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click opera - Fontana Modern Masters
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Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 08:19 am
Fontana Modern Masters

Yesterday I happened to be looking through the Motto Distribution blog when I came across this picture of a double-page spread in a volume called The Reader:



I immediately recognised in this work -- I think it's by Ruth Höflich, a London-based German artist who works with books and libraries -- a couple of abstracted versions of covers from the original 1970s Fontana Modern Masters.



Fontana Modern Masters was a series of pocket guides to artists, writers, philosophers, sociologists and other thinkers published by Fontana paperbacks. The series, edited by Frank Kermode, began in 1970. I don't know who designed the covers, which featured Helvetica Rounded Bold type and brightly-coloured abstract blocks of pop colour indebted to the paintings of Frank Stella and Josef Albers. [Update: the covers use the paintings of Oliver Bevan.]



The luridly elegant original Fontana Modern Masters were still very current when I became a student in the late 70s. I bought several of them. I liked how the series worked as a kind of cross-disciplinary hagiography; these "masters" were saints, yet cool too. Mostly leftish, the books were also a kind of radical chic. And they offered the sort of collectable, generic, same-but-different appeal as Merve Verlag, for example, offers today.



The series also offered some weird juxtapositions. What on earth could the master of relativity have in common with the "high priest of love"? Well, simply that they were both "modern masters"; one described orgasms, the other helped split the atom. Both presided over modernity, and both deserved funky Modernist covers and a paperback book.



If you're a bit of an aspie you might want to spend hours working out whether some kind of system exists to relate one jacket to another. The relationship between the Joyce and McLuhan covers, for instance, shouldn't tax anyone used to a certain kind of IQ test question. To turn Joyce into McLuhan, clearly, you just rotate 180 degrees and, er, change the colours.



I think my favourite covers are the ones that drop a stark, jagged shape onto a white background, like these ones for Melanie Klein and Jean-Paul Sartre.



It's not surprising that these covers -- inspired design, inspired by art -- have inspired artists in their turn. In 2005 Jamie Shovlin had a show at Riflemaker Gallery in London entitled Fontana Modern Masters, a "remaking of the Fontana / Collins paperback 'modern thinkers' series of the seventies. Hard-edged, 'systems' graphics were converted into soft lyrical watercolours", said the Riflemaker blurb.



Like me, Shovlin seems to like the white-background covers better than the bled, blocky ones. I like how he's let the solid, sharp blobs of colour dribble, bringing attention to the handmade, liquid quality of his watercolour approximations.

You'll notice that Shovlin has left the titles off some of the books. Anything which Fontana actually published, Shovlin depicts without its title. Books which Fontana announced but didn't publish, he's painted as he thinks they would have looked: "Shovlin set about constructing a system – set out in the Fontana Colour Chart – which would allow him to ‘accurately’ produce the covers of the books which Fontana had announced it was to publish but which, for whatever reason, had never appeared. Thus the existing books were analysed, and the colours used in the cover designs were assigned values derived from the percentage of space they occupied, the percentages being taken from the intellectual ‘score’ of each ‘Modern Master’ (a total arrived at by a series of seemingly arbitrary criteria). Working from the covers of the existing books Shovlin was therefore able to extrapolate the appearance of non-existent books about such heavyweights as Adorno and Lacan."



In the end, Shovlin made 58 Fontana watercolours representing the 48 existing titles in the series and his versions of what the ten ‘lost’ titles might've looked like.



Shovlin may be poking fun at "the notion of objective research methodology, especially in its application to 'useless' information", but it's unlikely anyone will be inspired to make a similar homage to the Fontana Modern Masters covers which followed the first series. In the 1980s the design took a precipitous tumble, opting for silly line drawings of the thinkers. And in the 90s we got this incredibly ugly and conservative look:



It's tempting to say that the collapse in design standards witnessed by Fontana Modern Masters since the 1970s represents the decline of Britain itself -- as the island swung right, sharp paperbacks making the ideas of György Lukács accessible to a wider, funkier public were replaced (by Rupert Murdoch-owned media conglomerates) by dull textbooks whose covers seemed to scream: "DEAD WHITE MALE!"

Or were these thinkers always dead white males, and did the pop-minimalist covers merely dress them up, for a decade or so, in the spurious glamour of orgasmic colour -- like putting mini-skirts on Action Man dolls? Certainly had me fooled.

48CommentReplyShare


(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 08:53 am (UTC)

My friend collects the Fontana Modern Masters and puts pictures of them on her Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=book&w=34043743%40N00). I didn't know what the series was called before now!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 09:11 am (UTC)

Excellent, she's got Trotsky! This is like collecting bubblegum cards! Yay!


ReplyThread Parent
thomascott
thomascott
Thomas Scott
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 01:23 pm (UTC)
Bubblegum cards?

