Follow the Yellow

Archive of ‘books’ category

in praise of the penguin

‘Good design costs no more than bad design’ – Penguin founder Sir Allen Lane

Most people know the now-legendary story of how Penguin Books founder, the publisher Allen Lane, on returning to London from a weekend at the Devon home of Agatha Christie in 1934, having tried unsuccessfully to find something to read at Exeter station, suddenly realised there was a significant gap in the market for good quality but affordable paperback books. It was in fact Lane’s secretary who initially suggested Penguin as a “dignified but flippant” name for the new publishing company: Lane himself, who emphasised the critical importance of cover design from the start, devised an early version of the famous three-panel cover, and the office junior was sent to sketch the penguins at London Zoo for a logotype. Over the years, Penguin’s design was developed and refined under the direction of the German typographer Jan Tschichold during the 1940s and the Italian art director Germano Facetti in the 1960s.

Of course, today, we recognise Penguin as being synonymous with iconic design: Penguin mugs and tote bags can be purchased from the Tate Gallery; a Penguin exhibition was shown at the Design Museum in 2006; and in 2007 the company launched the inaugural Penguin Design Awards dedicated to supporting the very best in emerging book design talent. And personally I’m coveting these two beautiful new books all about the very best of Penguin book design:

Penguin by Design: A Cover Story (Allan Lane, 2005) is a comprehensive design history of seventy years of Penguin paperbacks. Author Phil Baines charts the development of Penguin’s distinctive design through an investigation of individual titles, artists and designers as well as typography (got to love that Gill Sans), and the famous Penguin logo itself. Lavishly illustrated, the book reveals not only how Penguin has established its identity through its cover design, but also how it has become a constantly-evolving part of the history of British visual culture, influencing the wider development of graphic design, typography, typesetting and illustration. Filled with intriguing snippets of information (apparently back in the day a Penguin paperback would set you back a mere sixpence – that’s 2.5p – which was then the price of a packet of 10 cigarettes) the book is also strangely evocative: perhaps because of the special place Penguin books (not to mention childhood Puffins) occupy in most of our hearts, flipping through these beautifully designed pages is a uniquely nostalgic and moving experience. Find out more here.


Seven Hundred Penguins (Penguin, 2007) makes an intriguing companion volume: a fascinating selection of seven hundred of Penguin’s most important and influential covers, ranging from the publisher’s earliest days to the end of the twentieth century. Selected by Penguin’s staff, the collection brings together everything from well-known design classics to unexpected and quirky treats – perfect coffee-table fodder. Find out more here.

Perhaps inspired in part by the popularity of these two titles, Penguin have recently published Penguin Celebrations, a selection of 36 of “the best books of their kind to be published in recent years” issued in covers inspired by the original, now iconic three-panel design. As with Penguin books of old, the series takes in fiction (orange), science (blue), mystery & crime (green), travel (pink), biography (blue) and essays (purple) – they are pretty hard to resist, even though they aren’t quite as nice as the originals.

And as if this wasn’t enough, other recent Penguin projects have included My Penguin, a series of classic Penguin titles ranging from Alice in Wonderland through to Crime and Punishment with blank, “design it yourself” covers. Six bands(Razorlight, Goldspot, Dragonette, Johnny Flynn and Mr Hudson & The Library, in case you’re wondering) got the ball rolling by designing their own unique covers, which you can view on the My Penguin website. There is also a gallery of reader’s own cover designs (sadly, submissions are now closed) which you can browse here.

And you’ve got to love the recently-issued series of classic adventures with Boy’s Own-inspired covers designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith, like the cover for John Buchan’s Greenmantle above. You can check the full set out here on the excellent Première de couverture blog – a must-read for anyone with an interest in book design.

Given all this it’s perhaps unsurprising that Penguin books have become a key source of inspiration for artist Harland Miller. His recent monograph International Lonely Guy (Rizzoli, 2007) brings together a series of works inspired by literature, and by Penguin cover designs in particular, together with a series of essays and interviews with the artist by both fans and critics including Jarvis Cocker, Sophie Fiennes, Gordon Burn and Ed Ruscha. Nostalgic, bitter and witty by turns, Miller’s book is a million miles away from the Penguin mugs in the Tate Gallery bookshop, but what remains evident throughout is the artist’s intense interest in language and literature: paintings are rife with play-on-words, puns and textual experimentations combined with reappropriations of cover and author images (Ernest Hemingway, featuring in a painting entitled I’m So Fucking Hard is perhaps especially memorable) in a contemporary riff on Pop art.

The Penguin: as they say, there really is “no other book like it”!

another weekend rolls around

hello weekend.

I am going to make a resolution to try and post here more regularly than once a week but it’s sometimes so hard to find the time. Here’s a few sporadic events from another busy week: apologies for the stream-of-consciousness style rambling:

…I went to see the lovely new Ceri Hand gallery in Liverpool and the most uncanny current exhibition by artist Doug Jones.

…I also saw the New Ends, Old Beginnings exhibition at Open Eye Gallery and the Bluecoat – my highlights were the beautiful photographs by Lara Baladi.

… I went to the launch of the new exhibition at Cornerhouse – Masaki Fujihata’s ‘The Conquest of Imperfection’. It’s great fun – definitely recommended if you get chance to check it out.

