April 9th, 2009


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.