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GUEST BLOG: Cunning covers

15th June 2011 - Mike Dempsey

Image of Mike DempseyMike Dempsey is one of Britain¹s leading graphic designers. He has created everything from stamps to feature film title sequences and brand identities to complete books. He writes, blogs, and broadcasts regularly. He spent ten of his forty professional years in publishing.






For any of you who have strolled across Waterloo Bridge to the South Bank Centre recently, you will be aware that they are celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the Festival of Britain in a rather big way. Coined A Tonic for the Nation, the festival was to be a shot in the arm for a deeply depressed Britain following the ravages of the second war.

Many of Britain's and the world's leading designers worked on the many exhibitions located across the South Bank site and beyond. Among them was the prestigious firm, Design Research Unit (DRU), one Britain's first multi-disciplinary consultancies headed by Misha Black. An assistant there was a young Australian working under the guiding wing of Gordon Andrews, Australia's leading designer at that time and part of DRU. The young man in question was Keith Cunningham, someone I have celebrated on my own blog and an individual who indirectly helped kick start my own career as a graphic designer.

While Cunningham was busying himself on one of Britain's most exciting and important projects another young, enterprising twenty something, just a few miles across town, was setting up his very own publishing company. With a £900 overdraft and a single typewriter Peter Owen launched himself onto the publishing scene with his first virgin manuscript, Julian Gracq's A Dark Stranger.

Over the ensuing years he added Ezra Pound, Boris Pasternak, Herman Hesse, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin and many more to his ever growing stable of literary greats, which included a staggering seven Nobel Prize winners. Even his first editor was none other than the novelist Muriel Spark.

Peter Owen company logoAs the Festival of Britain celebrates its diamond anniversary, so too does Peter Owen Publishers, one of the few original remaining independent houses still operating in Britain. And house it certainly is for the enterprise is now based in Peter Owen's Holland Park home where he continues, despite being in his eighties, to bring us some inspired literary choices.

Now you may be wondering why I have coupled Keith Cunningham with Peter Owen. Well, after their individual pursuits in back in 1951 they were to meet. A little over a decade later in the smoky atmosphere of Finch's, a much-frequented watering hole in the Fulham Road; back then it was a meeting place for artists and writers. Cunningham was sitting quietly in a snug corner feverishly scrutinizing some freshly processed transparencies. They were for the cover he had just designed for Tatler magazine. 'What are you looking at?' came a voice from behind. Cunningham turned around to be confronted by a tall figure with a shock of black hair. A hand thrust forward, 'Peter Owen, how do you do?'. Owen, a man with an insatiable curiosity sat down and chatted to Cunningham.

Cover art for Peter Owen edition of Marquis de Sade's QuartetBefore the evening was out Owen had suggested that Cunningham design a book jacket for him. This was 1963 and the book in question was Quartet by De Sade. With a restriction of only two colours - Owen was a frugal man when it came to print production expenditure - and a princely fee of £16 (the going rate for a book jacket design in those days) Cunningham set off. A tight discipline can galvanise a creative designer's mind and Cunningham rose to the occasion with his very first cover for Peter Owen.

This sparse graphic approach was to become the visual hallmark of Peter Owen covers in the 60s and 70s. Over a relatively short period Cunningham quickly created a highly individual 'brand' (before the term was used) via the houses jackets distinguished by their utter simplicity and economy.

Cunningham was also responsible for the equally simple logo (above), still in use today.

The Royal Festival Hall branch of Foyles Bookshop will be marking Peter Owen's contribution to the literary landscape with a special window display this month. I'd like to add my own congratulations to this highly individual publishing house and at the same time salute Keith Cunningham for his part in their history. And perhaps with the increase in digital download book sales we may soon witness the demise of the book jacket and cover designer which would be a sad loss.

You can read more about Keith Cunningham on my earlier post about him on my blog, Graphic Journey, but here's a small display of some of his jackets. (You can click on any of the jackets to bring up a larger, higher-quality image in PDF format.)


Cover art for Peter Owen edition of Herman Hesse's Narziss und GoldmundCover art for Plain Pleasures Cover art for Confessions of a MaskCover art for Muriel SparkCover art for Alberta Alone Cover art for Boat Evening

Cover art for JourneyIonCover art for Birds 


All text © Mike Dempsey 2011


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