The art of book cover design

Doomsayers predict its death in the age of Kindle but as Faber & Faber celebrates 80 years of artwork and independent imprints flourish, the book has never looked more beautiful, says Jonathan Gibbs

Wherever you stand on the future of the book – doomed to oblivion by the Kindle, or an indestructible part of our cultural life – there's no doubt that recent years have seen a golden age of book design. There are of course whole bookshop shelves full of cheap, dull, generic products, but for those who know where to look, books have rarely been more interesting to look at, hold and open.

Partly this is a case of big publishers relying on brilliant design to make their goods stand out in an increasingly difficult market; but partly, too, it's a case of small, independent publishers springing up to provide a certain kind of reader with what they want, more than ever: the book as beautiful, covetable, keep-able object.

You could argue that the current renaissance in book design came about thanks to Penguin, always the most design-savvy of publishers. In 2004 they produced their first series of Great Ideas – small paperback editions of classic, mostly philosophical texts. They had highly tactile covers and used bold period typography to give a sense of when and where each book was coming from. The following year we got Penguin by Design, an illustrated history of 70 years of Penguin covers, and then, in 2007, Seven Hundred Penguins, a two-inch-thick collection of the best covers, shown life-size, one to a page. For seasoned haunters of second-hand bookshops, this particular item was as thrilling as a similar-sized brick of Class A drugs.

Now that other venerable British publisher, Faber & Faber, has stepped up to the plate. Eighty Years of Book Cover Design seems very much a retort to Penguin, as if to say, 'Hey, we were putting out distinctive books six years before you ever came on the scene'. Looking through this beautifully presented book, however, it's clear that Faber's design only really came into its own in the 1940s, with the arrival of the German designer Berthold Wolpe. Wolpe designed the Albertus font, immediately evocative of Faber, and also supplied many of the bold, colourful designs that adorned books by writers like Lawrence Durrell, William Golding and Ted Hughes.

Also as part of their 80th birthday celebrations, Faber have reissued some classic first novels as Faber Firsts, with new covers harking back to their original era (check out particularly The Bell Jar and Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy), and a collection of poetry hardbacks, with wood- and lino-cut illustrations on their jacketless covers and endpapers.

It's no surprise that good book design often comes with reissues, not least of classics. After all, anything out of copyright leaves more money for the presentation. Persephone Books, Hesperus Press, Pushkin Press and Capuchin Classics are four British independent publishers that specialise in bringing back into print often long-neglected works, helped along by some beautiful design. Persephone are distinctive for their uniform grey jackets – it's only when you open them that you find the bright-coloured endpapers, sourced from fabrics dating from the time of the book's setting or writing.

Capuchin Classics, by contrast, hark back to the classic Penguin "grid format", with bands of signature mint-green and original illustrations by Angela Landels. For Capuchin's editor-in-chief, Emma Howard, this aspect of the cover design was crucial. "We thought that using line drawings would be a refreshing antidote to the ghastly photographic covers that you see everywhere," she says.

While these four publishers all work in paperback, White's Books is one that is taking on the hardback – at a time when these are fast disappearing from our shelves. They're not quite an endangered species yet: literary imprint Picador announced that they were doing away with hardbacks altogether last year, before quietly backing down. White's stick resolutely to the classics – their list runs to six titles so far, including Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Treasure Island – but go all out in design terms, from the thickness of the paper to the exquisite covers.

White's art director, David Pearson, has commissioned illustrations from such people as textile designer Celia Birtwell and Stanley Donwood, better known for his work with Radiohead. The results stand out a mile in your average bookshop, thanks to the books' use of what Pearson calls "non-repeating narrative pattern" – images that look like a simple pattern from a distance, but which open up when seen at close quarters.

It's not all classics and rediscoveries, though. Some of the most eye-catching design in recent years has been in paperback originals – the pricier paperbacks that have increasingly replaced hardbacks for first-run printings of literary fiction. These can be jacketed, with cut-outs or flaps, and appeal to a young, stylish readership that expects the same degree of sophistication from their books as they do from their music or clothing. "Books are like small posters for themselves," says Suzanne Dean, creative director at Random House. "We have roughly a two-minute window to seduce the reader and bookshop browser."

Yet it's still the familiar names that are most likely to have that extra care lavished upon them. Coming to bookshelves soon will be fine editions of books by Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt, George Orwell and Michael Ondaatje. Covetable, certainly, and beautifully produced, but considering that most of the people who will buy the books will own them already, in a previous format, the terrible thought occurs: will they ever be read?

'Eighty Years of Book Cover Design' by Joseph Connolly is published by Faber & Faber, priced £40 (hardback) and £25 (paperback)