There's a bit of a Top Trumps - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Top_Trumps - association in terms of the books collectability.
Can we ascribe a particular set of numerical 'values' (political and whimsical) to Marx and Trotsky?


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 08:54 am (UTC)

But what does "the collapse of design standards" really mean? I mean, I'm basically with you aesthetically - the 1970s designs look cool, the 80s ones look terrible and I'd probably be a little less harsh on the 90s ones although they're not wonderful. But I do remember a time in the 80s when those Stella-ish designs looked very boring and passé. It was the 70s institutional look. And now it's come back, the retro-modernist look is back. It's so subjective and cyclical that it's impossible to talk about some sort of collapse of standards - that's just feeding into a "good old days" mentality.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 09:16 am (UTC)

Well, you're with me aesthetically, so the "good old days" mentality is intersubjective, which is the closest we can get, aesthetically, to objective.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 09:31 am (UTC)

No, I don't share your "good old days" mentality. There may well come a day when the line drawings of the eighties will look cool in some sort of retro way. To talk about the "collapse of design standards" is to use the same sort of supposedly objective language as in the "collapse of the newspaper industry" or a "fall in standards" in GCSE exams or something. That's what's wrong with the idea. The idea that there are "standards" in design is spurious.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 09:47 am (UTC)

Okay, I'll agree with you that "collapse in design standards" is an insufficiently relativistic phrase. Ultimately I am, like you, a relativist. But the fact remains that almost nobody versed in design would, at this point, rank the 80s or 90s FMM sleeves above the 70s ones. It would be tantamount to design insanity, or it would just be trolling.

So again I'd say that objectivity in aesthetic matters is impossible, and that intersubjectivity -- ie consensus -- is the closest we're going to get.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 09:57 am (UTC)

No doubt we're basically in agreement.

Actually, I can sort of cock my head and look at those eighties covers and imagine them cool. I can see them coming back in, and the Stella-ish ones deemed too mainstream-y design. In about two years' time...


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 10:09 am (UTC)

Oh come on, they've made Karl Marx look like a fucking sheepdog begging for a biscuit!


ReplyThread Parent
33mhz
33mhz
The Queen of Overdub Kisses
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 10:52 am (UTC)

Out of curiosity, anon, when were you born?

I was born in '81 and in the mid to late 80s, when I really first became aware of such things, I remember that everyone considered the popular face of the 70s--disco, bellbottoms, etc--outrageously uncool. I definitely absorbed this attitude enough that the beginnings of 70s revivalism that happened in the 90s felt genuinely subversive to me, and yet even as a child I was always extremely drawn to the abstract expressionist designs on my parents' old textbooks from that era. Far from seeming stodgy or institutional, the abstract designs on books about perfectly concrete subjects like physics gave them a kind of mysterious air, as though they were some kind of mid-century modernist/rationalist grimoire.

I do love a lot of design from the 80s, but I can't honestly foresee those specific books ever having that level of charm, at least not until the 20th century as a whole goes decidedly out of fashion; at that point, the lack of any real period-specific features might be a benefit to them. It might be easier to argue for their present or eventual appeal if the line drawings of Marx and Derrida had been dolled up with a bit of water coloring; it would lend them the same kind of incongruous chic-ness as the luridly colored books of the 70s, but in a more distinctly 80s kind of way.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 09:02 am (UTC)

When Marx took the picture of himself with a wild beard and stern gaze it was something of a joke, a picture for his daughters, playing with the idea of the giant(and just before he cut off most of his hair, actually). This kind of irony is generally lost, and the people in the pictures become inaccessible (an exception would be Einstein)

70s fontanas are nice, because they don't foster the "dead white males" club. Sure, fontana might choose men, but they don't play on or strengthen misconceptions about philosophers needing to be men (old bearded men, no less).


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 09:12 am (UTC)

Then again, there's something rather masculine about sharp lines and geometry, isn't there?


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 09:14 am (UTC)

Melanie Klein was, I think, the only woman in the series. But I think leaving off the first name and any imagery of the person does remove gender from the equation, in a kind of brain-in-a-jar way.

If sharp lines and geometry signify maleness, bright colours signify femaleness in our culture, so that's pretty much offset.


ReplyThread Parent
bugpowered
bugpowered
Fri, Apr. 10th, 2009 07:09 am (UTC)

Then again, there's something rather masculine about sharp lines and geometry, isn't there?

No. Balls and a dick signify masculinity and a vagina and tits signify femininity.

Enough with silly metaphors.


