In celebration of a new set of Faber Stories, Senior Designer Jonathan Pelham talks about the process behind their innovative cover designs.
2019 marks Faber & Faber’s ninetieth year of publishing. At the beginning of the year, one of the ways we honoured this milestone was by issuing twenty short stories. The stories – selected by Gaby Wood, literary director of the Man Booker Prize – were individually bound as a set of small paperbacks, with each being a point on a map charting the company’s history, from some of our earliest literary stars through to celebrated authors writing today.
As midsummer begins to recede, we are delighted to announce that we will be closing our ninetieth year with another batch of ten stories. The first batch of twenty was programmed as two sets of ten on our publishing schedule, so a third set brings the total to thirty, a more satisfying numerical resolution.
Establishing a Style
It was clear that bringing together ninety years of short fiction would mean working across a diverse range of literary styles, historical contexts and cultural backgrounds. It made sense, then, to reflect this heterogeneity with an equally broad range of illustrators and designers, so that each of these small books would have an identity all of its own; tiny self-contained world into which a reader can escape – if only for fifty or so pages!However, this posed a problem: how would people know these books were all part of the same series if they didn’t have any obviously shared characteristics? Structural devices like grids, dividers or frames are often a reliable solution, but this means sacrificing space that might otherwise be used by the image, and since we were already working with smaller and squatter dimensions, some other marker would be needed.
Shape and space are not the only elements at a designer’s disposal, of course, and it seemed like we might be able to imply a strong familial relationship between the books by reducing the colours palette to roughly five colours. Limiting the number of colours would still allow complete freedom in all other aspects of the image.
As the books were so small, the colours would also need to be distinctive and instantly recognisable in order to give the series a solid identity when displayed on bookshop tables. On top of that, we wanted to find a way of balancing the company’s early twentieth-century modernist heritage with a more contemporary aesthetic.
It was also important to have a good range of hues, shades and tints within such a restrictive palette so that a variety of effects could be achieved. The process involved a lot of trial and error, drawing inspiration not only from the aforementioned mid-century modernist designs but also from contemporary graphics and fashion. Eventually we landed on an unusual but pleasing combination that seemed to fit our needs.
The layout was purposely designed to be spartan and unobtrusive, with all the information tucked in the corners to allow the image to take the spotlight.
A graphic motif that resembles a ribbon threads its way through much of the promotional material for our ninetieth celebrations, including the Faber 90 logo itself. This theme was extended to the spine, back cover and back flap. The use of this shape was a tribute to Faber covers from the fifties and sixties, designed by the legendary Berthold Wolpe, who was responsible for establishing a visual identity for Faber that is still visible to this day. The ribbon became something of a signature for Wolpe.
The typography similarly pays homage to Wolpe: the two typefaces used for the layout, Albertus and Pegasus, were both designed by Wolpe, but were recently (and beautifully) digitally revived by Toshi Omagari for Monotype.
When it came to commissioning illustrators and designers, we decided to start by getting every in-house Faber designer to contribute. Next we asked several ex-Faber designers who now work freelance if they could contribute. Beyond our immediate and extended family, we also got in touch with other illustrators and designers we love, several of whom we’d never worked with before or who had rarely, if ever, designed book jackets for fiction. This strategy was a way of honouring our past, celebrating the present and anticipating the future.
Each designer or illustrator was given exactly the same brief and the creative freedom to interpret it as they saw fit.
Whilst this wasn’t the easiest project to manage, it has easily been one of the most rewarding. Charlotte Agar, the illustrator for the cover for Sylvia Plath’s story, explains her process briefly below, but this is only one voice of the many, many skilful image-makers whose work has brought this series to life.
I was delighted to be asked to create a cover for Mary Ventura and the Ninth kingdom by Sylvia Plath. As a fan of hers already, it was wonderful to be able to read a previously unpublished story and interpret it with such freedom. I loved the gradual eerie feeling that the story has, beginning in seemingly quite a mundane way but becoming something much darker.
It was nice to have a bit longer to work on the project than I’m used to; I got some time to look through old 1940s and 50s travel posters and think about how the images in them can at times look oddly false and daunting. It was this sense I wanted to get across in the cover, the seemingly normal scenario of someone taking a trip on a train but something about it being undyingly unsettling. I really enjoyed being given a set of colours to work from as it made me feel I had more freedom to just concentrate on shape and composition and to really consider how the colours could be best used in certain volumes to feel daunting.
The full list of the thirty Faber Stories and their cover designers can be found below:
- The Inner Room – Jamie Keenan
- Three Types of Solitude – Steve Lloyd / icoEx
- The Lydia Steptoe Stories – Sophy Hollington
- Dante and the Lobster – Bráulio Amado
- The Shielding of Mrs Forbes – Alex Kirby
- An Elegy for Easterly – Luke Bird
- Mrs Fox – Faber (Jonathan Pelham)
- Come Rain or Come Shine – Darren Wall
- The Victim – Peter Adlington
- Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine – Niall McCormack
- The Forester’s Daughter – Tree Abraham
- A River in Egypt – gray318
- The Country Funeral – Gary Percival
- Terrific Mother – Anna Morrison
- Paradise – Laura Berger
- A Good Man is Hard to Find – Faber (Eleanor Crow)
- Daughters of Passion – Justine Anweiler
- Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom – Charlotte Ager
- Mr Salary – Faber (Jonathan Pelham)
- Cosmopolitan – Faber (Donna Payne)
- Homeland – Elena Durey
- My Son the Fanatic – Bill Bragg
- Intruders – Adrian Tomine
- Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead – Andrzej Klimowski
- Ghostly Stories – Faber (Jonathan Pelham)
- Giacomo Joyce – Leanne Shapton
- Mostly Hero – Woodrow Phoenix
- The Cheater’s Guide to Love – Jack Smyth
- Fairy Tales – David Pearson
- Shanti – María Medem