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Mon, Jul. 13th, 2009 08:30 am
Wrapping books with quirky zing

Eighty Years of Book Cover Design by Faber & Faber -- as previewed in a multimedia feature in The Guardian -- jogged a few memories for me. Faber is probably the publisher I've owned the most books by, after Penguin and Picador. Seeing the covers laid out in this way made me think of Emily Jacir's artwork Material for a Film, which displays the books owned by a Palestinian poet assassinated by the Israeli secret services.

The two Lawrence Durrell covers visible in the glimpse below of Jacir's piece were designed by Berthold Wolpe, a long-time Faber designer. We had them on our family bookshelves in the 1960s, so when my mother and I met and drank a pastis with Lawrence Durrell in Avignon in 1985 it felt like meeting an old family friend. (My mother embarrassed me by saying "My son Nicholas writes too!" Which totally wasn't true.)



Of the Faber covers, I found the ones designed by the books' own authors the most interesting. T.S. Eliot's design for Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats looks like a zine -- surprisingly light and scrappy, twee and pungent.

David Jones' Anathemata almost reminds me of a Peter Saville Factory Records design. Letting this poet-painter design his own jackets was totally the right thing to do -- as with the great Alasdair Gray, the effect is to create the impression that the artist has a personal stylistic universe which can be extended into any medium. That can be a welcoming and charismatic thing; the feeling that an artist's vision is immersive and comprehensive, different from everything you know.

Looking at the cover for Crow by Ted Hughes reminded me of how this book of visceral reports "from the life and songs of the crow" influenced my debut record The Man on Your Street ("songs from the career of the Dictator Hall", whose thoughts are described in The Courier as "hovering on like rooks as he wings his way below").

The generic postmodern Pentagram design that wrapped all Faber poetry titles from the early 80s onwards made me start thinking of Thomi Wroblewski, the designer I befriended and worked with from 1987 on. Thomi -- employed by Mike Alway to do the least el set of el single sleeves ever -- was known for his Talking Heads and Siouxie and the Banshees sleeves, as well as William Burroughs jackets for Picador:



When we started collaborating, Thomi had a big studio above the office of maverick Scottish publisher John Calder, in Green's Court, just off Brewer Street in Soho. I ended up spending a lot of time there, meeting Calder and some of his unlikely hangers-on (the Jewish doctor from Eastenders!). Thomi shared my taste for refined erotica (he designed an edition of Apollinaire's 1907 smut classic Les Onze Mille Verges, which publisher Peter Owen had to paraphrase, so subversive was it still considered to be in 1980s Britain), and liked to photograph you naked, writhing like a dancer. So it was up in that Soho studio that I posed, naked and masked, with various pretty girls for the Murderers, The Hope of Women sleeve. Thomi even dressed me up as dandy barfly Julian Maclaren-Ross, and put me on the cover of Memoirs of the Forties, his book about Fitzrovia. I'm seen from behind, toasting Soho.

What I notice about Thomi Wroblewski's 1980s book jacket work now is that while it often transgresses against the standards of good taste, it has an interesting maverick diversity -- exactly the sort of quirky zing that Wolpe-period Faber books had, but Pentagram-period Faber had lost by the time they standardised their poetry line with the tight-assed, Laura-Ashley-like "pomo ampersand classic" design.

This period of 1980s late pomo design is now coming back with a rush; the stretched typefaces on Thomi's 1988 Quick End anthology, for instance (The Quick End was a collection of short stories by Michael Bracewell, Don Watson and Mark Edwards, a writing group formed under the tutelage of Kathy Acker -- I faithfully attended all their readings) look rather like what Mike Meiré is doing now at 032c magazine. There's an awkward, ugly energy here which suddenly looks interesting again.

