Monday, 12 September 2011

March of the Penguins







My fingers run over stacked spines in my grandma’s flat. Book spines, that is. Titles, authors and publishers all piled together. Here and there a logo: a small black penguin - usually on an orange background.
The older copies have the white stripe across the middle like a debutante’s sash. These are now considered iconic; the book world’s equivalent of a discreet designer label sewn into the back of a vintage dress. I am talking, of course, about Penguin books.

On a recent trip to the library I pulled out ‘Front Cover – Great Book Jacket and Cover Design’ by Alan Powers, which details the fashions, fads and relevance of book designs throughout the twentieth century. It was fascinating, proving the importance of the book jacket as much as the work inside (even though I've always been told 'not to judge a book by its cover'). Among the reflections on the impact of twenties modernism and design in the digital age, there were several spreads devoted to Penguin. The history is simple...
It was set up as a company in 1935, producing very cheap, high-quality paperback reprints of books. It was initially supported by ‘The Bodley Head’ and other publishers. The colour coded system was in fact inspired by Albatross (another publisher), and the books were first stocked by Woolworths - one of the first UK high street victims of the current recession.
Although looked down on by other established publishers, under the guidance of Allen Lane, Penguin went from strength to strength, especially post World War II. They are still highly successful today, with many illustrious authors (if you’ll excuse the pun) tucked under their wing.

It is impossible to have a favourite publisher – my most beloved books have sprung from all over the world. However, what can’t be disputed is the sheer aesthetic appeal of an original Penguin book cover. They are immediately recognizable, adding not just classic design to any bookshelf – but innovative ideas too. The dust jacket can cradle anything, from acidic and witty observations on class to tales of overcoming adversity. They are culturally significant.

Someone who completely understands this is Tony Davis, who founded 'Art Meets Matter' alongside Angela Lambert in 2002. I’m sure many will recognize his designs – the brightly coloured Penguin mugs, tea-towels and deckchairs.
I was lucky enough to meet him at the Hay Book Festival a few months ago, in a tent dedicated to Penguin (and Faber – another favourite) paraphernalia. By that point I had drunk two very strong mocha coffees, and was wandering around on a bit of a caffeine overload. Therefore, my memories seem quite vibrant; the purples, yellows, oranges and greens of the stacked mugs particularly bright. When I remarked on what a clever business idea it was, the stallholder said, “Oh, you should tell that to Tony” – which I did, enthusiastically, when he materialised seemingly from nowhere.
He was obviously incredibly passionate about his work, demonstrating ideas by picking up a pack of penguin pencils that were “exactly the same size” as book spines. And although I didn’t buy them, I was terribly tempted.
I walked away from the stall feeling unusually inspired. What was it about these objects, these useful items that made them so desirable? Was it, as some suggested, that they simply represented an aspirational lifestyle choice?
But maybe it’s more than that. As Davis himself said in an excellent Guardian article, he thinks of these creations as “Celebrating the essence of books”. I can definitely agree. Of the four Penguin mugs we own, I have read and enjoyed three of the titles emblazoned around them – The Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. I am yet to tackle Virginia Woolf, but I can tell you that when I do, it will be with my purple ‘A Room of One’s Own’ penguin mug in hand.

I hope that Davis is right in assuming that items could inspire people to pick up books, something sorely needed in an increasingly internet-driven society (she says while writing on a blog).
I am a firm advocate for books as physical objects. While I can appreciate the utility of Kindles or ipads, it's not possible to replicate the joy of discovering soft grey lines of pencil underlining favourite sections or making observations in a classic; the markings over fifty years old. Neither will there ever be an app that releases the musty, biscuit-y tang of cream pages from a screen. In fact, at another stall at Hay Festival advertising the London Library (which I seriously want to move into/ work at full time), one of the staff said that a specialist perfumer had been called in to create a scent inspired by old books. That strikes me as just a little bit amazing.

From my point of view as a consumer, I appreciate the Penguin products because they integrate what books stand for into other parts of my life. Someone who loves cars might also own calendars, key-rings, photos and other household objects that relate to that automobile obsession. So why not do the same for books? Especially if it helps to combat the vapid, ghost-written 'celeb' memoirs that often invade the best seller lists like armies of ants.
So, my mugs, my book spine wrapping paper and a set of Penguin postcards showing 100 iconic covers serve to show the impact that books can, and do still have on the world. They rejoice in the written word – quite rightly celebrating the cerebral.

