In 1968, in order to face the economic crisis within the Penguin Books publishing house, the new art director for fiction David Pelham decided to commission the covers of sixteen science fiction novels, to be published the following two years, to Franco Grignani. The new design for the Sci-Fi series reinstated the black covers Alan Aldridge had introduced in ’66, along with the Sci-Fi label which the panic tops of ’68 had overlooked. Pelham, who was also an illustrator, had been fascinated by Grignani’s artistic production.
Grignani was a leading figure in the field of experimental photography, with a career stretching back to some forty years earlier work with photograms. From this, he progressed to a range of techniques based on standard photography which he then projected and distorted using lenses, shards of glass, pieces of broken mirrors, or liquids such as oil and water.
In the works of the covers for Penguin Books it is, therefore, possible to find some references and evolutions of previous experimental works.
Grignani applied his experimentations to create veritable artworks (with distortion or tension illustrations developed from the front to the back cover), which reflect the narrative content in the novels by presenting predominantly abstract forms that interact with the observer’s subconscious.
They are therefore not only individual works but take on importance in relation to the great experimental-scientific work that accompanied and fascinated the artist throughout his whole career.
As pointed out by James Pardey, “Grignani’s black covers and single-color images form a kaleidoscope of shimmering dreams and shattered nightmares. They are like a free association of thoughts mapped out in watery reflections that briefly coalesce and then dispersed, leaving memories of figures trapped in the fragments of a looking-glass. They hint at other dimensions and warped worlds where space swims and time shudders.”
Grignani’s covers had the chance to welcome readers into the narrative of some of the best writers in science fiction, including Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick.
Davy by Edgar Pangborn: it’s a dystopian novel, telling of a post-apocalyptic world created by the collapse of civilization imagined at the end of the twentieth century. This decay seems to find an echo in the study made with silver bromide salts (“Diradamento e distorsione tensiva“, 1953, see: https://issuu.com/10a.m.artgallery/docs/franco_grignani_subperception/39), in which figures are found halfway between the almost fungal organic and the amorphous.
Rork! by Avram Davidson: this novel is an example of the relationship between image and plot. It is a novel in which the protagonist wants to remain alone to the point that he decides to embark on an unknown and remote world in the galaxy. The cover resumes the experimentation made in “La goccia obesa” (“The obese drop”, see: https://issuu.com/10a.m.artgallery/docs/franco_grignani_subperception/28), 1953, where expanded spots made with colored paints seem to recall the orbits of foreign, silent, and lost planets. In the composition with a suspended atmosphere, the image is dynamic but slow in its movement along an imaginary orbit, similar to a planet illuminated by an almost alien orange light.
The Squares of the City by John Brunner: the graphics refer to the experimentation technique for which Grignani filtered images through textured and fragmented industrial glass, as in “Struttura filtrata da un vetro industriale quadrettato e rigato” (“Structure filtered by a squared and striped industrial glass”, see: https://issuu.com/10a.m.artgallery/docs/franco_grignani_subperception/25), 1952, recalling, in this case, the image of a fragmented skyline, as well as the theme of the game of chess present in the novel.
Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick: the solarisations are used by the designer to suggest a sense of temporal dispersion in which the protagonist finds himself immersed, with repeated spirals that could allude to a sort of oppressive metaphorical cage. Similarities with “Solarizzazione su fasce curvate” (“Solarization on curved bands”, see: https://issuu.com/10a.m.artgallery/docs/franco_grignani_subperception/48), 1955 and “Fotogramma con rete a spirale” (“Frame with a spiral net”, see: https://issuu.com/10a.m.artgallery/docs/franco_grignani_subperception/4), 1929.
The Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick
The Reefs of Space by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson (part one of the Starchild trilogy, first published July–November 1963 as a three-part serial in If magazine)
The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber
Berserker by Fred Saberhagen (the first eleven stories in the Berserker series, first published as a collection in 1967)
The Judgement of Eve by Edgar Pangborn
The Traps of Time edited by Michael Moorcock (nine stories and an essay, first published as an anthology in 1968)
Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber (first published April 1943 in Unknown Worlds magazine)
Bill, the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison (first published August–October 1965 as a three-part serial in New Worlds magazine)
The Productions of Time by John Brunner (first published August–September 1966 as a two-part serial in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction)
The Day it Rained Forever by Ray Bradbury (collection of short stories previously released in the US as Medicine for Melancholy)
Search the Sky by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth (satirical Sci-Fi novel)
Viewed as a set, the sixteen covers would not look out of place if framed and hung on the walls of an art gallery, like the featured pic of this post. Anyway, the thought of sixteen black spines lined up on a bookshelf seems somewhat limiting by comparison.
In 2011 the design magazine Creative Review showcased Grignani’s Penguin Sci-Fi covers in its award-winning Monograph.
Eventually, in 2016 the British publishing house Vintage Books, which is part of the Penguin Random House group, published a new series of Sci-Fi books called Vintage Future. It includes nine classics of the dystopian genre. The covers can be animated with a black plastic sheet with slots, sold together with the books. Moving the sheet on the covers creates the illusion of a moving image. In fact, joining the back of all the books, it comes out “Strutturazione centrifuga e centripeta” (“Centrifugal and centripetal structure”), designed in 1965 by Franco Grignani, now exhibited in Milan, Museo del Novecento.