Like many great British stories, this one starts during the war.
The publisher Faber & Faber hired a German-Jewish typographer named Berthold Wolpe, fresh out of an Australian internment camp. Wolpe had designed the typeface Albertus during a prewar stint with Monotype in homage to the lofty lettering carved into bronzes and tombstones. But times were lean now, and Wolpe, designing dust jackets for eminent authors like T. S. Eliot and Philip Larkin, would have to hand-draw his titles to save money.
Contrary to bringing the visual quality down, Wolpe’s precise strokes, towering ascenders, and gestural serifs gave these jackets a sculptural quality that became strongly identified with Faber and inspired generations of designers. Though he went on to design more dynamic typefaces like Hyperion and Tempest Titling, Albertus became an early classic—making even austerity-era books like Good Dishes from Tinned Food, by Ambrose Heath, look appetizing.
Speaking recently to an SRO audience at the Art Workers’ Guild in London, Faber’s current senior cover designer, Eleanor Crow, looked back at Wolpe’s legacy and his impact on British publishing at large. She led a pictorial journey through some of Britain’s most notable designers—from Barnett Freedman and his imposing lettering for the oeuvre of Sigfried Sassoon, to Shirley Tucker’s calligraphic “perfection,” despite Faber’s famously wobbly drawing tables. But she returned time and again to Wolpe, though, ultimately, she says, “his lettering deteriorated over time.” How so? “He wouldn’t clean his glasses.”
When Pentagram took over Faber’s cover design in the ’80s and ’90s, lettering, especially the hand-drawn kind, fell out of fashion. What helped revive it, says Crow, was the subversive allure of New York graffiti art and hip hop artists like Run-DMC and Notorious B.I.G. However foreign that may have felt to book publishers at the time, the spray-painted scrawl and heavy 3D titling of the era took its place in the higher art form.
Post-Pentagram designers like Jeff Fisher and Ruth Rowland ran with it. Few will forget Fisher’s whimsical jacket for Louis de Bernières’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, or Rowland’s Memoirs of a Geisha, with its samurai-smart lettering cutting across pale skin. Neither worked for Faber, but Jenny Grigg did, when she picked up their dedication to hand-lettering in her covers for Paul Auster. And Jon Gray, in his singular designs for Jonathan Lethem (all pictured above).
Then came Crow. Her tenure at Faber produced nostalgist Neil Gower, calligrapher Seb Lester, and Dutch artist Letman, who drafted a seemingly beaded cover for The Last King of Scotland.
Still, Crow’s allegiance remains with her predecessors. Some of her favorite titles are Albertus legacies like Barnett Freedman’s poetry series. In the ’50s, Faber author David Jones, inspired by Roman inscriptions at the British Museum, drew his own dust jackets, pioneering a revolutionary balance of weight and color. Says Crow, “Those I’d rescue in a fire.”