80 years of designs on the cover

80 years of designs on the cover

bookmark Famous FabersI can remember the numerous times I’ve had a Faber jacket flashed before me in college. Like those silver Penguins, these indicated to others (and even to ourselves) the measure of our reading. Faber’s familiar typography, brush lettering and hand painted covers are now famous and justly celebrated. Joseph Connolly, an ardent collector of Faber first editions, has produced a beautiful big book of 80 Years of Book Cover Design. The book, notes Connolly, is “a lavish celebration of the art and beauty of these magnificent covers.” On a single page you’ll find either four book covers, or two, or even one large blown-up jacket cover.

The Faber covers that I know well are the jackets for those Lawrence Durrell books (Justine, Balthazar), Eliot’s Four Quartets, Murder in the Cathedral, and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), Becket’s Waiting for Godot, and Golding’s Lord of the Flies. You’ll find them all here. Others I was seeing for the first time — Plath’s Ariel and The Bell Jar, The Faber Book of Children’s Verse, Whistler by James Laver, Larkin’s Girl in Winter — and they were all beautiful, especially Ariel. The art and beauty of such over scaled typeface is the work of Faber’s great art director, Berthold Wolpe. Apparently he would hand paint some of these covers in just an hour, after a last minute change had been called for. He designed more than 1,500 jackets for Faber.

Wolpe was a gifted German typographer who “had mastered calligraphy and intricate metal work, working as an art director in Frankfurt, he designed two new typefaces — the very elegant Hyperion and Albertus.” When in 1941 he became the resident jacket designer for Faber, he began using these typefaces to create his book covers. Wolpe explains: “The letters were not incised but raised; in other words the background was lowered and the outline only of the letters cut in. Such a metal inscription is cut with a chisel and not drawn with a pen, which gives it sharpness without spikiness, and as the outlines of the letters are cut from outside (and not from the inside outwards), this makes for bold simplicity and reduces the serifs to a bare minimum.”

Connolly tells us that he would wander late to office, sometimes as late as three in the afternoon and when asked why, he would say, “the books, the architecture.” By this, Connolly says, he meant that he was in second-hand bookshops and wandering around London looking at buildings. “It is quite impossible to exaggerate the power and dignity of Albertus,” writes Connolly, “its style and excitement continue to reverberate. As is gorgeously demonstrated throughout this book. A classic Wolpe/Albertus/Faber jacket — like the best of Lennon and McCartney — is still astonishingly fresh and vibrant, pleasingly shocking in its utter effect.”

When Wolpe retired in 1975, and Pentagram, an independent design company began to do the covers, Faber books weren’t instantly recognisable anymore. Pentagram experimented a good bit with geometric design and black and white photography. And before Faber put together its own in-house design team, Pentagram had come up with that unmistakable Faber colophon: ff.

The more recent Faber covers have broken away from their signature lettering, and these too are lavishly reproduced here. Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay, Vikram Seth’s Three Chinese Poets, More Kinky Friedman (this one is far-out), Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, Jonathan Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist, PD James’ The Murder Room, Manju Kapur’s Home and the strikingly unFaber-like Aniruddha Bahal’s Bunker 13.

Faber and Faber began as a firm in 1929. “There was never a second Faber — the second Faber of Faber and Faber was no more than a whimsy,” notes Connoly, “an airy caprice, a deft and harmonious slight of hand. Geoffrey Faber was the one and only.” Admirers and detractors had fun with this invention. Wodehouse published just one book with Faber (Louder and Funnier, 1932), and he quipped, “When Faber and Faber, the Russell square twins, wanted a book of light essays and asked me if I had anything of the kind in my cellars, my immediate reply was: ‘Boys, I’ve got a trunkful.’ ” The staff, says Connolly, “quickly took to calling the firm, Fabers without an apostrophe. “Joyce called it Feebler and Fumbler — he was in a sulk because Eliot was dithering whether to go ahead with publishing Ulysses — he did not of course and it went to Bodley Head (1936).”

Eliot, after offering his poems for publication, went on to become Faber’s founding director for 40 years. Other poets soon published there: Auden, Spender, MacNeice, Pound, and Marianne Moore. Faber turning 80 in 2009 is especially worth commemorating because they are one of the last of the great independent publishing houses left in the world.

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