Art is everywhere we look. From a priceless Van Gogh painting hanging in a famous gallery to a daubing of graffiti on the side of a train carriage, artistic invention is something that surrounds us; and it’s an impulse that we’ve been driven to satisfy for as long as humans have existed.
Art can be used to present complex political ideas, inspire emotions, and simply provoke aesthetic pleasure – but crucially, of course, it can also be used to sell an idea, a product or a way of life; and in the case of book covers, getting that cover image right is terribly important.
This week, we decided to take a look back at some of the most famous book covers produced in the past century. The following are a selection that we would stick in a picture frame and hang on our wall any day – not only because they brilliantly reflect the subject matter contained within, but because we couldn’t walk past them in a book shop without snatching them up and taking home a copy. Advertising done right deserves a pat on the back!
The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath) by Shirley Tucker, 1966
Throughout her life, poet and novelist Sylvia Plath was plagued by depression, eventually ending her life at the age of 30. Her anguish is reflected in much of her work, but perhaps most clearly in her popular, semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, which was published just before her death. Though simple, Shirley Tucker’s eye-catching design for the 1966 Faber edition does a fantastic job of evoking the trapped, despairing feelings of the novel’s central character, Esther Greenwood. Proof that sometimes less is more.
A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess) by David Pelham, 1972
Few films bear an aesthetic as unique as Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’, but if pressed, we would have to say that David Pelham’s 1972 cover illustration is even more iconic. Designed for release in conjunction with the Kubrick film, Pelham’s cover was drawn up in just one night, and the staring, primary-coloured ‘cog-eyed droog’ it depicts made the cover an instant classic.
Jaws (Peter Benchley) by Paul Bacon, 1974
When most people think of Jaws, they think of two things: the film version’s simple yet spine-chilling theme, and the iconic poster. What most people don’t know is that that famous image – which depicts the vast head of a shark moving toward an oblivious female swimmer – found life in the cover illustration for the hardback edition of Peter Benchley’s novel. Drawn by Paul Bacon, this minimalist cover may forgo the ragged fangs and realistic detail, but it certainly gives us the creeps.
Loneliness (John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick) by Peter Mendelsund, 2008
The first non-fiction book on this list is also the subtlest in terms of design. This sociological text explores the effects of loneliness upon the brain and body, and its themes are expertly reflected in Peter Mendelsund’s clever design. If you haven’t spotted what we’re talking about, look a little closer. The black dot from the lowercase I in ‘loneliness’ has detached and is floating alone in space. Never thought you’d empathise with a dot, did you?
The Book of Dead Philosophers (Simon Critchley) by John Gall, 2008
At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is an odd photo of a relatively normal book cover. In fact, John Gall’s ingenious design depicts a book within a book; that is to say, the cover of Critchley’s book – which, unsurprisingly, looks at the deaths of famous philosophers – shows an image of a prone book bearing the title of the real work. It’s a clever image not only because the book-within-the-book resembles a tombstone, but because the cover as a whole points to the kind of self-awareness that goes hand in hand with the discipline of philosophy.
Porno (Irvine Welsh) by DJ Design, 2002
Loud, brash and vulgar – the works of Scottish writer Irvine Welsh are known for being all three of these things, so it’s only fitting that the cover for his 2002 novel Porno took a similar tack. Depicting a cheaply made, and very crude, sex doll wrapped in plastic, this bright, bold cover is perhaps the most eye-catching on this list. We might have second thoughts about framing it to hang in the guest bedroom though…
The Humbling (Philip Roth) by Milton Glaser, 2009
If you’re unfamiliar with Roth’s The Humbling, you might suspect from looking at the cover that it was published 50 years ago. In truth, it’s a recent novel, but the simple, 70s-inspired design by Milton Glaser gives it a distinctly vintage feel. Telling the tale of a successful actor in his 60s who suddenly loses his talent, The Humbling has its themes and motifs expertly evoked by Glaser’s deceptively simple cover. To an actor, after all, there is nothing more terrifying than an empty spotlight…
The Craftsman (Richard Sennett) by Coralie Bickford-Smith, 2009
Richard Sennett’s fascinating book looks at why humans create, how we hone our abilities and the particular kind of skill that goes into making something. Knowing the subject matter, Coralie Bickford-Smith’s ingenious cover makes a great deal of sense – but we’d find ourselves drawn to this aesthetically pleasing book jacket regardless.
Making Space for Art in Your Everyday Life
Not every book cover is going to inspire and delight, but the next time you pick something up at your local bookshop, take a moment to consider the cover and have a look at the name of the artist or design agency involved. In many cases, you’ll find that individual artists – including Coralie Bickford-Smith and Milton Glaser – have websites where you can buy their work.
And if you do happen to find that dream print, then why not check out our Picture Frames & Mounts Page? Here you can create that perfect picture frame, tailoring the dimensions precisely to fit your print. We offer a wide range of picture frame styles, textures, widths and colours, and can also provide an assortment of mounts.