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Franz Kafka – The Trial, Modern Library Definitive Edition cover

Contributed by Nick Sherman on Jun 12th, 2017. Artwork published in
circa 1961
Franz Kafka – The Trial, Modern Library Definitive Edition cover 1
Source: License: All Rights Reserved.

The cover for this edition of Kafka’s classic novel features what appears to be Photo-Lettering Inc.’s Swiss Gothic Extra Condensed. It could also conceivably be a customized interpretation of some other condensed sans like Schmalfette Grotesk or Permanent Headline, but the proportions and weight seem to match closely with a mechanically compressed configuration of Swiss Gothic Extra Condensed (Photo-Lettering offered slightly squooshed settings among the standard options in their catalogs).

[Update: it appears to actually be composed from Walter Käch’s Velos alphabet.]

Illustrations for the book are credited to legendary book jacket designer George Salter, but unlike previous editions it isn’t stated explicitly whether Salter also designed the cover. (Perhaps someone more knowledgeable of Salter’s work than I am could identify the hand-lettering as his.)

Update: A promotional image for an exhibiton of George Salter’s book jackets (opening next week, no less!) shows the spine of this edition, so presumably he was indeed the designer(?)

Franz Kafka – The Trial, Modern Library Definitive Edition cover 2
Source: License: All Rights Reserved.
Franz Kafka – The Trial, Modern Library Definitive Edition cover 3
Source: License: All Rights Reserved.


  • Segel Club / Velos




Artwork location

4 Comments on “Franz Kafka – The Trial, Modern Library Definitive Edition cover”

  1. My understanding is that Swiss Gothic is PLINC’s adaptation of Schmalfette Grotesk, with an added lowercase (and extended to several weights plus variants including Biform and Open styles). It’s shown in their Alphabet Thesaurus Vol. 2 from 1965, i.e. after this cover was made. Swiss Gothic may have been added to their library earlier. Do you – or anyone else – happen to know if it’s already shown in previous catalogs? Especially interesting would be the 1955 edition of Photo-lettering: a catalog of over 1500 basic alphabets + variations.

    Anyway, since the caps of Swiss Gothic Extra Condensed (as well as those of PLINC’s caps-only Dandee) seem to be virtually identical to Haettenschweiler’s Schmalfette Grotesk (which is shown in Lettera 1 from 1954) and the jacket only shows caps, I decided to change the typeface credit. I’d assume it’s lettering derived from Schmalfette Grotesk. Permanent Headline was released only in 1964.

  2. These are all good notes, Flo. Since I originally posted this, a few other things have come up …

    1) While visiting the previously-mentioned exhibition of Salter’s book jackets with Michael Doret (who was a student of Salter’s) he expressed strong doubts that this particular jacket was actually designed by Salter.

    2) In an email exchange with Paul Shaw where I asked about the jacket being more typographic than most of Salter’s other covers, he also wasn’t convinced, saying:

    I am certain it is not Salter. He never would have done such lettering. Salter did the Knopf edition of The Trial and he did a few Modern Library covers so someone has conflated the two. […] Salter did more “typographic” covers earlier in his career in Germany, but not in the United States. However, it is the style of the script in the cover that bothers me more than the gothic letters. And the lack of a signature. Salter was very keen on having a credit on his work. And not added in type somewhere but placed by hand on the front. He signed the Modern Library covers I have seen: e.g. The Decameron of Boccaccio.

    3) The 1956 date I originally attributed to the design might not be accurate for this specific design, but only to this edition of the text. One listing for the book with this cover describes it as:

    First Edition of Modern Library Book No. 318.1, an ML edition of Kafka’s existential masterpiece published from 1961–1970. “First Printing” stated on Copyright Page

    4) I made an overlay of Schmalfette Grotesk as shown in Lettera and, while it is definitely close, it is far from a definitive match. For example, In order to get a similar width, I had to horizontally squoosh the letters to 70% their original width. Even then, the horizontal strokes are much lighter on the jacket:

    Schmallfette Grotesk squooshed to 70% width (in blue), overlaid on the text from the book jacket (in red).

    As you mentioned, it’s very possible it’s just lettering that used Schmalfette Grotesk as a starting point.

    I don’t have access to the 1955 Photo-Lettering book, but Swiss Gothic isn’t shown in my copy of Alphabet Thesaurus, nor Alphabet Thesaurus Nine Thousand (both from 1960). There are a few similar designs, like Toronto-Belvedere Extra Condensed, but I don’t know that any of them are closer than Schmalfette Grotesk. I don’t have Alphabet Supplement ’61 to check if Swiss Gothic is shown there. If it was, and if the 1961 date mentioned above is indeed accurate, it’s conceivable the cover is based on Swiss Gothic (perhaps even executed at Photo-Lettering). But that’s a lot of “if”s and unknowns.

    Unless more information in uncovered, I’d agree with your call to mark this as a customization of Schmalfette Grotesk. In the mean time, I’m going to change the date to 1961.

  3. Now I’m glad I commented on this years old post … What a wealth of info! Interesting to learn that Michael Doret studied with Salter. I for one welcome the level of nerdery and appreciate you took the time to do an overlay. Thank you!

    Paul’s points sound very plausible. Here’s what Salter’s jacket design for the first American edition (Knopf, 1937) looks like, for anyone who’s curious. And of course it’s signed. Salter provided the cover design and the illustrations for that edition, too.

    Image: Rob Zanger Rare Books

    Yes, I saw Toronto Belvedere. One distinguishing (although not unique) feature of Schmalfette Grotesk is the A with legs of different weight. In Toronto, the letterform is symmetrical.

  4. After originally struggling to find a spot-on match for the large type on this book cover, I’ve finally pinned it down as coming from Walter Käch’s Velos alphabet, which is arguably the grandparent of all the previously mentioned typefaces.

    I’ve updated the article text and type identification accordingly.

    In other related news, Jill Gage from the Newberry Library in Chicago just wrote about George Salter’s cover of the first American edition of The Trial for the recently-launched Book Cover Review website.

  5. Jill Gage says:
    Aug 3rd, 2023 3:42 pm

    This is really interesting to me- and my initial reaction was that he never would have done this kind of lettering, so I’m glad that Doret and Shaw are in agreement! I did double check our Salter archive (not definitive, but quite large, and arranged by his job#s) and found nothing.

    Also glad to have the Velos reference.

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