Cor Klaasen Exhibition

August 30, 2010

Walking in Wicklow, J.B. Malone, Helicon (1964). Cover design by Cor Klaasen.

The unfortunate Fursey, Mervyn Wall, Helicon (1965). Cover design by Cor Klaasen.

Meeting Christ, Brian Kelly, Educational Company of Ireland (1971). Cover design by Cor Klaasen.

Thinking Through Mathematics, Gerard Beggan,  Fallons (1971). Cover design by Cor Klaasen.

Aistí agus comhrá, Pádraig Mac Concoille,  Fallons. Cover design by Cor Klaasen.

Cuir Síos Air,  Fallons. Cover design by Cor Klaasen.

I included a single cover by Cor Klaasen in a previous post and commented that I hadn’t managed to track down many examples of his work despite knowing that he was both talented and prolific. Since then I’ve been contacted by Cor’s widow, Tineke, who has been generous enough to show me the comprehensive archive of his work which is in the family’s possession.

Cor Klaasen is a significant figure in the history of Irish graphic design and it is indicative of the lack of importance attached to visual culture in Ireland that such a rich body of work has faded from view. In order to begin to rectify this situation Vintage Irish Book Covers, along with the Klaasen family, are organising an exhibition of Cor’s work from the sixties and seventies which will coincide with Design Week 2010. The exhibition will consist of book cover designs for Gill & Macmillan, Fallons, Helicon, Torc and the Talbot Press, amongst others, as well as a series of striking record sleeves designed for the Mercier Press. You can see more of Cor’s work and updates on the exhibition here: www.corklaasen.com.

Cor was a natural illustrator whose style developed over his career as he experimented with different media and techniques. In the fifties he favoured pen and ink. His artist’s notebook Het is Niet Waar (1954) captures the essence of his style from this period – a wonderful mix of George Grosz grotesque and Jim Flora’s exuberant fun. I hope to add some pages from this marvelous book to the corklaasen.com site soon.

By the sixties Cor is using cut-outs and collage to achieve his lively designs. Most of the examples above use this method. The exception is The Unfortunate Fursey which is a mix of pen and ink and colour overlay in three colours. All of the rest are just two colour jobs but achieve maximum effect by imaginative use of colour mixing.

Walking in Wicklow was one of the first of Cor’s covers that I became aware of and it is still one of my favourites. The couple have been cut from black card using a swivel blade. No mean feat considering the original cutouts are reproduced same size on the book cover.

A Munster Twilight, Daniel Corkery, Mercier Press (1963). Cover design: uncredited

My Left Foot, Christy Brown, Mercier Press (1964). Cover design: John Skelton

Islanders, Peadar O’Donnell, Mercier Press (1965). Cover design: uncredited

Days of Fear, Frank Gallagher, Mercier Press (1967). Cover design: John Skelton

Self-Portrait, John B. Keane, Mercier Press (1969). Cover design: uncredited

Irish Short Stories, Seamus O’Kelly, Mercier Press (1969). Cover design: uncredited

It may seem strange that I haven’t mentioned Mercier Press covers before. This is not because I don’t deem them of merit or that I was not aware of them but quite the opposite. The Mercier Paperbacks of the 1960s were ubiquitous in Irish homes and it can be hard to see afresh something which is very familiar.

The books were designed to work as a series – always in two colour, black and a spot colour which changed from book to book. The format and back cover layout remained the same on each book. Illustration, in both pen & ink and brush & ink, was the mainstay of the covers although photography crept in as the decade came to a close. I hope that I am not overstating it to say that the Mercier Paperback covers enjoy a position in the Irish psyche akin to that of Penguin covers for British readers.

The artist John Skelton (1925-2009) was Mercier’s main cover designer – he worked as an art director and book illustrator before concentrating full-time on painting in 1975. The line work in his My Left Foot cover has a Ben Shan feel while his brush and ink illustration for Days of Fear is more expressionistic.

John M. Feehan, the founder of Mercier, mentions the design process in his book An Irish Publisher and his World (1969):

The next problem is the jacket of the book. A set of proofs goes to the artist who has been selected to do the job and in due course  he will submit three different designs. The publisher has to decide  which of these is the most suitable. He will probably call in the author to look at them and give his opinion, although he, as publisher, will naturally have the last word. Aesthetic must be balanced against commercial considerations: the two are not necessarily opposed. …  Certainly, an effective jacket has become more and more important  as a weapon in the struggle to sell a book.

Perhaps the use of militaristic language when describing the selling of books can be explained by Feehan’s time as a Captain in the Irish Army before he career as a publisher.

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