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Classics: For Shame?

Spotted this morning in Waterstone’s, Chiswick:

Penguin and Faber Classics

The Iron Woman vs Treasure Island

There was a time when I obsessed over Faber and Faber’s designs almost as much as I still do those of Penguin. Whilst my favourite Penguins were generally of the Facetti / Marber era (with special exceptions made for contemporaries such as Hyland, Intro, David Pearson and Gray318) the Faber style was the one they were publishing in there and then. (This, I will have you know, was the mid-1990s.)

(I later learned that the Faber house style had been developed by John McConnell at Pentagram, and that he sat on the board of Faber for a number of years. I learned, later still, that towards the end of the partnership, Faber found the Pentagram bond a stifling rather than creative designation, and that their revitalisation of the noughties had to – at least in part – put distance between them and those jackets. Pentagram was fired around 2002.)

Anyway: my point is that Faber has a good design heritage. They continue to do the odd brilliant jacket – I particularly liked their Jonathan Lethem stuff, again, with Jon Gray behind the wheel.

So I was sad to give a double-take when I saw an edition of The Iron Man next to Black Beauty. On first glance, both looked to be identically packaged in what is universally acknowledged to be the high water mark of classics design – the Penguin Classics livery. It was only after a second that I noticed an errant “ff” logo where the bird should be. And I thought – that can’t be right? Faber mimicking Penguin to sell Ted Hughes? Really? Has it come to that?

What more to say? Is one publishing “brand” chasing the tail of another? Is brand even relevant? Or is it a tacit acceptance (from Faber) that Penguin is so dominant, that a classic is only a classic if it looks like a Penguin Classic? Or – even worse – is a bitter capitulation to a demanding retailer who didn’t think that a book that doesn’t look like a Penguin will sell? (Stranger things have happened).

Dunno. But before we get lost in simulacra and semiotics, it just makes me a bit sad. You’d have hoped that a bit of innovation would be possible, from publisher and retailer, before a publisher synonymous with independence, with a strong identity and design heritage, would ape one of the biggest houses in the country.

Posted by Peter Collingridge in Design, Marber, Publishing.

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