Friday Book Design Blog: The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

Jonathan Gibbs

friday the mussel feast 189x300 Friday Book Design Blog: The Mussel Feast by Birgit VanderbekeAnother small British indie publisher that makes much of how it looks, Peirene Press specialises in novellas in translation – a combination that would surely make some corporate publishers run a mile. (Could be worse, of course, could be short stories.) But in the hands of publisher Meike Ziervogel and designer Sacha Davison Lunt this particular niche has grown into, what, a rather distinctive perch, perhaps?

Peirene’s design philosophy is a textbook example of how to establish and develop a brand over time. Some elements have remained intact over the three years since its first publication. Others have evolved.

It helps that Peirene has a firmly fixed publishing pattern: three books a year, each year’s books grouped under a series title that gives a flavour of both style and content, eg Female Voice: Inner Realities, or Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy. (Okay, they read a little Book Clubbish, but are hardly compulsory. They presumably help with the subscription model that Peirene, like And Other Stories, follows.)

That pattern gives Davison Lunt a yearly opportunity to update and tweak her design. So while all the covers so far have a single image as part of their visual make up, these have changed from photographs (mostly stock images, I think) in the first three series to drawings, by Giula Morselli, in the fourth. Likewise, all the books have circles as part of the graphic design, but while these were used as windows onto the photographs, applied in a variety of ways over the first three series, now they are simple coloured discs laid over the illustrations.

friday sea of ink 189x300 Friday Book Design Blog: The Mussel Feast by Birgit VanderbekeThe typography, on the other hand, has remained consistent all along: the title off-set against horizontal white bars over the dominant colour block (reminiscent of the way the highlighter function works in word processing programs); the author name delicately placed in a box at the bottom, half in, half out of that colour block; the publisher name off to the right. Overall, the mixture of contemporary and traditional, edgy and safe, is carried off with aplomb. There’s certainly nothing to frighten the horses about a Peirene cover, but also nothing remotely fusty.

One minor thing that makes the books subtly distinctive is their shape. They are the usual height (197mm) of a ‘B format’ paperback, but slightly less wide – about 126mm instead of 129mm. Hardly worth remarking upon, you’d think (and I doubt you’d see it from an image on the screen, you need it in your hand to notice), but there’s something inherently pleasing about the upright, rather svelte shape this gives them, that suggests the sophistication, and even the brevity, of what’s inside.

Personally, I’m not 100% convinced by the illustration covers of the current series (Turning Points: Revolutionary Moments). For me the last series had a great look, in which those distinctive circles were suddenly splattered in greater numbers all over the covers, as if Davison Lunt had accidentally tipped over her bottle of digital ink. But it’s reassuring to know that next year’s books will tweak something else, keep things fresh, draw readers’ eyes anew, while presumably retaining the overall sense of identity. If there’s a publisher whose books make you want to collect the set (and of course I haven’t mentioned what’s inside, but suffice it to say these are a well-curated selection from contemporary world literature: here’s our review of the latest release, Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast) it’s Peirene.

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