Launched in 1972, “Folio” is the paperback imprint of French literary giant Éditions Gallimard. It is the most famous series of livres de poche (pocket books) in France, whose meteoric rise (15 million copies were sold in the first six years of activity alone) owes a great deal to its iconic cover template, designed by Gallimard’s then art director, Robert Massin (1925–).
Influenced by Swiss designer Celestino Piatti’s work for German publisher DTV (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag), Massin chose a white background with black type stacked at the top of the format, but selected a classic, ranged-left, seriffed roman, Baskerville Old Face (a.k.a. Fry’s Baskerville), instead of going for the full modernist outlook (Akzidenz Grotesk Medium, flush-right) favoured by Piatti.
The rest of the cover was entrusted to a vast roster of illustrators, painters or photographers, whose visual pyrotechnics resulted in images which have since then become deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness: for several generations of French readers, L’Étranger (The Stranger) by Albert Camus, for instance, is forever associated with Alexis Oussenko’s allusive watercolour, while David Levine’s caricature of Jean-Paul Sartre (originally published in The New York Review of Books in 1969) is arguably, thanks to its appearance on the cover of Les Mots (Words), one of the most enduring portraits of the radical Left-Bank philosopher and novelist.
Massin’s outstanding contribution to Gallimard’s success — and to French book design at large — has been the subject of this excellent book by Laetitia Wolff.