Joanna and the Modern Classics

Brighton Rock_Graham Greene_Penguin Modern Classic_1965
Cover illustration by Graham Byfield, Penguin Modern Classics, 1965

“In those days, any self-respecting teenage bookworm went to school with a Penguin Modern Classic tucked in a blazer pocket” (Rick Poyner)

Penguin Modern Classics was started in 1961 as a way of packaging 20th literature in new covers. It was so successful it continues to this day, six decades later. 

The covers were mild and well-proportioned. The typeface chosen was Joanna, described by its designer Eric Gill as “a book face free from all fancy business.” Released in 1931 it was based on the traditional “old-style” serifs of the Renaissance but with a 20th century feel. It gave the covers a pleasing literary style, especially when combined with the the often delicate line illustrations and the subtle brand colour, called eau de nil (water of the Nile).

Germano Facetti, the recently appointed art director, argued with Hans Schmoller over the typeface, describing Joanna as “scarcely apt for incisive display”. Schmoller, a master typographer and a traditionalist, was uncomfortable with the gradual move to a more contemporary aesthetic on the covers. As head of production at Penguin and recently appointed to its board, he had a lot of influence. Facetti wanted a bolder, more commercial impact which he later achieved with Helvetica and large, full-colour illustrations (see below).

The difference between the two attitudes is illuminating. Facetti, an Italian, wanted Helvetica, a Swiss typeface, to achieve an effect that was internationalist. Schmoller, though German, was adept at conveying the Englishness of Penguin using English typefaces and a well-mannered aesthetic. The “Joanna period” seems tasteful and reticent today and reminds us that even though Penguin at that time was a giant commercial empire, it was still in the hands of bookish gentlemen.

Penguin cover illustration by Georg Grosz for Berthold Brecht's The Threepenny Novel         Book cover of Andre Gide La Symphonie Pastorale with illustration by Giovanni Thermes

F Scott Fitzgerald cover with Cubist-style drawing by John Sewell    Book cover design by Erwin Fabian for Kafka's The Castle     book cover for Ranz Kafka The Trial with illustration by

Change came in cautious steps, at first. Below are two editions of Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull. On the left, the 1962 cover  with the template from the John Curtis era of the late 1950s, and an illustration by Virgil Burnett

On the right is the 1965 compromise layout between Schmoller and Facetti, using an adaptation of the Marber grid. Although the title, still in Joanna, is broken up, the overall effect is less fussy.

    Penguin Modern Classic cover with layout by Hans Schmoller and Germano Facetti

Germano Facetti’s new cover style

Finally, by the later 1960s, Facetti got his way. The redesign of the Modern Classics gained a black background (in the face of furious protests), Joanna was replaced by Helvetica bold and the cover image ceased to be a commissioned illustration. Instead, artworks were carefully selected from picture agencies to match the content of each volume. Facetti’s special knowledge of fine art history and his experience as co-founder of Snark International picture agency gave him a special talent for inspired matching of text and picture.

The new, contemporary look was presumably better able to compete in the visual marketplace of colour magazines, billboards and television. This poster-style approach became the brand image for the Modern Classics for years to come.

Thomas Mann_Confessions of Felix Krull_Penguin Modern Classics, 1970
Facetti’s new cover style in a 1970 publication. Cover art: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self Portrait with a Model, 1910.

Illustration credits:

Brighton Rock, Graham Byfield

Threepenny Novel, Georg Grosz

Confessions of Felix Krull, Virgil Burnett

La Symphonie Pastorale, Giovanni Thermes

Tender is the Night, John Sewell

The Castle, Erwin Fabian

The Trial, André François

Confessions of Felix Krull, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner



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