As you may be able to tell, I am dressed as a Penguin book cover. This would definitely be a fancy dress outfit of choice. I achieved my ‘literary look’ with an orange skirt and shirt from a charity shop, vintage hat and gloves that used to belong to my great-grandma, and a vintage white silk sash.

Finally, those affected by 9/11 were very much in my thoughts yesterday - those who died, as well as the relatives and friends who live with the consequences of that day, every day. Polka Dot Jill wrote an immensely powerful post recalling and reflecting on her responses at the time.

53 comments:

OrigamiGirl said...

What a wonderful blog post. Such an awesome outfit idea as well.

I agree with you about books as a physical object being highly valued. I treasure my books and I do buy them for covers. I love to have matching sets of books and to organise my bookshelves in height order and with a few little ornaments that match the books. It shows how much I love them, even if other people say that book love can be shown in having tatty books with the spine bent.

I only have a few original penguins (I have some of the philosophy ones with blue covers which are fairly rare) but they are definately iconic and worth keeping and loving.

(sorry for the length, this was getting to almost a blog post in itself)

Fashion, Art and other fancies said...

I live amongst books, art and nature. One of my most beloved books is "The Oxford Book of English Verse" - Have you read it?
The pictures of you today are especially painterly.

China In Your hands said...

What a fab way to inspire an outfit! The colours are great and the matching make up is a clever trick too.

China In Your hands said...

What a fab way to inspire an outfit! The colours are great and the matching make up is a clever trick too.

YEYE STYLE BLOG said...

I love the colors here, the orange on your eyelids really make this simple outfit pop and the backdrop is amazing!

I am now a follower, your pictures are always so amazing and inspiring.

-Izzy

:)

The Fancy Teacup said...

I find the original Penguin classic covers to be quite delightful, too. Thank you for keeping Sept. 11 in your thoughts. You look beautiful and so lady-like in all the matching hues.

♥, Jamie
www.TheFancyTeacup.com

styleeast said...

I love that you're dressed as a book! The Penguin design is so timeless and iconic, this is a great ode to it. Looking forward to seeing you next week xx

Caitlin Rose said...

I love this post! I love that you are inspired by a book cover, and you do it so well! It's absolutely genius! I only have one penguin book that's in that classic design, but it's "Franny and Zoey" which is very possibly one of my favourite books of all time, so I'm happy to have it.

alexandratherese said...

This has to make my top five favourite blog posts ever read Rosalind! Combining so many things that I care about - books, penguin books especially(!), the celebration of the printed word and, of course, the clothes. I have to say you make an exceedingly lovely Penguin book cover! I think I think I mentioned to you back in the summer that I was delighted to find two D H Lawrence novels with the old orange covers on in my local Oxfam Bookshop and you're so right - it's their aesthetic qualities that are so important as well as the words encased within the covers. After all - it's the vivid colours that our eyes are first drawn too and the truly iconic design!

I'm definitely going to start surreptitiously to my family hinting that I would like one of the mugs for my birthday! As to A Room Of One's Own - I'm part way through it at the minute and the first chapter alone had me nodding my head so constantly. It's so interesting to compare the feminist writings of different eras - I would've loved to hear Woolf's thoughts about 'How To Be A Woman'! Now you've definitely convinced me to go to Hay this year too!

Hope you'e enjoying your second week back - I've been so busy and so tired that this is the first comment I've left in a week! Got a very Art-themed post coming up which I'm looking forward to writing tonight so hopefully it will be up soon. I agree I think we all need writing schedules! Enjoy your week xx

daisychain said...

you look utterly incredible in coral tones.

sorry to always focus on the superficial...I lack words to do the beauty of your words justice.

L'age moyen said...

I love this distinctive Penguin series almost as much as I love the print block covers of Virginia Woolf's books. The collaboration of the 2 sisters on her books was such a unique way of tying these 2 genius women together. Who'd of thought about a matching outfit? Well, you!

isa telaraña said...

Fantastic! ...Penguin book cover...full of art inside.

I want a charity shop in Spain!!!

Jessica said...

Great outfit, love the inspiration! I am very picky when it comes to books, I much prefer to read magazines however in general I am a big reading fan! I do buy books/magazines for the covers however as the saying goes 'never judge a book by it's cover'. Which is completely true, on several occasions I have picked up a book because of what it looks like and put it straight back down after reading the blurb. Books as you say are highly valued, looked after completely by it's owner almost as a pet! Overall,great post, plenty to comment on!

http://chicgeekblogger.blogspot.com/

Please take a minute to look at my trunkshow;

http://iouproject.com/tsh/jessica-karen/

Dolly Daydream said...