ReplyThread Parent
loveishappiness
loveishappiness
O.H.
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 10:06 am (UTC)

The ones from the 90s are not nice. That photo over a photo look used to be so ubiquitous. Not only that, but I bet the 90s editions are very large in comparison. Somewhere close to A5 instead of the pocket sized originals. So if the covers scream "DEAD WHITE MALE!" the size screams "LEAVE ME ON THE SHELF!"


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litle_eglantine
litle_eglantine
little_eglantine
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 10:14 am (UTC)

My favourite, and the only one I owned, was Frantz Fanon by David Caute. He wasn't a white male... though he was dead.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 10:22 am (UTC)

I don't think the Helvetica Rounded Bold looks that great, to be honest. It clashes with the otherwise sharp lines of the design.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 10:25 am (UTC)

All the others mix italics with uprights, handwriting with type, and serif with sans serif in really inexcusable ways, though (see below). I think the Helvetica makes a beautiful energy with the angular coloured shapes and spaces around it.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 10:23 am (UTC)
Top Marx?


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 10:34 am (UTC)
Re: Top Marx?

Oh, there's no doubt which is the best Marx here. I still think it would look slightly better with standard Helvetica.

The nineties cover is really exemplary of how they mixed different typefaces in the late eighties and early nineties (I'm guessing it just became technically easier to do it at that point). Did The Face pioneer this? Then there was the Guardian with its italic "The". Very messy stylistically.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 10:46 am (UTC)
Re: Top Marx?

You know, there's something a teensy bit 23 Envelope about the 90s jacket. As someone signed to 4AD (though I turned down the Oliver / Grierson sleeve they offered) I feel a bit responsible. I can only apologize!


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 10:52 am (UTC)
Re: Top Marx?

What do you think are the best and worst of your sleeves?


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 11:00 am (UTC)
Re: Top Marx?

I actually really like all the Momus sleeves from this decade (Florian Perret's Folktronic and Oskar Tennis Champion sleeves, James Goggin's Otto Spooky and Ocky Milk, Stefan Sadler's Joemus). The ones I dislike are the Happy Family album, Don't Stop The Night, Monsters of Love and The Ultraconformist. Nothing against the individual designers (me, Vici Macdonald, Thomi Wroblewski and Mike Alway respectively), because other sleeves they made (Poison Boyfriend, Tender Pervert, Travels with a Donkey) rank amongst the best.



Edited at 2009-04-09 11:06 am (UTC)


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Sat, Apr. 11th, 2009 01:18 am (UTC)
Re: Top Marx?

My faves are:
Voyager
Timelord
Ocky Milk


ReplyThread Parent
thomascott
thomascott
Thomas Scott
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 01:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Top Marx?

It's a pretty slender similarity, is it not?
Did you like any of 23 envelope's sleeves, have to admit having a soft spot for some of them but it may be a music-association thing.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 01:42 pm (UTC)
Re: Top Marx?

I think if anyone "started" certain features of post-modern graphic design -- mixing italics and non-italics, the revival of "ampersand Victoriana", boxes around text, unmotivated underlining and decorations, atmospheric textures -- it's Vaughan and Nigel. They were forerunners, at least a decade ahead of the mainstream when I first met them in 1982.

But right now I'm not enjoying their look, though I think it's better than the work of Neville Brody and David Carson, which couldn't be more out of fashion right now and therefore, by horrific consequence, couldn't be more primed to return.


ReplyThread Parent
akabe
akabe
alin huma
Fri, Apr. 10th, 2009 02:25 am (UTC)
Re: Top Marx?

david carson's stuff is horrible in retrospect but there was for a moment this feeling that design , even more than the internet, can change the world. and probably it did. stuff like carson's fotographiks rendered the photograph meaningless, , ,, again that visual orgy is probably most responsible for the visual 1984 we're in now.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 10:49 am (UTC)
Re: Top Marx?

it might also be a better fit in a floral wallpapered room with cookies & tea.

See, this kept coming up when I was looking at students' work in Oslo last week. I was inclined to say "Your ostrich paintings are hideous / Your song is derivative of Cocorosie." But when the students explained these elements were "part of an installation / part of a performance" I said "Oh, that changes everything! Go ahead!"


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 10:39 am (UTC)
Re: Top Marx?

Going from one decade to another (as measured by these sleeves) is as radical as going from one country to another. And as someone who's moved from country to country, from decade to decade, I'll readily acknowledge that I might be trying to stay in the "country" represented by the sleeve on the left. Whenever I notice a nation repackaging its values and beliefs into something resembling the ones in the middle or on the right, I move. Not in order to make the scenery radically different, but to keep it radically the same.


ReplyThread Parent
krskrft
krskrft
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 11:07 am (UTC)

Momus -

What do you think about the Vintage Books cover art from the 80s?




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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 11:44 am (UTC)

That's not my tasse de thé at all. Looks tacky and cheap. I will never like drop shadow, not even ultra-ironically! (Actually, the first Momus EP uses drop shadow, but it was none of my doing).


