01 Oct, 2009

Penguin by Illustrators: Romek Marber

Posted by: admin In: Creative Review

In the first of two extracts from Penguin by Illustrators, a new book collecting together the transcripts of talks given by esteemed Penguin creatives, we have the full text of the presentation made by Romek Marber (b. 1925), best known for his “Penguin grid” and the Crime series covers from the 1960s…

The following is the introductory text to and transcript of the presentation Marber gave at the Penguin Collectors’ Society event, Penguin by Illustrators in 2007, which has now been published in a new book of the same name. Further details on Penguin by Illustrators follow the extract.

Romek Marber contributed to the Penguin Collectors’ Society’s previous book [Penguin by Designers] as a designer and really needs no introduction to people familiar with the Penguin cover story. He is best known as the designer of the Crime grid in 1961 and later that grid was used for Fiction and Pelican. The Crime grid, as Romek explains, is really about giving illustrators the freedom to do their work.

Romek Marber

I was surprised to be asked to speak about my work in illustration. I am not sure whether my work qualifies this description. It has never occurred to me to ask myself ‘am I an illustrator?’ I communicate visually and I search for clarity. I use type, drawing, photography or whatever. The subject matter may influence the tools I use. A picture takes shape as I work. Sometimes, something accidental occurs that intensifies the work and I am thankful.

I wanted to study painting. I applied for an educational grant to a body called ‘The Committee for the Education of Poles in Great Britain’. At the interview I was informed that the only grants the Committee awards are for the study of applied arts. A casual remark by a well-disposed committee member modified my ambition. He suggested that I apply for a course in Commercial Art.

Education: St Martins and the Royal College of Art

I had no idea what Commercial Art was about, but as the course title included the word ‘Art’, I enthusiastically agreed. I enrolled at St Martin’s School of Art for the course. Most of the staff teaching on the course were painters, only partly involved in design. The studies were directed at drawing, mainly from life, creating graphic pictures, and tracing letters from type books to form words or sentences. Actual typography was incidental.

When I was at the Royal College of Art, the Graphic Design course offered two options, either design or illustration. There was no strict division between the two. We shared the same studio, had the same teachers and were set the same projects. The answer to any set project was determined by an individual’s concept and interpretation.

As a student I spent time drawing and I regarded it as an exercise in observation, a visual note book. Now I use it whenever I feel it will be right to interpret an idea. The same with photography. I was interested in it but I wasn’t taught photography and I don’t see myself to be a photographer. My technical know-how is limited. I had a camera and a small enlarger. I used a variety of films and photographic paper, and late at night I blacked out the kitchen to develop film and to print. I experimented and played with the material available. I learned to manipulate the medium to my own end and to originate pictures.

The Economist and New Society magazine

The Economist covers I view with nostalgia. They led the way to designing covers for Penguin and ultimately to the redesign of their Crime series covers. Peter Dunbar had been appointed art director of The Economist. Up to then The Economist cover had running text and no picture. The printing was in letterpress on newsprint in two colours, red and black.

The newsprint paper and the coarseness of the halftone printed by letterpress suited the boldness of my work. I don’t know whether the covers would have been as effective if the artwork was in full colour. Black with red is simple and dramatic. At that time, full colour was too costly and was seldom used.

There was a ritual associated with designing an Economist cover, and I can recommend it. It began with a phone call asking me to reserve the day to do next week’s cover. One rolled up at The Economist art department about eleven o’clock in the morning and waited for the editorial decision as to which article would be featured on the cover. It could be a prolonged wait; the decision could be made in late afternoon.

And so, one had a drink, then we ended up in the ‘French’ (a pub in Soho), had another drink or two, met friends, and had lunch. Eventually we got back to the office hoping that the headline for the article to be featured on the week’s cover was ready. I did a quick sketch of what I intended to do, and after approval I returned to my studio to do the cover. There was no time for a last-minute change of mind. The artwork had to be ready by nine o’clock the following morning. A messenger would be waiting to deliver the artwork to the printer. The convivial and lively atmosphere of the art department made it a stimulating day. Dennis Bailey who also did Economist covers will agree.

