Cover story

Designing Penguin Modern Classics (Part 3)

In the final part on the design history of Penguin Modern Classics, Henry Eliot, Creative Editor of Penguin Classics, introduces the new 'eau-de-nil' look for the series in 2017

The current Art Director, Jim Stoddart, gave Penguin Modern Classics its latest major makeover in September 2007. The back covers remained silver, but the books were now matte. The spines became white, matched by narrow white bands along the top and bottom of the front covers, which were otherwise completely filled by the artwork, superimposed with large silver and white lettering in Avant Garde.

Avant Garde was designed by the typographer Herb Lubalin. It developed from the logo of a New York magazine called Avant Garde, which was famous for sexual imagery, crude language and strikingly beautiful graphics. The magazine folded after just three years, when it printed an alphabet spelled out by nude models and the editor went to prison; but Lubalin’s logo was so popular, he subsequently worked it up into a full typeface and released it in 1970.

Stoddart’s grid remained loose. Depending on the artwork, the lettering could be large or small, and was sometimes relocated to a white panel at the top of the front cover

In February 2011, Penguin marked the 50th anniversary of Penguin Modern Classics with a selection of 50 ‘Mini Moderns’: small format extracts, short stories and novellas drawn from titles across the series. These mini books reflected the new design format, with white spines and matte silver covers, and were available singly or in a boxset.

A boxset of 50 Mini Modern Classics to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the series in 2011

In 2017, the series takes its most recent step forward. Jim Stoddart has given his own 2007 design a new livery: the back covers, spines, Penguin roundel and cover text have all turned a pale blue-green, a shade known as ‘eau-de-nil’, ‘water of the Nile’. This colour is a reference to the series’ original palette and its brief blue-green incarnation as Twentieth-Century Classics.

The colour ‘eau-de-nil’ emerged in the late 19th century, associated with fashionable décor, clothing and ladies’ toilettes. Over the last hundred years it has become more peppermint, and is widely used by ‘classic’ brands including Fortnum and Mason, Laura Ashley and Hunter wellingtons. It resembles ‘Cambridge blue’.

This new combination of bold images and avant-garde font with a classic colour sums up the enduring yet radical spirit of the Modern Classics.

To launch the new look, fifty titles have been selected to represent of the breadth and depth of the list. These are the first books to be given eau-de-nil covers, and more will follow over the coming months.

These four titles are staples of Penguin Modern Classics and have all been through several different cover designs over the years. The cover of Animal Farm was designed by the illustrator and author Marion Deuchars

Truman Capote and John Steinbeck have also been mainstays of the Modern Classics list, but both authors are currently being refreshed with new images, of which these are the first examples

These titles demonstrate the range of Penguin Modern Classics, from the apocalyptic science fiction of Kurt Vonnegut to the surreal heights of Leonora Carrington

Modern Classics have always showcased the greatest writers who manage to capture the spirit of the age and challenge our understanding of what a classic can be. The design of the series has evolved to reflect the flavour of the list and will no doubt continue to develop of the next fifty years.

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