This August sees Penguin present a radical reimagining of a cult giant of modern literature, releasing a series of redesigned Jack Kerouac books designed by Tom Etherington.
Jack Kerouac has long been a favourite author of a certain kind of – usually – male reader. On the Road, his freewheeling 1951 semi-autobiographical account of a trio of road trips across America, is largely responsible for the Californian-daydreams that have blighted the inner-lives of thousands of bedroom-bound suburbanites. Look close enough in any market town and you’re likely to see a scuffed copy of it sticking coyly out of a denim jacket quicker than you can spot a recently-shuttered launderette.
However this summer book buyers will be able to pick up four rebooted mid-century masterpieces, as part of the esteemed publisher’s new Great Kerouac series. Tom, an in-house designer at Penguin, explains that “the brief for the image research for these four covers was not to focus on the characters or plot of the novels,” but rather an attempt to capture “the experience of reading Kerouac,” Penguin’s picture editor, Samantha Johnson, felt that the New York School abstract expressionist Franz Kline was the perfect visual accompaniment to the beat generation pin up’s “continuous, energetic, spontaneous,” literary outpourings.
Having initially toyed with a variety of typographic options and abstract collages, Tom came round to Samantha’s Kline-orientated vision and set to work on a quartet of covers that put a group of monochromatic paintings front of centre in a stark, punchy, and potent set of covers.
On the Road is paired with Untitled , The Dharma Bums with Chief while Big Sur is emblazoned with Ravenna and the 1960 short story collection Lonesome Traveler makes great use of Kline’s typically gestural Lehigh V Span .
Utilising four different but equally vivid pantones, and the brutally bold grotesque typeface, the result manages to be imbued with a vivid sense of the post-war cultural revolution both Kerouac and Kline were a part of, while still, as the designer told us, “appearing ostensibly contemporary.”
“When I was younger I wasn’t particularly interested in literature, I was obsessed with art and music. But my parents had a few battered old Penguin books lying around. Books like On The Road , Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange. Discovering these books was really pivotal for me as a teenage art student. I had an art teacher who always said that 17 is the most important age for any creative person,” says Tom when asked by It’s Nice That if Kerouac had a profound impact on him as a teenager. “You are soaking up all these different things; literature, music, art, and everything is new to you. I think Kerouac is a writer that generations of young people have discovered and have been influenced by.”
Tom also describes being inspired by the inventive use of white space used so often by pioneering American jazz record label Blue Note, with the cover for Freddie Hubbard’s Hub Tones being a particular favourite. “For the Great Kerouac series I really wanted to reach the same level of sophistication, where by seeing the cover you instantly get the atmosphere of Kerouac’s writing.”
Penguin’s Great Kerouac series will be available from 2 August.