to offer the cheap editions most suitable for present-day tastes and pockets. But a word of warning must be given: at this time it is considered unlikely that the publishers will wish or indeed be able to reprint any of these books in paper-covered form when the necessarily large first printing is exhausted. So, if you want to buy Mr Eliot’s Collected Poems in paper covers at 5/–, do not delay. All but one of the books announced are available and will continue to be available – for many years, it is hoped – in cloth bindings but at considerably higher prices.
It was hardly effusive, but the paper-covered editions sold very well, and contrary to a prior stipulation from the company’s Book Committee, titles were reprinted. The books were larger and more expensive than the paperbacks published by Pan and Penguin, and in keeping with their upmarket ambitions they were advertised in Vogue, but what really set the books apart was their eye-catching covers, most of which were designed in-house by Berthold Wolpe.
Wolpe had been born in Offenbach, Germany, and began his career as an apprentice in a bronze foundry, followed by four years as a student of Rudolf Koch. In 1932 he visited London and met Stanley Morison, who had seen some of Wolpe’s bronze inscriptions and invited the young German to design a printing type of capital letters in the same style for the Monotype Corporation. The typeface, Albertus, was first shown in 1935, the year that Wolpe emigrated from Nazi Germany to England. Lowercase and weighted versions were subsequently added, but when war was declared in 1939 Wolpe, along with other German nationals, was sent to an internment camp in Australia. He was permitted to return to England in 1941, and it was then that he joined Faber’s production department.
Artists such as Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Graham Sutherland and Rex Whistler were frequently commissioned to illustrate Faber’s dust-jackets, but the war brought with it the need for austerity and Wolpe responded with bold new jackets based solely on calligraphy and typography. His use of Albertus and hand-painted lettering became strongly identified with Faber jackets in the years that followed, and continued from 1958 on Faber’s paperback covers.
For these the ‘FABER paper covered EDITIONS’ name was printed in reversed-out Albertus on a solid black strip down the cover’s fore-edge. This created difficulties when dust-jacket illustrations were reused as they paled beside the fore-edge strip, which loomed incongruously and made the covers heavily one-sided. Wolpe’s designs, on the other hand, offset the vertical strip perfectly, his eclectic mix of typography, freehand lettering and geometric blocks of colour producing bold but balanced layouts in which the strip becomes an integral – indeed essential – part of each design.
That is not to say that all his covers worked, and some show signs of being hastily dashed off, but it is here that some of his finest work can be found. The elegant simplicity of Eliot’s Dante, the quirky aesthetics of Aldiss’s Non-Stop, the supersized titles for Endgame and A Girl in Winter all show Wolpe at his idiosyncratic best. Rendered in a style that was uniquely his own, these were not just paperbacks, they were paper-covered works of art.
(A slightly shortened version of this article appears in the December 2011 issue of Creative Review)
Iconic Book Covers Now Available as Prints
Framed prints of Berthold Wolpe’s cover art are available from fine art publisher wire-frame. The prints measure 46 x 34cm and cost £60 unframed or £105 framed, glazed and ready-to-hang in a choice of white or black frame.
See them online at the wire-frame website.