Fourth Estate has struck gold with a new source of inspiration for a new series of 10 reissues: mid-century matchboxes. The list’s Matchbook Classics series, comprising 10 novels ranging from Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, was inspired by 20th-century match- box artwork from a graphic design perspective, but also in its format: the series comes in "matchbook" form itself.
The box snugly houses the 10 titles (individual r.r.p.s ranging from £8.99–£10.99), and each book itself is also a miniature matchbook of sorts. Tacked onto the back cover of each is a second, wraparound spine, with the iconic red strike-board detail; it means the books can be encased on four of its six sides by the covers, with page edges only visible at its top and bottom. In addition to the second spine is a detachable bookmark, unique to each title, decorated in a manner inkeeping with its cover.
Why the conceit, and where did the idea originate? Matchbox companies swelled in popularity in the early 20th century, and to distinguish their products, manufacturers often hired draughtsmen to create small-scale illustrations for the boxes. It proved fertile ground for senior designer Jack Smyth, who "mentioned the idea in passing, and then when I did some proper research (Googling...) I realised the idea had legs". He says he was "spoiled for choice as there is such a wealth of matchbox artwork out there, sadly uncredited", and that the idea of doing a box-set was mooted early on in discussions about refitting the 10 titles as a "series", with the titles picked by editorial director Essie Cousins and publishing director Nicholas Pearson. The second spine concept, which "just seemed like such a fitting idea", came from art director Julian Humphries; Smyth says "to alter the normal structure of a book is quite a fun thing to do, and we went through endless variations—flaps on the front and back? Perforated edge? Does it wrap from the front or the back?"
First class stamps
The execution was equally inventive. Once designs and patterns of matchboxes had been identified and matched to each title, the artwork was digitally redrawn by Smyth. Yet these were not the digital files delivered to the printer: instead, Blade Rubber Stamps in Bloomsbury received the files. Smyth explains: "Once we had composed a cover, we deconstructed it and broke it down into individual elements. For each shape, and each piece of type—except the back-cover copy and the barcode—we had a rubber stamp made." The forms were then stamped out individually, scanned, and digitally reconstructed.
It may appear a convoluted and unnecessary process, but on page it becomes apparent why it was essential—and why the method indelibly links the designs to their match-box origins. "By stamping each piece individually, we were able to acquire beautiful, subtle textures throughout," Smyth says. "We could have done this digitally, but it just wouldn’t have the right feel—I think it’s better to do things like this physically and allow for happy accidents." There was a second reason, too: because such accidents made the re-construction of the overall image fiddly, it meant that "the scans never quite sat together perfectly, which reflected the original printing process of the matchboxes, which often mis-registered due to their size. We were using physically printed designs as our source material too, so it felt right to construct ours from printed elements".
The designs would feel "very different had we simply redrawn them and set the type on the computer", Smyth says, because the "slightly ‘off’ printing shows how the image is constructed by careful layering of a limited colour palette". The limitations on colour would have been a matter of cost (each title uses three Pantone colours, and black), but also of benefit when coming to unify the series together, and creating a relatedness across the 10 titles.
The books may be tied together physically by the match- box, and aesthetically by their stamp imprints, but there are points of difference, too: essential in series design. Smyth reckons that "having too many [series branding] rules and structures can often cause more problems than they solve—if the criteria is strict and tight, then it can become more about the series than the book, and not represent any of the character or crux of each title".
That may well have been more important than usual here, as not all readers will shell out £89.99 for the whole box-set. So how are the individual books differentiated? Through the illustration and, equally prominently, through the typography. This is arguably what makes the collection so fresh: there’s a pleasing contrast between the old-world illustrations and the contemporary typefaces, many of which are almost exclusively rendered digitally elsewhere. Most instances of modern-day digital typefaces in use in print are perfectly crisp, pin-sharp and concise: not so here, because of the stamping and re-scanning processes.
The fonts used on each title changes, too: from a grossly rounded, sci-fi-esque bold for J G Ballard’s Empire Sun, to an Art Deco, streamlined, geometric typeface, run digitally, for Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood. The different treatments continue to the spines, too, a rather unusual move for a series. It works very well indeed.