What Would Wolpe Do? Talking Wolpe, Albertus and book cover design with the Faber & Faber Art Department

The German émigré typographer Berthold Wolpe (1905–1989) is probably best known today for designing the typeface Albertus, first released in full by Monotype in 1940. However, Wolpe didn’t just design fonts, he also put them to use during his long career as a graphic designer working in Britain. Wolpe’s most significant design role was at the London publishing house Faber & Faber, where he became Art Director in 1941 for a staggering 34 years – designing well over 1,500 book jackets in the process and shaping the look of some of the 20th centuries most significant books.

During the first half of the 20th century, it wasn’t uncommon for type designers to also work in publishing and book design. Jan Tschichold was at Penguin from 1947–9, Stanley Morison had worked for Victor Gollancz during the thirties, and across the Atlantic W.A. Dwiggins worked for Knopf. But none of these esteemed typographers would achieve the same level of recognition in book cover design that Wolpe managed at Faber. His jackets defined an era and they stood out on the shelf for their intelligent, and often playful, use of calligraphy and typography. Wolpe’s own flared serif Albertus, by far his best-known font, would become almost synonymous with Faber’s due to his masterful use of it on many of their book jackets.

Wolpe’s design legacy at Faber was continued by designers Shirley Tucker and Sue Shaw who had worked alongside him before his retirement in 1975. Naturally, the Faber style evolved to keep up with the times, but both Wolpe and his work are still valued by the publishers who hold his jackets in their archive. In 2015, they released a box of 100 postcards of old Faber covers which included a great many by Wolpe.

Wolpe’s Faber legacy isn’t confined to the past, current senior cover designer Eleanor Crow has lectured on Wolpe and the design history of Faber & Faber, drawing on it as a source of occasional inspiration in her own work. Meanwhile Albertus sometimes makes reappearances on Faber & Faber’s post-Wolpe covers, including on Crow’s cover for the 2015 hit novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter.

Berthold Wolpe’s work, including many original Faber & Faber book cover artworks, is currently on show at The Wolpe Exhibition at The Type Archive in London. The exhibition celebrates Wolpe’s work and the launch of The Wolpe Collection, a new release of five typefaces, originally designed by Berthold Wolpe, now revived, digitized, expanded and updated for the 21st century by Monotype Studio designer Toshi Omagari.

As part of the exhibition, Monotype asked the Faber & Faber art department to reimagine cover designs utilising the new Wolpe fonts on books from Faber’s back catalogue. Each cover had to use only one of the five Wolpe Collection fonts, with each designer being assigned a single typeface to utilize. We caught up with the Wolpe cover designers; Eleanor Crow, Alex Kirby and Jonathan Pelham to find out more about the covers they created, their design process and to discuss Wolpe’s lasting legacy at Faber & Faber.

Theo Inglis: The covers look amazing in the exhibition, you have done a great job of showcasing the new Wolpe fonts, but how did you decide who got to use which typeface?

Eleanor Crow: It was out of a hat because we liked them all. It was the only way to make it fair!

Jonathan Pelham: We figured that Albertus was the big one and we decided that, in order to make it fair, it had to be random, but then none of us ended up drawing it!

Eleanor Crow: I was happy I got Pegasus as it was actually my favourite anyway.

Alex Kirby: I didn’t want a condensed sans-serif, as that is kind of my default, go-to font style, and then I got one!

How did you choose which books you wanted to design new covers for?

AK: We all went our separate ways to decide. I realised it would be best to pick a subject that I knew and understood, so that is the basis of my choice.

EC: We used archive titles from Faber, but time constraints meant it made sense to pick titles we had either read or were very familiar with. I loved the characteristics of Pegasus – and Toshi guessed this – but I picked my titles based on them having short words with a capital K. But it was very much about trying to show off the typeface at that size and scale, proving that even though it is a body face, it can work at any size, even large.

JP: In the same vein, I chose The Balcony by Jean Genet because I knew it, and because I got Sachsenwald. With the history of blackletter and its co-option by fascism, it made sense to subvert it away from that history.

What was it like designing a cover to show off a typeface rather than for a specific target audience?

AK: I liked the constraint of just using the single typeface, and the lack of time really focuses your mind too. It was great, I enjoyed it.

JP: Not having to worry about the market was good too.

EC: It was really quite liberating!

Have you used Albertus before at Faber? With Wolpe’s history there I sometimes feel like you almost have a monopoly on using it for book covers!

