From artiness to psychedelia, seven decades of Penguin paperback design is celebrated

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The Independent Culture

No publisher has had more influence on reading habits than Penguin: in the 70 years since Allen Lane launched his cheap, colour-coded, high-quality paperbacks, they have probably done more for the education of the aspirant working and middle classes than any other institution.

No publisher has had more influence on reading habits than Penguin: in the 70 years since Allen Lane launched his cheap, colour-coded, high-quality paperbacks, they have probably done more for the education of the aspirant working and middle classes than any other institution.

But their influence has been as much visual and sensual as literary and intellectual.

Now, that look is the subject of a lavishly illustrated book - Penguin by Design by Phil Baines - and an exhibition, 70 Years of Penguin Design, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The exhibition, opening next month, draws on material from the Penguin archives to show how Penguin has responded to trends in British culture.

The first Penguins published, in 1935, embodied a purist aesthetic - titles set in Eric Gill's self-consciously functional Gill Sans font, no graphic, just bands of colour, top and bottom (blue for biography, green for crime, orange for fiction, pink for travel). Illustration was for special occasions - for the little King Penguin hardbacks, for newsy impact on Penguin Specials, and in the neat little roundels in the middle of Penguin Classics. By the mid-Sixties, as England swung, illustration was firmly established - though rarely in colour.

Even then, aside from a few flirtations with psychedelic styling, the Penguin tradition of austere artiness was preserved in a neat typographical style, according to principles set out by the designer Romek Marber, with title and author laid out in ruled strips at the top, the illustration underneath.

In the late Seventies, though, with Penguin facing new commercial pressures, the covers had to scream "buy me".

Throughout the Thatcher era, Penguin covers were a mess - reflecting a company, and a society, that had lost any sense of purpose beyond shifting units.

Over the years, the Penguin himself has undergone many changes - facing left or right, fat or thin, inside an oval or roaming free, with or without a white collar, standing still or even dancing. It is only in the past few years that some mass-market paperbacks have abandoned him altogether: once upon a time, "A Penguin Book" was the proudest boast a paperback could make. Now, for some, it can even be a turn-off.

But in other areas, Penguin has enjoyed a resurgence of confidence. A key event was the relaunch in 2000 of Penguin Modern Classics - the faintly nauseous turquoise spines of the Nineties now replaced by a cool, classic silver-grey. The discreet typeface and bands of colour at top or bottom deliberately echo, without quite repeating, the Marber grid; and the use of, mostly, photographs emphasises that these are modern classics: as is the Penguin himself.

70 Years of Penguin Design opens at the V&A, London, on 8 June

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