These photos are wonderful :)
http://oliviadollydaydream.blogspot.com/

the nyanzi report said...

classic.

sacramento said...

How grand of you to honoure Penguin with your ‘literary look’.
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Lydia said...

I love the mugs hanging in the background. Vintage books are the best.

mari b. said...

oh my! you look absolutely glorious all in orange. i'm truly lovestruck!

xx // themerrimari.blogspot.com

adrielleroyale said...

What a fun and lovely outfit! Love your tribute to the written word :)

Fashionistable said...

So, so true. I had a lovely conversation with your mum about the printed word. I have always adored the penguin covers for their powerful simplicity. Love the last shot of you here.
Re your comment, yes it is a very interesting world we live in where everyone thinks all art forms are free. Xxxx

The Foolish Aesthete said...

I love the idea of "celebrating the essence of books." Books are not just the words inscribed between the covers. Just like I miss the dying (dead?) art of calligraphy celebrating writing as an art form (though I may sometimes practice it in a fond letter to a friend!), the form of the book used to be as important as its contents when stocking up a library. Of course, I cannot argue against being able to offer up good content online. (A good friend just told me that classic titles are now available FREE on Kindle, which is absolutely wonderful.) Yet, there is definitely something about the musty smell of paper and ink, crumbling bindings, and the crackle of pages that make reading an experience engaging all our senses.

I love your tribute to Penguin Books through your "Literary Look". Penguin never looked so lovely! xxx

Hope Adela Pasztor said...

I love your orange eye shadow and the little cup and pitcher props. Just looked over your latest posts (I've been insanely busy this past week). Congratulations on winning the Vogue Talent Contest! I was actually going to enter it, but sadly was not able to due to lack of UK residency. So glad that sometime I know (albeit only in the online blogging world) has achieved something so grand. And you especially! You're a beautiful and intelligent young lady (and one of my favorite fashion bloggers, and definitely very personally close to my heart since we've been connected since your blog's birth): that award was MEANT to be yours! Cant' wait to see how everything progresses with you and your career! (Sorry for this comment being so ridicoulsly rambling...it is 1:00 am my time and I am exhausted and a bit crazed.) =)

http://pinkchampagnefashion.blogspot.com/

LandGirl1980 said...

What a FANTASTIC outfit!!!

GlamorouslyRomantic said...

Lovely post! Personally, while I do appreciate the practicality of Kindles, shopping in an e-book store just doesn't come close to the joy I feel when browsing through a bookstore and discovering new treasures to read and enjoy. Bookstores and libraries are dangerous - there are just too many good and interesting books to read and there is so little time!

Speaking of the outfit - I love how you got inspired from an actual book design. Not having a big access to English books, Penguin is always a great source for my hunger for books because of their affordability. Books are great fashion statements - have you heard from Olympia Le-Tan? She's a French designer and makes clutches that look like the first editions of books. Her work is amazing!

Love, Melanie

Vix said...

Those Penguins are indeed a n iconic series, my Dad's collected them since he was a boy and has a huge collection.
I adore how you've dressed in honour of the books and that eyeshadow is quite wonderful on you. x

Old Cow said...

I found your blog today because we have a mutual friend, a truly wonderful lady named Dvora. She told me a little about you over some rye bread sarnies and I was so moved. So here I am checking you out in the nicest way possible and I am moved again.

In me you have now got a new follower and in you, I have found inspiration.

x

scientistchic said...

There is nothing I love more than a trip to my local bookshop, it's a little high street independent and they have a wonderful selection of venerable penguins and other second hand books. I like how haphazard and colourful the shelves are when they are crammed full of books. Your penguin inspired look is splendid, I love the bright, vibrant colours!

Thanks for your thoughts on my sweater DIY, I still can't decide definitely what to do with my lace trimmings, but I am leaning towards the more unusual design. x

CALAMITY JANE said...

Looking at Penguin's books always reminds me of my childhood and buying books for school! I love penguin, and now the cover is so green! i want the old version!!

Pull Your Socks Up! said...

You could quite easily pass as the mascot for Penguin Books in your glorious get-up - I think their sales would rocket by at least 400%!! I'm not sure what it is about the orange and white book flaps and the modern paraphenalia that make them so tempting. I just WANT them in my home so they can get covered in dust and clutter my house in glorious style!!

vintage process said...

Great look!! I love it!!

San said...

What a wonderful post, again. I know I repeat myself, but I truly love your writing and this outfit is just wonderful, as are the pictures.

