05 February 2010

The Marber Grid

Romek Marber's grid for Penguin covers from 1961 provided a framework for a series of publications plus generous space for the publisher's other illustrators. Marber spoke to Creative Review last September about his work and the grid. The complete feature - by Mark Sinclair - can be viewed via this link. Here's an excerpt:

"At the time Penguin cover design was in a muddle drifting from one design to another, diluting Penguin Books' identity, reputation and goodwill. I came to the conclusion that the cover design must unite the titles in the Penguin Crime series. This would be achieved by a visual uniformity of all or some of the components that make up a cover. The grid divides the cover into areas of white and green, determines the typography and the placing of type and picture, and is particularly important when artwork is commissioned from diverse illustrators/ designers whose styles differ.

To launch the new Crime series I was asked to do twenty titles. The month was June and the books had to be on display in October. The ‘grid' and the rather dark visual images, suggestive of crime, had an immediate impact. The launch was successful and Penguin Books went ahead changing all the covers on the Crime list to the new design.

Much has been made of the grid; it has even been labelled ‘the Marber grid'. I believe that the pictures for the initial twenty covers, played an important part in forging the identity of the Crime series. The grid was important as the rational element of control. The consistency of the pictures contributed, as much as the grid, to the unity of the covers, and the dark shadowy photography gave the covers a feel of crime.

Using photography was time-consuming and not all that rewarding as I had to do one cover at a time. As all the titles on the Penguin Crime list were gradually reprinted in the new style, there was a continuous flow of work. I collected all kinds of crime paraphernalia and planned the work so that I could photograph and work on many images at one time.

This illustrates flexibility in the grid and how a picture can encroach on the white area of the cover without affecting the style. For The Case of the Caretaker's Cat by Erle Stanley Gardner the black photos of cats and the hand with a dribble of black ink give the image an ominous rather creepy feeling. You wouldn't say ‘what lovely two pussies'.

The Night of Wenceslas by Lionel Davidson is a story about a man being chased through the streets of Prague. By coincidence, as I was about to do this cover, I was in a room where the window facing the street had a pane of ribbed glass. People passing by looked as if they were sliced into moving segments. As I moved my head even those standing moved. I bought a piece of ribbed glass. I used the glass to create movement and add an intriguing element to the chase. For the cover of The Case of the Turning Tide by Erle Stanley Gardner I used the same ribbed pane of glass to resemble the reflection of a face in turning tide.

For some of the pictures I used myself as a model. It was convenient and I didn't expect a fee. Friends were wary of appearing on a crime cover; not even a major photographic facial distortion would tempt them. I tried to distort the picture in order not to be recognised. For the cover of The Case of the Substitute Face I was particularly successful in disguising my identity; my wife thought it was an improvement to my looks. Doing the crime covers was exciting and it was fun. I tried to make each picture mysterious and intriguing. I didn't always succeed.

Some aspects of a photographic image happen by accident. In the case of the Maltese Falcon cover I could quite easily have discarded this picture. To me this was a powerful and menacing image. I thought it right for this famous Dashiell Hammett thriller.

For Death of a Stray Cat the picture is of a figure cut from black paper and a charcoal rubbing taken from a wooden plank. When combined they give the feel of sea, shore and mystery.

Penguin then decided that books by authors who have many titles on the Penguin booklist should have individual pictorial identification. I had almost finished doing the covers for Dorothy L.Sayers novels when I had a phone call informing me about the new policy. I modified the artwork and added a small white figure, which appears in a different posture on each cover, and it worked [see Have His Carcase, above].

The appearance of Penguin Crime in the new covers led to many offers of work, mainly about violence and crime. One such example is the opening page to an article on the Mafia which I did for Queen magazine. It was advantageous to have a page in Queen and was good publicity, but it was again about crime and I was getting tired of crime.

Georges Simenon was normally published in Penguin Crime, but some of his novels were to be published in Fiction. The covers were to follow the grid I originally designed for Penguin Crime. The photography and collage pictures that I did for Crime covers had too forceful an association with the Crime series. Just changing the colour to ‘Fiction orange' wasn't a positive enough change to break this association. In place of photography and collage I switched to drawing. The action in all the six novels takes place in France. I used the white of the paper, the red of fiction covers, and the additional blue colour to suggest the French three-colour flag."

Oh, and I'm now kicking myself as I used Blogger and I've just realised that if I'd done this blog in WordPress, I could have used a pre-made Marber theme. A test version is available to view here. Oh well...

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