33CommentReply


(Anonymous)
Mon, Jul. 13th, 2009 10:47 am (UTC)

What do you see as postmodern about those Pentagram designs?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jul. 13th, 2009 11:45 am (UTC)

There's a certain classicism, a "return to order" in them. They're retro and referential. There's a sort of Ian Hamilton Finlay look to the type, as if it's chiseled, slightly ironically, in stone. The double line around the "label" suggests VIctorian herbal medicines, again slightly ironic. There's absolutely none of the progressivist Modernist streamlining you see in a cover like Wolpe's Eric Mendelson jacket. Instead everything is symmetry, irony, dryness, neo-classicism, restraint, repetition, systems, minimalism. For me the early 80s Pentagram covers are very much of a piece with the systems music of Glass and Reich, or the stately retro you see in Philip Johnson's AT&T (Sony) Building.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jul. 13th, 2009 12:02 pm (UTC)

To be more specific, the design seems to refer to the decorative inner endpapers of Victorian books, and the labels stuck inside them ("This book belongs to..."). And that retro reference fulfills the same function as the cornice on the AT&T building. Postmodernism was as playfully backwards-looking as Modernism was earnestly forwards-looking. It's simply impossible to imagine that double-line device which frames the label being used during the Modernist period. It's a schoolmarmish gesture which fits all too well with Thatcherism, and with high streets filled with retro-themed shops with ampersands in their names.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jul. 13th, 2009 11:37 am (UTC)

Slightly off-topic, I know - - I finished reading your 'Book of Scotlands' last night. Received on Thursday and found it pretty hard to put down. Very much enjoyed it, rotting news anchors and all. The final alternative Scotland is probably the one that sticks in my mind the most, though (trying to not give too much away to any other potential readers), and I rather enjoyed reading about the king and his Lady Sirloin.
Congrats on a very original book. Am intreagued by the other releases in the 'Solutions' series now!

James


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jul. 13th, 2009 11:53 am (UTC)

Ah, good to hear! The book isn't officially out yet, so I'm interested to get these early readers' reports! The other titles are definitely worth investigating -- in a way, they all combine to form one big speculative text about various nations.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jul. 13th, 2009 01:00 pm (UTC)
wrapping books

I love what you say about David Jones--"immersive and comprehensive", the invitation to a world view, as it were. Which is especially true of Ian Hamilton Finlay, who often used a similar hand-lettered face, during his 'War' with Strathclyde region... my favourite Faber covers, though, are Adrian Stokes' books, like Ben Nicholson's cover for Stones of Rimini, and the ballet books: http://www.pstokes.demon.co.uk/

Thomas


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jul. 13th, 2009 01:52 pm (UTC)
Re: wrapping books

Oh, I never heard of Adrian Stokes! Interesting!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jul. 13th, 2009 03:15 pm (UTC)

Artists as designers, interesting blog by James Langdon.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jul. 13th, 2009 04:08 pm (UTC)

Aki Sasamoto told me that she was sacked from a Japanese department store job because, no matter how much she smiled, she couldn't manage to do it "from the heart".


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milky_eyes
milky_eyes
milky_eyes
Mon, Jul. 13th, 2009 04:19 pm (UTC)

Its good to know that you very intelligent word-meisters are questioning what exactly is post-modern,,, Everytime I use the word, I self consciously peer over my non existent spectacles to see if the dim witted rascal that has fallen from grace enough to have to endure a word or two from the sorts of me, noticed that I may not have a clue what postmodern even means... I guess I more or less am on the same page as the awesome-nesses of these blogmasters.


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Mon, Jul. 13th, 2009 05:36 pm (UTC)

The clean shaven (crazy baldhead?) look is growing on me momus. Yesterday a cute litle cashier at the grocery store reached over (without asking!) and stroked my scalp and gave me a smile and a purr.

Today I am wearing a white turtleneck and I look lexactly ike, well... your penis.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jul. 13th, 2009 05:52 pm (UTC)

```arf arf```


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jul. 13th, 2009 06:17 pm (UTC)
'Jokes'

Have there been any book jackets revealed for foreign editions of 'Jokes'? I'm wondering how many try to market it as comedy (riotous cartoon, the Tom Sharpe look) or are they under instructions to 'art' it up?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jul. 13th, 2009 07:23 pm (UTC)
Re: 'Jokes'

The French publisher is working now on getting the rights for a photo by Izis, which will give the french edition a somewhat humanist, bildungsroman look. The German editors, last time I heard, were working with the image in my icon here -- an image of me with toilet paper around my head!


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