Yes, books are wonderful, the way they feel, the joy of flipping through them and libraries, ahhhh. I remember visiting an old castle in Scotland and while I don't remember the name of the castle, I do vividly remember the feel and the look of the library. I would've loved to sink in one of the big armchairs and read books all day. It seemed like a perfect hiding place. I also love bookstores.

Thanks for stopping by and your nice comment. An unwalked path has indeed it's perks.

london loves said...

Gorgeous shots, I love the dres and the colours!
xxx


London Last Night

Penny Dreadful said...

Fabulous! We have the postcard set too, and also a Jeeves penguin teatowel. I'd love to get a cover blown up and framed, though I can never decide which book I should go for (am tempted by The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie though). I must find my own Penguin book outfit now, you have me all inspired! xx

Kirstin Marie said...

I really enjoy your photographs, they are always so lovely. I have to agree with you, I really love the feeling of reading a book. The way the pages feel, and the excitement of it. Reading on Kindle or an iPad just isn't the same.

Blue said...

I love this shoot even more than your others, because I love books so much. You've inspired me to find more time to read, so thank you!!!

Emily, Ruby Slipper Journeys said...

I love your penguin themed post. Penguin book covers are pure genius... I went through a phase of trying to hunt down my favourites on the mugs and dishtowels (and book bags!) when they were released, But though I managed Shaw and Arthur Ransome... I never did catch up with the Campion mysteries!

I'm torn these days. I have a Kindle, which is allowing me, at this moment, to be in an Airport with a suitcase with only one book in it... invaluable given weight restrictions and how much books weigh. I love books, and turning pages, but maybe we need to move forward with technology?

Glam Fashionista said...

Beautiful dress, great pictures.

Bonnie said...

Gorgeous shoot! I love the colors, and you look so pretty! Your clothes are awesome, and I heart your shoes.

http://www.glamkittenslitterbox.com/
Twitter: @GlamKitten88

Julia Rambaud said...

beautiful pictures! Xx

esme and the lane way said...

Beautiful! I couldn't agree more. I love books – and magazines, for that matter – as well as all the wonders of the internet.

And congratulations on the Vogue contest! I always meant to enter that but ran out of time... by which I mean years! :)

Comtesse de ferveur said...

Rosalind! I've just read your news about Vogue! FABULOUS! Very well done, you are an extremely talented writer and I am so glad that you have been recognised for it! This piece on the Penguins is just beautiful too. Thanks so much for your recent message of support, which meant so much xxxx

the Citizen Rosebud said...

There may be hope for the written word yet- you argue for it convincingly. I was just talking to the b*friend about how I buy books but don't read them anymore- how I get most my info on the interweb, and I know I'm losing out because of this. The visceral connection made with book as physical object helps me recollect the contents. I remember the smell of pages when I first read Kafka's The Metamorphosis: musty and haylike. I remember the the visual caught in my mind's eye as I read the story of Gregor Samsa being a bug stuck in his bed. I don't recall a simliar reaction to any recent readings- somehow the electronic transfer of words from laptop to brain lacks the same wizardry.

Anyhoo, love your essay and your inspirational outfit. I would have guess a 50/50 bar, but admire your literary leanings!

Meena Dhuga said...

lovely dress.

http://pinklemonsorbet.blogspot.com/

Meena ♥

SabinePsynopsis said...

You make a wonderful and very stylish representative for the Penguin cover, Rosalind, which surely must stand for the endurance of the published word. xoxo

vickileestyle said...

you're article in this month's vogue is incredible! i saw you today at somerset house, you looked gorgeous in the fringed green skirt! oxoxo

Style Eyes said...

I love books. Such a beautiful I love the colour of your dress and the gloves look so cute.

Leonie said...

Just stumbled upon your blog... and I am happy about that. Love your style!

First Fall Outfit… Velvet Details

Maycie After Five said...

So cool that you have your great-grandma's hat and gloves. They're so pretty!

Josefine Laul said...

I absolutely adore the last picture!

bollykecks said...

This reminds me of my penguin book cover collection from you, best present ever!! And a lovely addition to my wall. Beautiful as usual. <333333

Miss Mellie said...

The color is so bright and cheerful. You look so classic and I love the oxfords!

Laura (White Winters) said...

This is a great post, I love the pictures! I am now following your blog :)

Laura
whitewinters.blogspot.com

The Cat Who Walked by Herself said...

what's ironic is,the pretty penguin books actually more expensive than other publications,here in India.

I love those mugs! I own 'A Suitable Mug' (A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth)