70 Years of Penguin Design at the V&A

By Rob Last edited 164 months ago
70 Years of Penguin Design at the V&A

On Sunday afternoon Londonist decided it had had enough of the sunshine and it was time to get back indoors and look at some book covers. And where better to do that than at the Seventy Years of Penguin Design display at the V&A?

Note we said 'display' there and not 'exhibition'. That's because this is a pretty small project by anyone's standards. There are just over three walls given over to the display and it doesn't help that the room you have to get to is tucked away in a rather impenetrable corner of the musuem (on arrival Londonist had to be drawn a detailed map by a member of staff as large sections of the building are currently blocked off which means finding your way about is even trickier than usual).

But, as they say, 'nice things come in small packages' and 'size isn't everything' so don't let this put you off: there is an awful lot to look at and enjoy here and the V&A have given a lot of attention to their subject without overstretching themselves.

For example you could spend a good 30-40 minutes just browsing through the four large 'panels' which take up the main wall of the exhibit, each of which contains a collage of themed Penguin covers.

The themes are Orange (fiction), Green (crime), Blue (Pelican) and finally a mixed 'contemporary' panel.

The orange fiction display is riveting: 70 or so classic covers from the minimalist 'three horizontal bands' design to the more complex grids of later years which incorporate illustration and photography.

The covers are in no particular, which is a good move as it allows you to just soak them in and make all sorts of unexpected connections.

The same could be said for the green-coloured display of crime series covers which are more visually arresting thanks mainly to their content, but also because many of these covers were designed by legendary Polish designer Romek Marber who helped revitalise Penguin's image during the 60s.

Ironically the only covers which seem to fall flat here are the film tie-in editions which look stodgy next to the originally designed covers.

The last two panels (the educational Pelicans and the contemporay covers) are slightly less interesting. With the Pelicans it's the titles which grab the attention ('The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Bolshevism, Capitalism and Fascism', 'Suicide and Attempted Suicide’) while the modern covers are simply a collection of the recently released Pocket Penguin 70 series and lack the continuity and simplicity of the previous three panels.

Elsewhere there is a nice display of artifacts which show the evolution of the famous Penguin logo from the 1930s to the present day; examples of rarely seen Penguin specials and periodicals, produced to placate the public’s post-war appetite for ‘urgent social and political issues’; and some incredibly well-preserved rough sketches, which offer us a fascinating peek behind the design for the cover of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘St Joan’.

Right at the end of the exhibit is a mock up of a (suspiciously tidy) designers desktop where a series of contemporary covers are constructed, layer-by-layer, in Photoshop. As you can imagine this is probably the dullest part of the exhibition, although if you get bored you can always gaze longingly at the reproductions of the Isokon Penguin Donkey Bookcases, which sit on the floor just begging to be taken home and filled with vintage, tangerine-spined Penguins.

70 Years of Penguin design runs at the V&A until 13 November 2005. Admission is free.

Last Updated 13 June 2005