… I re-read my old Virago edition of Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel in anticipation of the new film adaptation which I think comes out later this month. I haven’t read it since I was a teenager and had forgotten what a spectacularly peculiar book it is. I have mixed feelings about it: it’s a pretty depressing read but also oddly compelling. I’ll be interested to see how they attempt to transfer the book – and the character of Angel herself in particular – onto the big screen.

… I also had quite a lot of my hair chopped off. It was a bit scary. I didn’t think I’d be that bothered – after all, it’s only hair, it grows back – but I actually felt strangely emotional about it. I’m starting to get used to it now, but I have felt very tired ever since – I am starting to suspect that my hair contained all my strength, Sampson-style. It also worked very well as a substantial blonde security blanket – very good for hiding behind. I’ve not exactly got a ‘short back and sides’ now, but even so, it is a bit of a shock to the system.

… And I marvelled at knitting wizardry from my friends Rachael Elwell and Sarah Hardacre. Check their lovely and very inspiring new artyarn blog out here. They have been commissioned by New Islington festival to knit guerilla art. They are making tree cozies! They have knitted a chandelier! I love it…

some things I did at the weekend

… went shopping for misty’s birthday present – we bought her a bird necklace, a “make your own monster” and a goats cheese (like you do), plus a beautiful moomin bag to put it all inside

… ate a tasty prawn bun at the vietnamese restaurant round the corner (it’s a noodle dish, not an actual bun made of prawns, or anything weird like that, in case you’re wondering)

…watched the rain from the balcony

…drank coffee, ate bagels

…meandered down Brick Lane for people-watching, window-shopping, bicycle-spotting…

…went to John Lewis to buy luscious Rowan wool for a secret knitting extravaganza

… wandered across the river to Tate Modern to see the Street and Studio exhibition (I liked Wolfgang Tillman’s tube photos and the entertaining yet slightly disturbing two channel video installation by Rineke Dijkstra) – and as always, to covet all the lovely books in the bookshop

…misty’s surprise birthday party at Mildred’s in Soho. I ate baba ganoush, a vegan burrito and vegan tarte tatin (nice but not a fan of the tofu ice cream I’m afraid). I am quite tempted to post a really amusing photograph of me eating the tarte tatin but I’m not sure I’m ready to share my pudding-appreciation grimace with the world just yet.

… read “Perdido Street Station” by China Mieville

… treated myself to a most beautiful ruby slipper necklace – hurrah!

… went to the Publish and be Damned DIY book fair at The Rochelle School and checked out inspiring things from fuselit, strange attractor, 20×20 magazine, the arts pneumonia, impulsive random platform and the archive of shredded catalogues, amongst many others

… took photos of things that caught my eye

quote for today

Is that you, Rabbit?” said Pooh.
“Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and let’s see what happens.”

— A. A.Milne

Seven Stories is absolutely brilliant, by the way. Everyone should go there immediately. You can dress up as Ratty or sit in Mr Toad’s car, except when I went there the horn had broken because too many children had been pooping it. Great stuff.

this week I have mostly been looking at…

On Thursday night I went to check out the private view of Broadcast Yourself, the new exhibition at Cornerhouse.

On Friday, I headed over to International 3 for the launch of Artranspennine08, an exhibition taking place across various locations across the transpennine route over the next two months, which will include work by a number of my pals.

Afterwards, I went along to the preview of the MMU Degree Show, where I picked up all these lovely postcards. My favourite piece in this year’s show was by Amy Davies, a student on the Interactive Arts degree programme: a whimsical and beautiful installation made up of hundreds of images cut from old Ladybird books that appeared to be growing across the gallery wall. However, I have to admit that it’s always the sketchbooks that I like best. Looking at them makes me wish I had chosen to study art or design – actually, I haven’t even got a GCSE in art. I think I decided not to study it because I felt I wasn’t good enough: teachers were always telling me that my work was ‘too messy’ and I knew I couldn’t draw ‘properly’ (i.e. draw things that looked ‘real’) so I felt it wasn’t for me. I didn’t realise that being messy and making work that didn’t look exactly the same as everyone else’s could actually be a good thing. But now, I look at all those sketchbooks and I feel quite envious – I want to make a sketchbook too!

this week I have also been…

reading: mainly The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. Whilst I didn’t enjoy it as much as some of her other novels, I was impressed by the back-in-time structure of the book. At first I didn’t find the characters especially engaging, but by the end, I was completely engrossed and I found myself wanting to go straight back to the beginning to see how it all fitted together. For me, wanting to start all over again the moment you’ve finished is always the mark of a good read.

I have also been browsing a newly-discovered blog, hulaseventy (full of lovely photographs) and the latest issue of the mighty fine Blanket magazine.

listening to: CSS and the Juno soundtrack whilst sitting on the bus and gazing out of the window trying to spot the unexpected secret things that no one else is noticing: hidden fragments of graffiti; a bird swaying on a t-v aerial; wild flowers growing on a building site; an abandoned bicycle with no wheels (one of the saddest sights of the city); and, predictably enough, any passers-by with particularly cool shoes.

eating: homemade burgers and sweet potato wedges; pineapple and mango for breakfast; my favourite vegan pizza at Cornerhouse; udon noodles with king prawn, ginger and spring onions; and erm… jammie dodgers.

and most importantly of all, sleeping: as much as is humanly possible.