EC: Plenty of other publishers have used it of course, and I think it was Penguin who utilised it initially before Faber ever did. But yes, it has that history here, and we have all used it occasionally. It is great to have a new cut of Albertus; there were a few things that irked me about it as a digital font which have been resolved now in the new one. It is really exciting for us at Faber to have new cuts of Albertus to use, because we do use it – often we are asked to, and sometimes we just choose to. It does really work for certain titles.

AK: I used it a long time ago actually, on one of my first covers here!

Because of the history of Albertus and Faber is it a safe bet to use on your covers, even despite its distinctiveness?

EC: No actually, not really. It stands out and has a certain heft, but if anything, we try and avoid overusing it. I quite like it offset against very abstract backgrounds, like on my T. S. Elliot covers, where there is very little imagery to work against.

JP: It stands on its own very well, it has enough interest that you don’t want to put too much with it. I’ve only used it once, with a very simple image, for a book whose subject was vaguely English modernist, but weird, so it suited that very well. 

Was the challenge with the covers for the Wolpe Exhibition to make period fonts look contemporary to a modern audience?

AK: I tried to move away from the Wolpe era look, but I did end up using quite a traditional palette. Yet, the layout itself is more playful and conceptual than they were at that time. I wanted to only use the font and nothing else, no imagery, so I gave myself another constraint there.

JP: I wanted to make mine feel “Now”, so what would Wolpe have done if he had access to a Mac.

Do you have a personal favourite Wolpe cover in the Faber archive?

EC: For me, I like two which are actually included in the exhibition; The Fish Gate and Good Dishes from Tinned Foods. When I’ve showed them in talks, most people who knew Wolpe and his work had no idea he had ever done these, and neither did I till I found them in the archive. I love those covers, they are very un-Wolpe-ish. They could stand today quite easily I think too.

AK: The tinned food one is my favourite as well.

JP: I find it hard to pick out a single one, as they all seem to be connected. Kind of like a typeface, it is more about the whole picture than any one individual element.

EC: Some of the Albertus ones with the strips and stripes I really like too, but that is partly due to the colour schemes. The one I adapted on the Faber postcard box is a cover I particularly like for the colours.

JP: His more calligraphic work is always quite surprising too, as I don't really think of his work being like that – so swooshy and free, because of his typeface design background. There are plenty of surprising things in his output.

It comes across in the exhibition that Wolpe’s Faber covers were very eclectic, and his fonts are idiosyncratic. Do you think that is what gives them their charm?

EC: In a way, what he did at Faber was the absolute opposite of what Penguin were doing at the time, trying to achieve absolute consistency. Wolpe had much more character – I was going to say they are eccentric but they aren't quite – I think character is the right word.

JP: Penguin at the time had a hint of the International Style about them, trying to formalize everything, whereas Wolpe achieves that purely through force of his own will and hand.

Is it almost unthinkable today for any publisher to achieve that kind of consistency, or to have one person doing so much?

EC: Every cover now has its own challenge and we need to respond to the text, you can’t just do things the same way every time. But it does mean that we don’t have a coherent look on our bookshelves. We don’t have the French style where some big publishers don’t use pictures. We have had colourful and varied covers for a century now and that’s not going to change. Most publishers wouldn’t expect to have their own look, a few do but they tend to be much smaller imprints or very specialist.

Wolpe did a lot for one person, but I guess back then Faber were publishing fewer books?

JP: Robert the archivist said – and I’m not sure how true this is – that Wolpe would do each cover in about half an hour.

EC: Some maybe even took less! I’ve heard he was working for other publishers and cramming in lots of work at times, he was a bit of a one-man design team until Sue Shaw and Shirley Tucker joined, but presumably he was doing everything himself for a very long time and the look of Faber reflected that.

It is great that there is an archive and archivist here and that Faber value their design history.

EC: We don’t have artwork here though sadly, actually it was really exciting to see the original drawings at the exhibition, because we haven’t seen any of that before. We only have the finished covers here and some of the original lettering. Lots of publishers got rid of stuff like that over the years, which is a real shame.

Thank you, Eleanor, Alex and Jonny, for the interesting conversation!

The Wolpe Exhibition, held in partnership with The Type Archive (opening its doors to the public for the very first time), is a month-long exhibition to celebrate the launch of The Wolpe Collection, a new collection of typefaces, originally designed by Berthold Wolpe, now revived by Monotype. Entrance to the exhibition which runs until Monday December 4th is free, but please register in advance here.

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