The covers are evocative of the social, political and economic high points and concerns of the Sixties. I would have thought that by now those political issues would have been resolved. Sadly they keep recurring with persistent regularity, if in a different guise. The ‘No black pawns’ cover is about the interference of foreign governments in Africa; ‘The winds of change’, Prime Minister Macmillan’s famous speech on freedom in South Africa [shown above]; ‘Programmes for Expansion’, the US and UK economies [also shown above]; ‘Calling Kremlin 1961′, a telephone hotline between the White House and the Kremlin. When called the first time to do an Economist cover, I was apprehensive. I hadn’t had the experience of presenting a visual idea, and to have the artwork ready for printing in so short a time. There was no time to have second thoughts. I got used to the speed and I liked it.

To design the New Society covers I was given more time than was the case at The Economist. This made the work less hectic. The art director of New Society at the time was Richard Hollis. The logotype ‘newsociety’ runs across the top of the cover, and though very bold, I found more accommodating to the image. To the present generation of designers it may seem odd that I accentuate the time I was given to complete the work. One must remember that there was no computer, and therefore no PhotoShop, no QuarkXpress, no digital cameras, no instant printers.

For the cover ‘US industry invades Britain’, I tried to put across the energy and impact of US industry. The cover for ‘Are the social services good enough?’ I was amused by the result of the survey. People were ambivalent: one half answered ‘Yes’ and was happy; the other answered ‘No’ and complained. A drawing I remembered from my childhood would provide an amusing pictorial answer to this question.

Penguin Books: Pelicans, Penguin Crime, Penguin Fiction

In 1960, to have one’s work published in a serious magazine which had a wide national and international circulation was possibly the best publicity a designer could get. Germano Facetti, newly appointed art director of Penguin Books, noticed the covers I did for The Economist and got in touch with me. Our Language and Language in the Modern World, both by Simeon Potter, were the first covers that I designed for Penguin Books.

The designs for the two covers were done by photographic means. For the cover of Our Language I was trying to convey that the language is English and is evolving. I used the Union Jack to indicate that Our Language means the English language, and using the enlarger I began printing the title out of focus and with the adjustment of the enlarger, step by step gradually getting it into focus. The last line doesn’t reach total sharpness to indicate that the language continues to evolve.

For the Language in the Modern World cover I aimed to convey the language in a post-technologically oriented world. I photographed a young man talking, then converted the photo into a coarse halftone which I photographed and enlarged greatly. Soon after I did these covers I was asked to submit a proposal for a cover design to be applied to the entire Penguin Crime series. In other words a Penguin Crime house style.

Penguin Crime grid

At the time Penguin cover design was in a muddle drifting from one design to another, diluting Penguin Books’ identity, reputation and goodwill. I came to the conclusion that the cover design must unite the titles in the Penguin Crime series. This would be achieved by a visual uniformity of all or some of the components that make up a cover. The grid divides the cover into areas of white and green, determines the typography and the placing of type and picture, and is particularly important when artwork is commissioned from divers illustrators/ designers whose styles differ.

To launch the new Crime series I was asked to do twenty titles. The month was June and the books had to be on display in October. The ‘grid’ and the rather dark visual images, suggestive of crime, had an immediate impact. The launch was successful and Penguin Books went ahead changing all the covers on the Crime list to the new design.

Much has been made of the grid; it has even been labelled ‘the Marber grid’. I believe that the pictures for the initial twenty covers, played an important part in forging the identity of the Crime series. The grid was important as the rational element of control. The consistency of the pictures contributed, as much as the grid, to the unity of the covers, and the dark shadowy photography gave the covers a feel of crime.

Using photography was time-consuming and not all that rewarding as I had to do one cover at a time. As all the titles on the Penguin Crime list were gradually reprinted in the new style, there was a continuous flow of work. I collected all kinds of crime paraphernalia and planned the work so that I could photograph and work on many images at one time.

The grid and the covers

This illustrates flexibility in the grid and how a picture can encroach on the white area of the cover without affecting the style. For The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat by Erle Stanley Gardner the black photos of cats and the hand with a dribble of black ink give the image an ominous rather creepy feeling. You wouldn’t say ‘what lovely two pussies’.

