The fashionability of Pelicans, which lasted at least into the 70s, was connected to this breaking open of radical new ideas to public understanding – not in academic jargon but in clearly expressed prose. But it was also because they looked so good. The first Pelicans were, like the Penguins, beneficiaries of the 30s passion for design. They had the iconic triband covers conceived by Edward Young – in Lane’s words, “a bright splash of fat colour” with a white band running horizontally across the centre for displaying author and title in Gill Sans. A pelican appeared flying on the cover and standing on the spine. After the war, Lane employed as a designer the incomparable Jan Tschichold, a one-time associate of the Bauhaus and known for his Weimar film posters. His Pelicans had a central white panel framed by a blue border containing the name of the imprint on each side.
In the 60s the books changed again, to the illustrative covers designed by Germano Facetti, art director from 1961 to 72. Facetti, a survivor of Mauthausen labour camp who had worked in Milan as a typographer and in Paris as an interior designer, transformed the Penguin image, as John Walsh has written, “from linear severity and puritanical simplicity into a series of pictorial coups”. The 60s covers by Facetti (eg The Stagnant Society by Michael Shanks), and by the designers he took on – Jock Kennier (eg Alex Comfort’s Sex in Society), Derek Birdsall (eg The Naked Society) – are ingenious, arresting invitations to a world of new thinking.
Jenny Diski has written of subscribing in the 60s to “the unofficial University of Pelican Books course”, which was all about “gathering information and ideas about the world. Month by month, titles came out by Laing and Esterson, Willmott and Young, JK Galbraith, Maynard Smith, Martin Gardner, Richard Leakey, Margaret Mead; psychoanalysts, sociologists, economists, mathematicians, historians, physicists, biologists and literary critics, each offering their latest thinking for an unspecialised public, and the blue spines on the pile of books on the floor of the bedsit increased.”
“If you weren’t at university studying a particular discipline (and even if you were),” she goes on, “Pelican books were the way to get the gist of things, and education seemed like a capacious bag into which all manner of information was thrown, without the slightest concern about where it belonged in the taxonomy of knowledge. Anti-psychiatry, social welfare, economics, politics, the sexual behaviour of young Melanesians, the history of science, the anatomy of this, that and the other, the affluent, naked and stagnant society in which we found ourselves.”
Owen Hatherley has described the Pelicans of the late 60s as “human emancipation through mass production … hot-off-the-press accounts of the ‘new French revolution’ would go alongside texts on scientific management, with Herbert Marcuse next to Fanon, next to AJP Taylor, and all of this conflicting and intoxicating information in a pocket-sized form, on cheap paper and with impeccably elegant modernist covers.”