Four-Dimensional Nightmares: The Penguin Book Covers Of David Pelham

The legendary designer’s iconic and challenging science fiction paperback covers from the 1970s.

In the world of book publishing – at least until relatively recently – cover artists have rarely been acknowledged, the creators of often iconic images being essentially unknown except to the select few. The internet has, at least, changed that – it’s possible now to find out who many of the more prolific and distinctive artists actually were. But if the artists remained mostly uncredited for their work in selling otherwise unknown novels to the public, then the designers who put those books together were even less well known. Yet for certain publishers, it was obvious that a singular mind was at work putting together art, graphics and text in a style that would be immediately recognisable. Nowhere is this quite as notable than in the 1970s Penguin paperbacks where the previously standard orange and white format was replaced with more individual imagery that nevertheless became instantly associated with the publisher.

David Pelham was a designer who moved from magazine work in the 1960s to take up the position of Art Director for Penguin in 1968, remaining in the role until 1979. Pelham would develop a very distinctive look for Penguin’s books – primarily their science fiction books where a strong and sometimes challenging style was called for, but also spilling over into more prosaic fiction and non-fiction. Bringing together artists and designers, he managed to create an individual feel for each author or book series, while also creating something that was immediately recognisable.

Pelham’s style first caught people’s eyes with his covers for a trilogy by Fred Hoyle – The Black Cloud, Fifth Planet and October the First is Too Late – with a set of geometric designs that were minimalist and striking – quite unlike anything else out there. He followed this with perhaps his most famous cover, the pop art version of A Clockwork Orange that came out at the same time as Kubrick’s film.

As his style developed, he began using a computer print-out typeface for titles and added the words ‘science fiction’ to the covers – a bold and defiant statement of intent at a time when the genre was still seen by many as kid’s stuff. The ultra modernist and provocative imagery on the science fiction books made them feel as though they were at the very cutting edge of modern literature – a world away from the image of throwaway pulp fiction.

His series of J.G. Ballard reprints had a striking minimalist that still feels modern today, and assorted other books of the time also showcase a collision of vivid colours, cleanly stark artwork, minimal design and bold fonts to make the books pop out.

Pelham’s distinctive style would go beyond the world of science fiction – his bold and uncluttered approach bled into many other Penguin titles of the era, of which these are just a few. These remain book covers that feel very, very modern – or at least they would do if mass-market paperbacks had not gone the way of the film poster and replaced challenging, striking art with basic imagery aimed at the lowest common denominator.

Pelham’s artwork for Penguin has become hugely collectable, and much of it appears in the postcard collection Penguin Science Fiction Postcards. What we really need, though, is for these covers to be issued as large-format posters.


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