Robert Jonas and the American Penguins

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Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, hated illustrated book covers and fought against them at Penguin. He feared that introducing illustrations would infect the dignified Penguin brand with “bosoms and bottoms.”

In the US, paperbacks were sold on news stands and had to compete with  newspapers and magazines so typographic covers like Penguins would be lost in the riot of colour and sensation.

The director of the fledgling American Penguin operation, Ian Ballantine, hired a young artist called Robert Jonas to design some early covers. He soon became a regular and eventually gave the US brand its characteristic colourful look.

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Jonas had been deeply involved in the New York avant-garde in the 1930s, just before it burst on the international scene. He was editor of an art journal and was a friend of Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky, both to become leading Abstract-Expressionist painters in the 1940s.

In the 1940s he made his living as a commercial artist for Penguin and stayed on when it became New American Library, publishers of Signet and Mentor paperbacks. He designed many covers for these imprints until 1955 when he left to design for hardcovers.

Jonas was a dominant and successful cover artist. He developed an idea and projected it powerfully without getting trapped in compromise. His designs worked year after year.”  (Bantam art director Gobin Stair)

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Though he was a flexible commercial artist and could work in many styles, his most recognizable work has a flavour of modern art, showing the influence of Surrealism and Cubism. Each cover has a striking visual idea which is quickly grasped, as in a poster. Colleague James Avati stated that  his covers were very simple technically speaking, but they had an enormous psychological power.”

The artistry of Jonas’ covers gave American Penguin a degree of modernity when compared to other more populist US brands such as Dell or Pocket Books. They must have played some small part in explaining modern art aesthetics to the conservative American population.

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