Penguin Essentials at 20: how the publisher rewrote the rules of book design

Since Penguin art director John Hamilton launched the collection two decades ago, he has commissioned everyone from graffiti artist Banksy to graphic designer Chris Ashworth to reimagine classic book covers. Here, Hamilton tells us about a new exhibition at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft to mark its 20th anniversary.

Oliver Hibert (left) and Laurent Moreau (right)

Update 15 February 2019: Penguin art director John Hamilton has sadly passed away, aged 55. We look back at his pioneering work on the Penguin Essentials collection, where he invited a plethora of artists including tattooists and graffitists to help create Penguin book covers.

Design Week: Tell us about your role at Penguin and how the Penguin Essentials collection came about?

John Hamilton: I started out studying illustration at Glasgow School of Art. After graduating, I worked for publishing house Reed for a few years and then came to Penguin as art director in 1997. When I joined, a woman called Helen Fraser had just taken over as managing director and wanted to completely refresh things. They decided to redo the backlist, and I think I’d only been in my job for two or three weeks when they asked if I wanted to redesign 10 classic titles. That was really the start of the Penguin Essentials collection.

DW: What was the thinking behind the collection when you first launched it?

JH: I looked at what had been done before at Penguin, and to be honest it was a bit dry and traditional. They were mostly using the same design consultancies, and I don’t think they were targeting their market or trying to move it on. I thought about the young people who wanted to buy these books and what they were looking at – magazines, fashion, graffiti and tattoo artists. That’s where the inspiration came from. I made it my mission to contact all of these different kinds of people and ask them if they’d like to do a book jacket. It was easy really, because when you have authors like Jack Kerouac, James Joyce and Anthony Burgess, most people are really keen to do it. It’s a chance to redesign a classic.

DW: What impact do you think the collection has had over the last two decades?

JH: The Essentials have been an inspiration for the rest of what I and the other designers at Penguin do. It has shown that there isn’t an exact route every time you design a book cover, you can be brave and different. It’s a very tough marketplace and there are too many people doing the same thing at the moment, so it’s quite nice to try and push things a little bit. We’re actually working on 10 new books right now, and are commissioning everyone from tattoo artists to skateboard artists in Israel. That’s why all of the young designers at Penguin love working on it, because I tell them to do whatever they want. And when they find somebody who they think is really interesting, their brief to those guys is also to do what they want. I’d like to think that the collection is as creative now as it was 20 years ago.

DW: What form does the exhibition take?

JH: It’s incredibly straightforward. Over the last 20 years I’ve looked after maybe 150 collections, so I decided to pick my 100 favourite books out of those. The books are displayed on eight shelves, and are accompanied by a simple piece of text. It’s not high tech or clever or anything, but for the first time ever you get to see all 100 Essentials together. The one thing I’ve been really pleased with is that there is an age gap of as much as 19 years between some of the designs, so there some books that have stood the test of time sitting nicely alongside books designed a year ago.

DW: How did you choose your 100 favourite covers?

JH: The interesting thing is that I couldn’t remember many of them because they were done so long ago. We started to pick and had about 120, but then I remembered that I’d commissioned people like Stanley Donwood, so it was an ongoing process until we boiled it down. I picked the ones I thought were the strongest, the most individual and designed by really interesting people. It ended up being fairly easy because we’ve commissioned such great people that many of them picked themselves.

DW: Do you have any favourite covers?

JH: I find it so difficult to pick a favourite because it’s been a love affair for 20 years, but my favourite will always be Banksy’s design for And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave. Partly because I commissioned Banksy 15 years ago when hardly anybody had heard of him, and he doesn’t do commercial work as such. On that cover the Penguin logo is actually breathing fire, which is real bastardisation here. I didn’t tell anybody and got them all to sign it off. I’ve still got the original letter from Banksy saying “John, how about trying this for a laugh?” and to this day the design still stands. It was quite nice because I felt like we were being challenging, and probably a bit childish, but we were trying to push things and do them differently.

DW: Why do you think it is important to preserve and celebrate pieces of design history like these?

JH: There are several reasons for this, one being that I’m very proud of them. There are a lot of fantastic authors, designers and illustrators included in the collection, so it seemed like a nice body of work to showcase. One of the things that we always do as designers is look at all these old, famous designers and illustrators such as Eric Gill and Saul Bass for inspiration. What we are hoping is that the Penguin Essentials collection will be a body of work that other people might look at in 20 years’ time and be influenced by it.

20 Years of Penguin Essentials runs from 6 January – 29 April 2018 at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, Lodge Hill Lane, Ditchling, East Sussex, BN6 8SP. Entry is free. For more information, head here.

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