Re:collection and Sun Books
A guest post by Dominic Hofstede
A look at the history and art of Sun Books, the iconic Australian paperback publisher launched in 1965.
In 2016 Warren Taylor and I undertook a Creative Fellowship with the State Library of Victoria (SLV). The Fellowship provides artists, scholars and designers with a unique and supportive environment in which to immerse themselves in the SLV’s unique collections. Access to an office and financial support facilitates a diverse range of research activities.
Warren operated Melbourne’s much admired exhibiting space The Narrows between 2006–2010. Together we had curated an exhibition of Les Mason’s iconic Epicurean Magazine, the final show to appear in the gallery’s Flinders Lane location. Les Mason’s passing had been the catalyst for Re:collection, an online archive of Australian graphic design I developed as a personal project in 2009, before being joined by Taylor and other collaborators including Paul Mylecharane and Vincent Chan. Our application for the Fellowship proposed an extension of this work, centred on the key evolutionary period of Australian graphic design between 1960–1990.
Sun Books was an Australian paperback publisher established in 1965 by Geoffrey Dutton, Brian Stonier and Max Harris. The three men had worked together at Penguin Australia before leaving to create a unique platform for local content. As a publisher committed to uncovering original, homegrown voices, and delivering their stories in accessible, sophisticated forms, they would play a most significant and noteworthy role in the evolution of Australian identity. Our initial interest in Sun Books related to the publisher’s close relationship with Brian Sadgrove, one of Australia’s most significant graphic designers. Not known for his work in publishing, Sadgrove created Sun Book’s identity system including its iconic colophon, and was responsible for most of the imprint’s covers throughout the 1960s. When Des Cowley, the Rare Printed Collections Manager at the Library, alerted us to the substantial collection of Sun Books held by the SLV, we determined that the publisher would be the focus of our research.
Brian Sadgrove has been a generous supporter of Re:collection, and one of our first steps was to interview him at the Library. A highlight of the project was watching Brian joyfully peruse original copies of the countless paperbacks he had designed, many of which he had not seen for five decades. He provided valuable insight into his role as a designer in the 1960s, particularly in aspects of process and production. Sadgrove had wanted the covers to be distinctively ‘Australian’, and selected black and gold to reflect the local environment. The early Sun paperbacks follow his system rigorously, and are easily identifiable as a result. Over time, as four colour printing became more accessible, the covers evolved and Sadgrove gradually moved on to the corporate work for which he is more widely known. Many other significant designers were commissioned by Sun Books, including Robert Rosetzky, Ken Cato, Terry Hibberd, David Hornblow, Alison Forbes and Guy Mirabella. Macmillan purchased the publisher in the early 1970s, providing the financial stability Sun had sought since its inception.
As the project developed, we determined to produce a book documenting the research, under the title of Paperback Pioneers, Sun Books 1965–81. Across the 12 months of our Fellowship, we scanned over 100 covers, including selections from the SLV, our own and Monash University’s Rare Books collection; 88 of these appear in Paperback Pioneers. The book is self-published under our own Recollection colophon, printed locally by Bambra Press and features a custom typeface designed with the assistance of Melbourne type designer Vincent Chan. Launched at the NGV Art Book Fair in March, Paperback Pioneers is available for purchase from our online store.
Below is an extract from the book.
The Early Years
Creating a stand-alone publishing company without the resources or reputation of Penguin was a challenging prospect, but Dutton, Harris and Stonier shared an entrepreneurial spirit. Capital of £12,000 for the new venture was provided equally by Stonier and Dutton, and an overdraft of £10,000 from the National Bank of Australia was negotiated. A critical addition to the team was George Smith, who joined from their former employer to head up production. On June 4, 1965, Sun Books was established and incorporated. Dutton was to be the driving force for Sun Books, sourcing both reprints and original authors. Max Harris, much as he had done for Penguin, would act as an advisor and sounding board, with Stonier left to ‘run the business, get the books printed and sold, keep the bank manager happy and us solvent’.
An appreciation for design and production quality were critical learnings from Penguin. Smith, in his role as Penguin’s production manager, was schooled by the fastidious Hans Schmoller in all aspects of design and production, from typesetting details through to paper stock. The legendary German typographer had replaced Jan Tschichold at Penguin in 1949. Stonier also occasionally received generous, if unsolicited, advice as this letter from Schmoller shows:
One thing that is wrong with your paper is the direction of the grain: it runs across the page instead of down. It is this which prevents the book from lying flat when opened,…you should try to insist that the paper is supplied with the grain running parallel with the spine in the finished book.
In comparison to Europe and America, Australian book design, typography and production were still at a relatively embryonic stage in the early 1960s. The Australian Book Publisher’s Association (ABPA) had initiated an award scheme for book design in 1952, with the following ambitions:
(a) to focus the attention of publishers, printers and also the public on the importance of having well-made Australian books;
(b) to improve the general standards of book design in Australia, and;
(c) to improve the standard of craftsmanship in the actual manufacture of books in Australia.
The Judge’s comments from the ABPA awards catalogues of this period echo Schmoller’s dismay at the quality of Australian books, lamenting ‘a lack of top quality paper (1955–56)’, and poor typographic standards; ‘Typographically, faults showed up in both lack of knowledge of design and in appreciation of the finer points of type handling (1956–57)’. Printers and publishers rarely employed the services of typographers or designers, and full-time book designers were rare, with Melbourne’s Alison Forbes a notable exception. Other important practitioners of the time included Muriel Eyre, Norman Quaintance and Sydney’s Edwards & Shaw.
Dominic Hofstede’s extensive and varied career in graphic design has included practice, writing, research and teaching. In 2014 he was appointed as an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, Monash Art Design and Architecture. He is currently the Creative Director at MAUD, Melbourne. Warren Taylor is a lecturer in Communication Design at MADA (Monash Art Design and Architecture) and founder of The Narrows, a curatorial project interested in the convergence of art and design.