Friday Book Design Blog: Series special – Amos Tutuola and Jane Austen

Jonathan Gibbs

tutuola austen Friday Book Design Blog: Series special   Amos Tutuola and Jane Austen

Series redesigns are the bread and butter of the publishing world – the decent, honourable job of keeping a backlist visible and afloat. Link an author’s books together in their visual style and, you hope, you will fix their ‘brand’ in the reading public’s mind. Make them beautiful – ‘collectable’, that marvellously meaningless word – and they will fly off the shelves in droves. You might even persuade a loyal reader to ‘upgrade’ or replace their old copy. These, you think, are the thoughts that go through publishers’ minds when they commission a new look for an old author, or an author’s old books.

A good example is the new design Canongate gave Geoff Dyer’s backlist when they took over the writer from Little, Brown. A unified look (block colours, block lettering, title and author on an interesting slant) attempts to sell us the idea that no innocent reader would ever stumble upon themselves: that these radically different books all flow from the same pen.

geoff dyer Friday Book Design Blog: Series special   Amos Tutuola and Jane Austen

Series designs are also good fun for designers, you’d think: a palette to play with, rather than one make-or-break design to push a new book, standing alone, to the top of the bestseller lists.

Faber’s redesign of the novel and stories of Amos Tutuola are a case in point. The Nigerian author, who died in 1997, is best known for The Palm-Wine Drinkard, acquired for the publisher by TS Eliot in 1952, and extravagantly praised by Dylan Thomas – though alternative music fans’ ears might prick up at the title of his second novel, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

amos tutuola Friday Book Design Blog: Series special   Amos Tutuola and Jane Austen

We all know about the clichés that attend the publication of African books in the West – the acacia tree treatment, as it’s been called – but Luke Bird at Faber was clearly having none of this. His covers for the nine Tutuola reissues (three in ebook only) are as bright and brash as anything you’ll see on shop shelves, but modern with it. Their patterns are, Bird says, inspired by the books’ use of traditional Yoruba folktales:

“That celebration of vibrancy and colour brought to mind traditional Nigerian dress and, in particular, the traditional dress of the Yoruba people; often adorned with wonderfully jarring bright colours and geometric patterns.

“To counteract the intentionally busy nature of the patterns, I chose to print in two colours only, using clean, white blocks in which to house the typography.”

The font (the delighted named Neutraface) was chosen with the aim, Bird says, of making “a confident juxtaposition with the illustration,” while still feeling warm and friendly.

I’d go along with that – I love the colours, and the patterns (which do bring to mind other non-traditional pattern covers, such as David Pearson’s work for Editions Zulma, and my old copy of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions) but I think what really makes them work is those white blocks laid over them, that carry the text. There is something counterintuitively blunt and basic about them, something you might chalk up to what has been called ‘the new aesthetic’: the influence of digital technology on the physical world – they look rather like text boxes in a website designed somewhere in the early 1990s.

For contrast, how about Jane Austen – a writer who certainly doesn’t need bringing back into the public consciousness, unless it’s to win her back from the rash of cinema adaptations that flooded the bookshops with covers majoring in bonnets, puff sleeved dresses and ruffled shirts, set against lush English landscape backgrounds.

austen Friday Book Design Blog: Series special   Amos Tutuola and Jane Austen

The new Vintage Classics editions of Austen’s novels are patterned, too, but we seem to have moved on from the elegant wallpaper design patterning that seemed to be everywhere about a decade ago – a look that sprang up in response, perhaps, to the success of Coralie Bickford-Smith’s work for Penguin’s clothbound classics.

These delicate watercolours (I assume they’re watercolours) are by Leanne Shapton, a US artist and writer who first came to my attention with her wonderful conceptual book Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry, a novel in the form of an auction catalogue detailing the sale of personal items after a couple’s divorce.

Like the Tutuola covers, these seem to be pushing against readers’ expectations: a ‘classic’ should use a serious, respectful font, you’d think – yet here we have hand lettering that might best be described as naïf: the capital ‘N’s and ‘U’s utterly basic arcs, the Greek ‘E’s variable even across a single cover. There is something of the teenager’s doodled-on journal or scrapbook about them. Even the patterned covers look rather like exercise books covered with wrapping paper or fabric – while the pattern carries on over the spines, with the book info lettered on a cream rectangular strip, like a label taped onto the spine of a ring binder or file. All of which highly personal, rather handcrafty aesthetic, of course, sits in contrast with the production of the books, with their flaps and endpapers.

Both these series show the current predominance of pattern in book cover fashion, and both show how publishers are keen to flatter readers by pushing against their preconceptions – no surprise, when actually going out into the world holding a book is seen as a counterintuitive act.

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