ReplyThread Parent
krskrft
krskrft
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 12:35 pm (UTC)

See, at the time I can imagine I would have thought, "Wow, that looks really horrible," but I actually like the 80s Vintage Contemporary designs now. I would never do drop shadow on a serif font (the one on your album sleeve) because of the skinny lines on some of the letters. But on the Vintage books it looks alright. For me, that design speaks to the cutting edge computer design of the time, and its primitive quality reminds me of a moment in which there were so many possibilities for the future (as opposed to the present, in which there are no possibilities because everything seems to be readily accessible).

From a raw design standpoint, I would tend to agree with you, but these other contexts overpower that view in my mind.


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33mhz
33mhz
The Queen of Overdub Kisses
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 02:06 pm (UTC)

I don't like it as the cover of a book, but it would look quite appealing as the cover of an old text adventure.


ReplyThread Parent
bugpowered
bugpowered
Fri, Apr. 10th, 2009 07:17 am (UTC)

What do you think about the Vintage Books cover art from the 80s?

My eyes! The goggles, they do nothing!


ReplyThread Parent
steviecat
steviecat
Stephen Drennan
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 12:23 pm (UTC)

The Modern Masters cover artist was Oliver Bevan.


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steviecat
steviecat
Stephen Drennan
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 12:27 pm (UTC)
More info

More on Bevan here : http://www.jamesfineart.co.uk/art_page.php?id=29.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 12:34 pm (UTC)
Re: More info

It says here: "The cover painting by Oliver Bevan is one of a set of ten, comprising the covers of the first ten titles of the Modern Masters series. The set combines to form the whole painting, and can be arranged in an unlimited number of different patterns."

The metaphor suggests that the thinkers themselves are all "chips from the same block", and that if you rotate and combine them properly you can get "the whole picture" of life, the universe and everything!


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 12:28 pm (UTC)

Ah, great, I was hoping someone would know who made these sleeves!

It occurred to me that the books look a bit like 1960s prescription drugs. It's almost as if Bevan is "prescribing" some of these thinkers as correctives to social ills.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 01:19 pm (UTC)
Looks a bit like...


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 04:54 pm (UTC)
Re: Looks a bit like...

ceci n'est pas un Yes

DC


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 02:52 pm (UTC)
aspberger's diagnosis: negative

The McLuhan and Joyce covers are isomorphic under a reflection about the short axis, not a rotation of 180 degrees.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 03:02 pm (UTC)
Re: aspberger's diagnosis: negative

Well, they're the same shape if you rotate 180 and flip horizontally (ie mirror):


ReplyThread Parent
lord_whimsy
lord_whimsy
whimsy
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 03:52 pm (UTC)

Yes, the white covers are far more successful.

This sort of cover design system was pioneered in the 50's by Roy Kuhlman for Grove Press. More successfully too, I think, since he attempted to allude to the content in some oblique way.


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lord_whimsy
lord_whimsy
whimsy
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 04:02 pm (UTC)

And I've always found Vaughan's work ravishing. The colors, photography, calligraphy and compositions were far more deft and intriguing than anything Brody or Carson ever did, whose work feels ham-handed in comparison. The covers were often the best things about some of those albums. A Vaughan Oliver sleeve was a hard act to follow.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 04:25 pm (UTC)

I like those Kuhlman covers for Grove Press, but I don't think you can call it "this sort of cover design system". Kuhlman's work is as different from the Oliver Bevan covers as they are from the 80s and 90s covers. The Kuhlmans are typically 1950s quirky art informel, mostly hand-drawn, not at all gridlike or systematic. I see them being much more in the lineage of Josef Čapek.


ReplyThread Parent
ferricide
ferricide
christian nutt
Thu, Apr. 9th, 2009 07:42 pm (UTC)

totally unrelated: i'm on vacaction in tokyo and yesterday, i walked through shinjuku while listening to voyager and it was very good. thanks for making voyager, and also thanks for making it available at christmas so i could have it on my iPod.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Apr. 10th, 2009 07:15 am (UTC)

This entry made me think of your Boring Books video. Which, when I looked at it again, shows covers more boring than the Fontana ones, but in some cases approaching that level of aesthetic appeal. I love the whole idea of an abstract book cover - as if to say the content is so powerful there's no need to illustrate anything.


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steviecat
steviecat
Stephen Drennan
Mon, Apr. 13th, 2009 08:40 am (UTC)

More info snippets - the designs where there are white backgrounds (as opposed to the full-colour covers, i.e.), were designed by James Lowe rather than Oliver Bevan. Of the Bevan ones, at least two had the same artwork - Joyce and Guevara.


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