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The man who designed the Faber book covers: Master of design, Berthold Wolpe

a photo of a letter type blocks in a case and a printed alphabet

© Estate of Berthold Wolpe

Unseen, hand-drawn artwork tells the story of the artist who created 1,500 book covers for Faber & Faber and the most widely-used advertising typeface in the UK

‘The spaces are as important as the letters’, this maxim from Berthold Wolpe, the man who made over 1,500 book cover designs for Faber & Faber, is probably one of the more useful graphic design maxims in a trade packed with them.

Berthold Wolpe – The Total Man celebrates the work of this prolific book cover artist and creator of one of the most widely-used advertising typefaces in the UK, Albertus, a type which can still be seen on signage across the City of London.

The German emigre is said to have received little financial reward for his ubiquitous typeface but it didn’t dim his obsession with the alphabet – Wolpe left over 250 boxes of designs, which are now kept in the Type Archive in Central London – and a series of popular letter forms, many of which didn’t survive into the digital age, until a recent revival by his former employer Monotype.

But it is his mid-century, hand drawn designs for the publishing house Faber & Faber that resonate with modern audiences, bookworms and those from the beyond the recondite world of type.

a photo of a trypeface and design mock up the Faber book Encyclopaedia of World politics by Walter Theimer and Peter Campbell

© Estate of Berthold Wolpe

a book design with simple black typeface for Self Defence for Women and Girls by WE Farbairn

© Estate of Berthold Wolpe

a sketch of a schoolboy styled cap as seen from above

© Estate of Berthold Wolpe

If you’re lucky enough to drop across an old copy of a Faber book from the 1940s to the 1970s, whether poetry, politics, cookery or gardening, the chances are its cover was designed by Wolpe, whose beautifully simple yet precise designs created a look for the publisher that was unmistakeable.

Developed in conjunction with Berthold Wolpe’s family, the exhibition celebrating these designs highlights the character (not to mention disorderly working conditions) of a man who had a curiosity for collecting anything that might give him inspiration.

Countless personal items, including Wolpe’s design tools, hand-drawn sketches and artwork for his celebrated Faber & Faber covers (complete with white correcting paint refining the hand drawn black lettering) will give a new insight into the natural skills, honed techniques and creative process of a master of his craft.

The four decade relationship with Faber & Faber began in 1941, when Wolpe began working with Richard de la Mare, Geoffrey Faber and T. S. Eliot. He went on to spend the next 34 years with the firm, becoming a treasured and fabled employee, renowned for a magpie-like curiosity which led him on lunchtime sorties around the bookshops, junkshops and even the skips of Bloomsbury.

Photo of book design for Walter de la Mare Collected Poems

© Estate of Berthold Wolpe

a photo of the Faber tyepface design for Finnegan's Wake

© Estate of Berthold Wolpe

a photo of a series of handwritten alphabets

Berthold Wolpe’s original typeface designs for Albertus. Courtesy

a book design featuring a can on a red background and the words Good Dishes from Tinned Foods

© Estate of Berthold Wolpe

Prior to his time at Faber & Faber, from 1930 to 1933 Wolpe had worked under the great German calligrapher Rudolf Koch and the goldsmith Theodor Wende and taught in Frankfurt and Offenbach. It was during this time that his strong Germanic, stone carved designs were noticed by Stanley Morison of the typeface design company Monotype. He was invited by them to London to develop the type face that was to become Albertus.

Wolpe’s Jewish background meant that after the rise of the Nazis in 1933, he wasn’t allowed to teach in Germany – so the invitation to come Britain was a welcome one and an opportunity that probably saved his life and that of his family. He eventually moved to Britain permanently in 1939 and began working at Fanfare Press in the capital, where he designed a lower-case for Albertus and a number of new display and text faces, including the recently revived Pegasus and Tempest and a distinctive series of dustjackets for Gollancz.

In 1947, his 1936 application for naturalisation was finally granted, a delay that had resulted in his internment at Camp Hay, Australia from 1940-41. He was made a royal designer for industry in 1959 and appointed OBE in 1983. He died in 1989.

Curator Phil Cleaver, Professor in the Creative Industries at Middlesex University and visiting Professor of Typography at Birmingham City University, says he would like visitors “to leave the exhibition with a feeling of having met this master of calligraphy and type design”.

a design for a book on fishing with a fish leaping out of a river and the the words Fishing Fortunes and Misfortunes

© Estate of Berthold Wolpe

a photo of a book design called link of two hearts

© Estate of Berthold Wolpe

a photo of a book cover with a large Q on a black background and the words Q books 2/-

© Estate of Berthold Wolpe

“These artworks open up a bygone era of design”

“The wealth of artworks that we are able to display carries the human touch,” he adds, “an element so evidently missing from our computer-generated age, where graphic design is becoming increasingly surgical and sterile.

“These artworks open up a bygone era of design and will hopefully inspire young designers to close their laptops and get messy with paper and ink, producing work which carries their own DNA and not that of the Mac.”

Beyond the book jackets, Wolpe’s post war designs included the lettering design for Eagle comic and a typeface that was used widely by BOAC for their posters and publicity material. But it is his work for Faber that has secured his place as one of the greatest of names in the history of 20th-century book and type design and a visual identity that still endures today.

a Faber book cover design for the Chetniks by George Sava with a picture of a man in uniform

© Estate of Berthold Wolpe

a mock up of a book cover on bird photography with a photo of a bird

© Estate of Berthold Wolpe

a photo of type blocks in a case

© Estate of Berthold Wolpe

Read more about Berthold Wolpe’s time at Faber & Faber on the Faber & Faber blog . 

Berthold Wolpe – The Total Man runs from March 23 – June 24 at the Lettering Arts Centre at Snape Maltings, Suffolk, IP17 1SP. Admission is free.

Opening Times: Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays & Mondays 11am-5pm. Closed Tues-Thurs. Further information: www.letteringartstrust.org.uk 01728-688393. 

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