In the two years I’ve worked as Classic Returns editor for LJ, I’ve come across some beautiful books, but none has been as consistently lovely as the clothbound hardcover Penguin Classics reissues. Compact and ornate, the books beg to be touched, carried, posed with, enjoyed. The F. Scott Fitzgerald titles with metallic foil-stamped jackets in art deco–inspired patterns were particularly eye-catching; the connected monkeys, reminiscent of the “barrel of monkeys” toys of my childhood, are perfect images for a reissue of Kipling’s The Jungle Books. These treatments and many more were created for Penguin by award-winning British designer/illustrator Coralie Bickford-Smith, who’s just written (and illustrated) a book of her own, The Fox and the Star (Penguin), which will release in November in the United States. I emailed her some questions about her craft.
Please describe your book cover design process: Do you attempt to distill a book’s contents into a motif or design element? Do you read the books that you design new covers for?
That’s right. I always begin by reading the book, researching a little of its history and the era
in which it was published and looking for a meaningful theme that runs through it all. By representing this through a visual element I aim to entice readers who are familiar with the book and might recognize its relevance, as well as attract new readers who may simply be curious to understand the meaning.
Do you have any personal favorites among your designs? Which project are you most proud of? Which one was the most difficult?
My favorite project is the clothbound hardback series [for Penguin Classics]. They are my most beloved work and have endured the longest. I am still designing new covers for the series and there are over 50 titles now. My favorite design has to be Dracula, with its garlic flowers woven around the cover to keep the evil contained inside the pages of the book when it’s not being read.
Do you tote a sketchbook and/or camera around with you at all times?
Yes, I always have a sketchbook with me, a little Moleskine that fits into any bag and is easy to draw in without attracting attention. I am not much of a photographer and I find it more natural to record what is going on around me with a pen and paper. My photography is limited to snaps on my phone of amusingly arranged objects.
How long have you worked for Penguin? How did you get the job? What advice would you give to aspiring book designers/graphic artists?
My job was advertised in a national paper and I applied for it without much hope of getting an interview. But here I am 14 years later. When I applied for the job I was down on my luck so it was a total game changer. It was an opportunity I am eternally grateful for. It is where I found my confidence as a designer. My advice to aspiring designers is don’t give up, even when it feels like you have hit a dead end, bear in mind that those moments often teach you the most valuable lessons about your practice.
Do you collect books?
I am always searching for strange and wonderful books to add to my collection. I have no particular genre but have a fondness for old books on printing and typography.
Who or what inspires you?
I can always depend on William Morris and William Blake for inspiration. Getting lost in a William Morris pattern or a William Blake illustration is like meditation.
Tell us about your upcoming book, The Fox and the Star. When did you get the idea, and what motivated you to create this (beautiful!) book?
Overcoming life’s difficulties is a big part of what makes us who we are. I wanted to tell a story that reflects this element of our existence. The main character is an uncertain fox who has to find his own way in the world. We follow Fox through his journey as he has to dig deep and find his determination, resilience, and persistence. Illustrating a concept that is very personal but universally relevant has been a journey in itself and one that I have dreamt of making for a long time.
Finally, is there anything you’d like to add, any question that I didn’t ask that you’d like to answer?
It’s “What do you eat when working long hours on a project?” Macaroni and cheese for every meal until the job is done!