The Night of Wenceslas by Lionel Davidson is a story about a man being chased through the streets of Prague. By coincidence, as I was about to do this cover, I was in a room where the window facing the street had a pane of ribbed glass. People passing by looked as if they were sliced into moving segments. As I moved my head even those standing moved. I bought a piece of ribbed glass. I used the glass to create movement and add an intriguing element to the chase. For the cover of The Case of the Turning Tide by Erle Stanley Gardner I used the same ribbed pane of glass to resemble the reflection of a face in turning tide.

For some of the pictures I used myself as a model. It was convenient and I didn’t expect a fee. Friends were wary of appearing on a crime cover; not even a major photographic facial distortion would tempt them. I tried to distort the picture in order not to be recognised. For the cover of The Case of the Substitute Face I was particularly successful in disguising my identity; my wife thought it was an improvement to my looks. Doing the crime covers was exciting and it was fun. I tried to make each picture mysterious and intriguing. I didn’t always succeed.

Some aspects of a photographic image happen by accident. In the case of the Maltese Falcon cover I could quite easily have discarded this picture. To me this was a powerful and menacing image. I thought it right for this famous Dashiell Hammett thriller.

For Death of a Stray Cat the picture is of a figure cut from black paper and a charcoal rubbing taken from a wooden plank. When combined they give the feel of sea, shore and mystery.

Penguin then decided that books by authors who have many titles on the Penguin booklist should have individual pictorial identification. I had almost finished doing the covers for Dorothy L.Sayers novels when I had a phone call informing me about the new policy. I modified the artwork and added a small white figure, which appears in a different posture on each cover, and it worked [see Have His Carcase, above].

The appearance of Penguin Crime in the new covers led to many offers of work, mainly about violence and crime. One such example is the opening page to an article on the Mafia which I did for Queen magazine. It was advantageous to have a page in Queen and was good publicity, but it was again about crime and I was getting tired of crime.

Georges Simenon was normally published in Penguin Crime, but some of his novels were to be published in Fiction. The covers were to follow the grid I originally designed for Penguin Crime. The photography and collage pictures that I did for Crime covers had too forceful an association with the Crime series. Just changing the colour to ‘Fiction orange’ wasn’t a positive enough change to break this association. In place of photography and collage I switched to drawing. The action in all the six novels takes place in France. I used the white of the paper, the red of fiction covers, and the additional blue colour to suggest the French three-colour flag.

After a break of a number of years I was asked to design covers for six of Angus Wilson’s novels. Penguin had a new house style which had one rule. The ‘Penguin’ symbol had to be placed in the right top corner of the cover. Title, the author’s name could be in any typeface, and the illustration, as well as the title, could be positioned anywhere on the cover. As the covers were commissioned to disparate designers and illustrators the Penguin identity became bleared.

I will end with the image to the opening page of a précis in Town magazine of Bashevis Singer’s novel The Family Moscat. Having done the picture, I was uneasy. I thought the picture might be too grim to be published. Dennis Bailey, the art director of Town, on opening the envelope had an unexpected surprise. We all question what we do. At some stage I step back from the picture and, an hour or a day later, I look at the design again and, for better or worse, I decide.

This is an extract from Penguin by Illustrators, edited by Steve Hare and published by the Penguin Collectors’ Society. The book is currently available to purchase from the PBS website, (£20 plus p&p). As a compendium of the Penguin by Illustrators event in 2007, the book features the five presentations by Dennis Bailey, Romek Marber, Jan Pieńkowski, Tony Lyons and Jon Gray, and is supplemented by an introduction by Phil Baines and two further chapters by Quentin Blake and David Gentleman.

The book covers virtually the entire period from Penguin’s tentative, and then formal abandonment of purely typographic covers in the mid 1950s, right up until the present time. It is designed by Ipek Altunmaral, a final-year student at Central Saint Martins, and has a cover designed by David Pearson.

CR Blog will feature David Gentleman’s chapter next week.



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