In the first of three articles celebrating the design history of Penguin Modern Classics, Henry Eliot, Creative Editor of Penguin Classics, explores the origins of this iconic series
In April 1961 four titles were published by Penguin with a new look and a new name: Penguin Modern Classics.
They were The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder, an epistolary novel about the assassination of Julius Caesar; The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, about a deaf mute in the rural US state of Georgia; Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West, a black comedy set in a New York newsroom; and Ronald Firbank’s Valmouth, a story of naughty centenarian ladies in a seaside resort on the south coast of England.
From the beginning the selection of titles was ‘bold, confident and international’. This is how Margaret Drabble would describe the series three decades later in 1992. Today, almost three decades later again, the series is still bold and confident, with increasingly international titles that introduce readers to the greatest writers of the last century.
Covers from Hans Schmoller's original design for Penguin Modern Classics which featured a palette of dove grey, orange, black and white
The first jackets were designed by the typographer Hans Schmoller, who created a horizontal grid with an interchangeable palette of dove grey, orange, black and white. His design allowed space for bold, monochrome images and he used Eric Gill’s typeface Joanna.
Gill described Joanna as ‘free from all fancy business’. He was particularly fond of this typeface: he named it after his youngest daughter and selected it to set his 1931 monograph, An Essay on Typography – which joined the Modern Classics list itself in 2013.
In October 1963, the Penguin Art Director Germano Facetti refined the design: he retained the bluish-grey colour scheme of Schmoller’s original, but reset the covers using the ‘Marber Grid’, which was cleaner and allowed more space for artwork.
Under Germano Facetti's art direction, Penguin Modern Classics adopted the iconic 'Marber Grid' layout in 1963
The Marber Grid was devised by the Polish designer Romek Marber for the Penguin crime covers, but it was so versatile it had already been adopted for Pelican and fiction titles too. Facetti wanted to alter the Modern Classics typeface, but initially Schmoller persuaded him to stick with Joanna.
It wasn’t until March 1966 that Facetti got his way. He replaced Joanna with Helvetica and pushed the title and author name further up the cover, to bring Modern Classics in line with the updated Penguin Classics design.
With the introduction of the Helvetica typeface in 1966, the design of Penguin Modern Classics settled until the 1980s
Helvetica is a Swiss typeface, developed by the Haas type foundry in the 1950s. It was originally called Haas Grotesk, but the more attractive name Helvetica was adopted in 1960, inspired by Helvetia, the Latin name for Switzerland.
The colour scheme became looser. The upper panel varied between white, black and trademark green-grey and in some cases disappeared altogether when the artwork filled the entire cover.
Having taken a while to settle down, the design of Penguin Modern Classics then remained unchanged for the next fifteen years.