Continuing my journey into retro book design, I headed to the local Oxfam charity shop with Void of Design‘s Chris Johnson, to see what we could find. This particular Oxfam isn’t your run-of-the-mill charity shop, they have a very large collection of old and rare books, some with very hefty price tags (others, like the few I bought, with very reasonable price tags). I know it’s obvious and cliché, but through looking at book design for my FMP, I have fallen in love with old Penguins. The stern layout, the way the paper feels and smells, how it feels like I’m holding something special and not just another book, it’s pretty damn cool.

I bought four Penguins for just under a tenner, ‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey‘ by Thornton Wilder (above), ‘Penguin Science Fiction‘ by Brian Aldiss (below), ‘Bird Recognition‘ by James Fisher (below) and ‘The Whispering Land‘ by Gerald Durrell (which has some of the most beautiful illustrations I’ve seen recently, and will have it’s own post at some point). I think Phil Baines and Jim Stoddart would be pleased, as it’s through their recent work and love for the Penguin legacy that young designers like me can discover the wealth of awesome, that could easily have been forgotten about.

Printed in 1960, the ‘San Luis Ray‘ cover is based on the classic Jan Tschichold design, which remains a great example of simple, effective layout and typography. The dude really knew his hierarchy, and how to make something so incredibly minimalist and almost corporate, look nice and appealing. ‘Penguin Science Fiction‘ was published a year later, and you can see how they’ve started to play around with the design conventions and where they can put things and to what degree. The front illustration (by a chap named Brian Keogh) is quite cool, but I don’t particularly like how it’s been placed over the template. Still, it’s nice to see some creative flair, this being almost a precursor for the drastic change in Penguin’s cover design in the following years, that I have also been drooling over.

My personal favourite of the bunch, is ‘Bird Recognition‘, a Pelican book, published in 1947. When I spotted this on the shelf I gasped as if I saw a celebrity walk past. You see, at the time I had just gotten a hold of the book ‘Seven Hundred Penguins‘, which is a collection of various Penguin covers from their earliest books, up to the early nineties, and the cover for this book on bird watching is among them. What’s more, is it only cost a couple of quid. Mental.

This book is, in a word, wonderful. I’m sure most people would dissagree, and when it was first published I too, would have probably said it looks dull and boring. But time has transfored this into a stunningly quaint and nostalgic piece of retro-coolness. I really wish Rev. P. C. Whiteman didn’t decide to put a bloody sticker on the front, but there isn’t much I can do about that. Some priests get their kicks from young boys, others it seems, enjoy putting stickers of their name and address on classic books. Part of it’s charm is you can see the age and history this book has been through. From the damaged spine and edges, to faint pencil markings and creases, every little imperfection is a sign that this book has lived and been appreciated. I know of three owners, all of which have left their mark in some shape or form. The first page contains a short, handwritten message which reads:

How incredibly nice is that? In 1948, someone named Ruth gave this to her father on what I guess was his birthday. The same book went on to pass through the hands of Jonathan Taylor and Rev. Whiteman, and now currently rests in mine.  From a design point of view, it’s another good example of simple, straight-forward layout and positioning.  There’s no fucking about, these bird watchers don’t care about fancy typography or bright illustrations, they care about getting the facts and information to help their endeavours in ornithology.

And that’s what I love about it. They haven’t felt the need to try and ‘sell’ this book to a wide audience. Books now seem to cry out “Please buy me… please!”, often playing down certain important aspects in order to attract more readers who if they knew what the book was about wouldn’t bother. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as far as the business of books goes, but I just dig the way ‘Bird Recognition‘ just doesn’t care about anyone other than the people who are interested in the hobby. And why should it? It’s old fashioned, stuffy but loveable design, and I’m very glad I found it.

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