This excerpt from Books for Sale: The Advertising and Promotion of Print since the Fifteenth Century edited by Robin Myers, Michael Harris and Giles Mandelbrote discusses the dust jacket and how its role has developed through history.
Despite recognizing the real commercial significance of book jackets in the post-war period, Blond does not consider their importance as works of art. Tanselle sounds slightly aggrieved about this distraction from serious bibliography in his articles published in 1971 and 2003. As a bibliographer, he may be right. Many admirers of book jackets would find travel posters of the same period equally entertaining. However, the contribution made by artists, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, was exceptional and we should not be apologetic about it. This has never had a clear correspondence to their commercial
function. Various types of artists were involved. Some, such as E. McKnight Kauffer, Barnett Freedman, Edward Bawden or Rex
Whistler, were highly skilled and inventive. They shared a literary proclivity, and happened to find jacket design a congenial task with useful commercial rewards. Other artists attempted book jackets only rarely, and usually out of friendship with the author which was tolerated by the publisher—such as the jacket by Ben Nicholson for Stones of Rimini by Adrian Stokes, published by Faber & Faber in 1934. This is a surrealistic photomontage—fascinating as an example of Lye’s work, and related to his experimental films of the period, but only distantly related to the content of the book and surely too avant-garde for most of its readers to appreciate.
Book jackets could, however, become important as carriers of avant-garde styles into the homes and minds of people who would not have encountered these forms of art. The process began early, with the abstract simplification of form that suited clear colour printing, and kept in step with the cultural aspirations of publishers. Between 1945 and 1952, the series of covers by Alvin Lustig for New Directions books in the USA, which were academic paperbacks of literary texts, made a particular mark for their use of freely drawn abstract forms, aptly matched to the mood of the title.
In Britian, hand-drawn lettering, with little or no drawm imagery, was popular in the interwar period. The revival of calligraphy and fine lettering began after 1900 with the teaching of Edward Johnston, and many students acquired these skills from Johnston’s successors. Notable designers were Michael Harvey and Madeleine Dinkel. Hans Tisdall, who designed many jackets for Jonathan Cape, came from Germany in the 1930s, having trained as a signwriter, and the long fluid strokes of his letters are from a completely different background from Johnston’s. Tisdall’s work has returned to fashion, probably following on from Michael Harvey’s article in baseline no. 37 (2002), and has been cleverly pastiched in the book covers of Sarah Waters’s novel.
Today, book jackets and paperback covers have an important role as metonyms in online bookselling, where they are invariable reproduced as part of the sales information. Recently, book reviews in newspapers and magazines have used thumbnail images of jackets in a similar way. Here the image is all and the shop is only virtual, although a subliminal memory of the design may help the distracted bookshop visitor to recall a positive or negative comment from weeks or months earlier when considering whether or not to buy. Posters of historic book jackets are displayed in shops advertised in color supplements.
Publishers seem to have awoken to a revived interest in design. They seldom seek to impose a house style, but are more inclined to play up individual titles to emphasize their genre. In doing this, pastiche is rife, and it seems that the revival in the historiography of book jackets of the past ten years has begun to feed back into the designs of today.
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