Redesigning the classics: Giving new life to great books

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Featuring rebellious, “visually assaulting,” and frolicsome new book covers, the Penguin Orange Collection includes some of the most influential American literary classics in paperback editions given limited-edition treatment by the illustrator Eric Nyquist.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “A book cover,” says Elda Rotor, vice president and publisher of Penguin Classics, “is a key with which we open a world of storytelling crafted by the author, by the artist, and by ourselves, one page at a time, cover to cover.” Consider that metaphor. Picture a dozen newly forged keys. Finally, envision that each unlocks a realm of classic American literature. What you now hold in your mind, and what you will probably wish to hold in your hands, may very well be the Penguin Orange Collection.

Out in bookstores this week, the Penguin Orange Collection is the latest limited-run series of Penguin Classics paperbacks to get a special book cover treatment. In its case, the treatment is a frolicsome adaptation, a playful perversion even, of Penguin’s iconic orange and white tri-band cover design.

That distinctive cover design has had a long storied past, dating back to the founding of Penguin by Allen Lane in 1935 and to the subsequent standardization of Penguin covers by the typographer Jan Tschichold. The original look simply featured three horizontal bands, of which the middle one was white and the upper and lower ones were color-coded according to the title’s category. Given that the vast majority of publications were general fiction, that category’s colors — orange and white — gained the most visibility. Little wonder then that the orange and white tri-band eventually took off as a signifier of the Penguin brand.

The Crucible.jpg Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" is among the 12 classic titles given special book cover treatment under Penguin Classics.  

And since its establishment as such, it has been a consistent and reliable source of inspiration for readers as well as designers. It has appeared in some fashion on shirts, bags, mugs, and even wedding invitations. Of course, it has also served as the basis of new book covers, with none other than Penguin at the forefront of the perennial movement to breathe new life into it. Just a few years ago, for example, the publisher reissued George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in a design by David Pearson that used the celebrated orange and white horizontal grid but with the title and the author’s name blacked out, in clever allusion to the novel’s theme of censorship. And now, there’s the Penguin Orange Collection.

But how exactly does the Penguin Orange Collection make innovative use of the good old tri-band for its series cover design? For starters, it does away with the rough-hewn Penguin Books cartouche and the wobbly Penguin logo of yore on the top and bottom stripes, in favor of a well-defined Penguin Classics oval and the decidedly un-quivery Penguin logo of today. It also replaces the original’s Gill Sans with a couple of modern typefaces. And most important, there’s the motif of discrete things seemingly woven in and out of the panels, as though a fueled-by-boredom high schooler had drawn thematically relevant objects on the covers of books assigned in his literature class.

That is not to say, though, that the cover illustrations in the Penguin Orange Collection have the air of being juvenile or sophomoric. On the contrary, they are anything but. Paul Buckley, creative director for Penguin Classics, says that designing the covers in the series boiled down to “finding the right artist and having them work in and out of the grid to highlight some of what the reader will encounter within each book.” That ideal came in the person of Eric Nyquist, who was more than happy to adhere to “the concept of interweaving my artwork in and around the crisp typography and stately looking orange blocks.”

East of Eden.jpg "East of Eden" by John Steinbeck is also part of the Penguin Orange Collection.  

Nyquist even gleefully admits to “visually assaulting” the classic Penguin cover design. “I now look at the Penguin Classics cover differently,” he says. “Not as a classical flat design, but as a rebellious 3-D landscape that displays the horrific, the absurd, and the taboo.” Having illustrated the covers of Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy of sci-fi horror novels, Elizabeth Kolbert’s climate-change classic “Field Notes from a Catastrophe,” and the 2015 edition of “The Best American Non-Required Reading,” Nyquist surely knows a thing or two about the graphic depiction of those three qualities. His illustrations for the Penguin Orange Collection, which appear on both the front and back covers, include the tentacular menace of a chthonic entity, the airborne toxic event of dread and paranoia, the shackles and cat-o’-nine-tails of slavery, and plenty more besides, all hinting at significant elements and devices found in the stories within.

Edited by Rotor herself, the Penguin Orange Collection features 12 American classics of diverse classifications, from fiction to nonfiction, from fantasy to memoir: “The Broom of the System” by David Foster Wallace, “The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories” by H.P. Lovecraft, “Ceremony” by Leslie Marmon Silko, “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller, “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck, “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan, “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey, “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen, “Twelve Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson, and “White Noise” by Don DeLillo. They are reissued in celebration of the 70th anniversary of Penguin Classics, representative as they are of the broad scope of the imprint’s catalog.

Penguin 2.jpg “A book cover,” says Elda Rotor, vice president and publisher of Penguin Classics, “is a key with which we open a world of storytelling crafted by the author, by the artist, and by ourselves, one page at a time, cover to cover.”  

In addition to its eye-catching cover illustrations on the classic orange and white tri-band, the Penguin Orange Collection features French flaps and high-quality paper on a par with Penguin Classics’ widely acclaimed deluxe editions. This is all in keeping with the ideas, shared by Rotor in an interview with CNN Philippines Life published in June, that “there’s something about the physical beauty of a book, finely executed inside and out, that readers find deeply satisfying,” and that especially in this day and age of e-books and iPhones, “there is nothing that compares to a quality edition of a great work of literature.”



Unless otherwise stated, the quotes included in this article are taken from “Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover,” a book published in July about the various cover designs produced by Penguin Classics, edited by Paul Buckley and with a preface by Elda Rotor. “Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover” and the Penguin Orange Collection are available in Fully Booked, National Book Store, and Powerbooks.