While its designs have gone through many iterations over the years – including a new identity for Penguin Random House by Pentagram’s Michael Bierut early this year – the look and feel remains instantly familiar and often loaded with nostalgia.
Artist Harland Miller has taken this affection further than most, decocting much of his artistic practice to paintings based on Penguin covers, modified with expressionistic brushstrokes and cheeky takes on book titles. Naturally, the covers more often than not bear Miller’s name as the author.
While there was talk that initially, Penguin had hinted at a lawsuit against Miller for taking the branding so faithfully in his work; Penguin Random House has instead embraced his use of their look and their little web-footed mascot, commissioning him to create a series of the canvases to be hung in their offices around the world.
The pieces went on show last night for one evening only at the White Cube, and in the flesh, they’re markedly different to how they appear on screen (the lovely smell of the oil paints probably helped heighten the difference) oil marking a more Rauschenberg -esque turn than a simple aping of the Pengin cover look.
The works have been described by Penguin Random House chairman John Makison as expressing Penguin’s values, ‘especially that delicate balance of the dignified and the flippant’.
‘To me [the covers] have a historical feel, and just history has a dignified atmosphere doesn’t it’, says Miller in an interview for the White Cube show brochure.
However, he seems uncomfortable with the term ‘flippant’, preferring to see the paintings in relation to what he terms the ‘subversive’ nature of Penguin books when they were first published.
‘This was a time when the ruling classes didn’t want to see the classics in the hands of the workers’, he says.
‘One of the reasons I made some of the titles unacceptable as book titles in the literary world or the civilised world was to remind people of that subversive quality they once had – because, I mean, they’re seen as very cosy now aren’t they, like Beefeater gin or Marmite or red buses’.
You can find out more about Harland Miller’s work at http://www.harlandmiller.com/