Monday, 29 November 2010

John Sewell

I don't know much about John Sewell, I know that he designed covers for Penguin and Calder & Boyars in the 60s and 70s. I know that he liked stars, dots and tearing paper. But that is about it.

I bought The Clown by Heinrich Boll a few years ago (which is a great book by the way) and I've always loved the cover. There is something odd about it, it feels crude but knowing, and there is something troubling about the repetition of the mouth instead of eyes. I also love the use of colour.

A few years later I was in my local bookshop – where I spend quite a lot of time – and I saw a Terry Southern book. The cover style was immediately recognisable to me, although I wasn't sure where from.  Sure enough when I got it home and compared it to The Clown, it was the same designer.

The Terry Southern cover is even more playful and crude than The Clown. The use of the design brief on the cover might have been a first – it reminds me of Hipgnosis' treatment of XTC's Go 2 but that was designed in 1978, 12 years after this. What I really enjoy is the feeling that this is making fun of the brief. The fact that they ask the designer to 'Emphasize author' and John Sewell has approached this by putting Terry's name on there four times and the initials T S crudely and boldly placed smack in the centre.

There is something about Sewell's style that is instantly recognisable – in these later examples at least, covers for books like Stan Barstow's A Kind of Loving are much more generic – and surely that is what most designers struggle for. There is a sense of playfulness about them and a joyful careless quality. You can sense the designers hand. I like that fact that his best covers are treated as pure compositions. On the Writing Today designs each cover is a wonderfully playful composition with the Penguin logo treated as a tool to balance the layout and because of this is is placed anywhere and on any angle that is required for it to work. He seems to work best when there isn't any constraints. The covers he designed using the standard Penguin paperback layout look like they are straining to break free of the rules placed up them.

If I had never bought The Clown I would have more than likely never heard of John Sewell and I think that would have been a great shame. I don't think that the covers he designed could have been produced by anybody else and without knowing anything about the man, I get a sense of someone who had a carefree sense of humour and wasn't afraid to experiment or ignore rules and for that I am grateful.


You can see John Sewell's designs for Penguin HERE

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