From school he went to Cambridge to read for a degree in English; but he spent most of his time designing posters, sets and costumes for student drama productions. A friend suggested that selling Christmas cards that they had designed and printed would be a good way to get their own cards for nothing. They actually made a profit of £2.10.0. (it was before decimalisation) on the operation and promptly ploughed it back into the business which was to become Gallery Five, the source of all those well-designed wrapping papers, greetings cards, tags and carrier bags. Jan is still a director and under his influence Gallery Five has expanded into publishing books like the recent pop-up, Dinner Time.
But when he finished at Cambridge all that was yet to come. It was necessary to get a job. He applied to join the art department of advertising agencies. `They all thought I was very eccentric. With an English degree you were supposed to want to be a copywriter.’ But he got a job, became an Art Director and `learned a lot.’
Jan Pienkowski’s first book, an ABC, Annie Bridget and Charlie was published in 1967. The next year saw A Necklace of Raindrops a collection of Joan Aiken stories with the first of the now famous Pienkowski silhouette illustrations. Their origin is interesting. `To get the commission I had to do one picture as a sample. I really slaved over it but the figures were dreadful.’ The day came for delivery. `I had to set off with this dreadful picture. In despair I blacked in the face of the worst figure. It looked a bit better, so I did them all.’
In the same style came The Kingdom Under the Sea, The Golden Bird, Tales of a One-Way Street (which Jan thinks demonstrates the limitations of the medium; `silhouettes work better against an abstract background.’) and the six exquisite little books in the Fairy Tale Library. All these show that Pienkowski is more a designer of books than simply an illustrator. He has the designer’s preoccupation with making books in the style, size and shape that will suit the content best. Sometimes there is quite a battle and books have a long gestation period. `I’m obsessive about getting things right. I drive everyone crazy. I go on and on until I get it right.’ Nowadays that concern takes him to Colombia in South America to be involved in setting up the production line for his very successful pop-up books; but it’s been like that from the start.
`When I did Kingdom under the Sea I laid out the text line by line and put in the pictures so the whole thing was welded together. I made a chart of the whole book too so that I could work out where the colour fell. That way I got colour on 20 pages instead of only twelve and I could do the coloured initials’. All that care paid off. The Kingdom Under the Sea, eleven stories from Eastern Europe retold by Joan Aiken, is a visual enchantment, with its marbled endpapers, decorated capitals and brilliant use of black and white and colour.
For Jan, `The picture is part of what you are reading. When I was a child I could not bear books with pictures labelled “Illustration to page 110” or whatever and which were miles away from their bit of the story. That’s why I like hand lettering best; it gives you total control of the relationship of text to pictures.’ That relationship is a particular feature of the Meg and Mog books on which he collaborates with Helen Nicoll. The partnership began in 1977 and the tenth book in the series is on the way. `We fight so much; it’s a really good working relationship.
We have lots of wild ideas and then Helen pares and prunes and puts them into economical good, plain English.’ They also worked together on a strip cartoon which appeared regularly in The Egg, the magazine of the Junior Puffin Club. Helen Nicoll lives in Wiltshire and they used to meet halfway in the restaurant of Membury Services on the M4 to work out the next bit. `It’s a good place to work. You’re completely cut off so no one disturbs you.’ Their book Quest for the Gloop came out of that collaboration.
Things don’t always go smoothly but Jan is a great believer in `the power of the accident.’
`An accident is a good idea in disguise. There really are no accidents; just your subconscious pushing you into doing things you wouldn’t normally dare to do.’
The pop-up books seem to have been more accident prone than most. Look again at your copy of Haunted House. The creepy `Spanish Moss’ which drips off the trees in the portrait of La Gioconda was the result of less than complete masking while they sprayed the wall paper in the picture to give it a mouldy look. The green trees `ran’. Spanish moss was the answer. The faded, peeling paint effect around the keyhole on the front door cover is the result of Judith Elliot’s hot hands as she handed the books round the publishers in New York. Judith is Jan’s editor at Heinemann.
Why did a promising and successful graphic designer choose to go into books? `When I got the chance to do one I jumped at it. I think they are the most permanent things I could do. I get more satisfaction out of books. It’s important to me that the result of my effort is likely to be there in a few years. And although it’s such a solitary activity and you only get one chance to get it right, there is a continuous stream of something coming back from the readers which goes on for a long time. That’s very satisfying; it’s almost the most satisfying thing about it.’
A lot of the feedback comes from children. Jan quite deliberately spends a lot of time with them.
`If I don’t meet them how am I supposed to have any understanding of what I am doing. I learn a lot.’
A Pienkowski event though, goes far beyond signing books and smiling. Jan likes always to be involved with children in some creative activity. Together they have painted walls, boats, caravans, buses, themselves and each other with body paints); they have made books and masks, covered a wall with graffiti (not so much fun when it’s allowed) and decorated a mobile infant library. At the moment he is planning a robot building session and working out how to paint a gasometer.
But being a successful creator of books hasn’t made him any more confident or secure about each new project.
`I went to America to see Wally Hunt at Intervisual Communications about Robot. We were all round this huge table and I sat there with my hands shaking demonstrating this dummy book made out of grotty white cardboard. I’d not even finished when Wally just got up and walked out. I was shattered. Later I managed to ask him why he had left. “Oh” he said “I didn’t need to see any more.”
`I think all creative people need reassurance. When you show what you’ve done every single thing you’ve got is there. And if you’ve had a little success it gets worse because there’s more at stake. When the first books came out I thought I was lucky to be published at all. I still do.’
But it isn’t all luck as this story shows. Jan owns a third share in a horse which he likes to ride in Richmond Park. Not long ago he was thrown and pulled along by the horse. `It was my own fault. I wouldn’t let go. It’s part of my nature.’