interview : coralie bickford-smith {penguin classics}

by anne

last year when we first announced the penguin cloth-bound classic series everyone went crazy about these incredible book covers designed by senior cover designer, coralie bickford-smith. the only catch was that the books were only available in the UK – that is until this week! in honor of the US-release of the series we’re so pleased to have a very special interview with coralie all about the project, her work and where she finds her inspiration. this was such a special treat for me because beautiful book cover designs were one of the major influences that inspired me to become a graphic designer. we can’t thank coralie enough for taking the time out of her busy schedule to welcome us into her world. don’t miss more of her amazing work right here, and you can pick up your very own cloth-bound classics right here (scroll down to access more titles). {thanks, coralie!!}anne


How was the Cloth-bound Classics project conceived? How did it evolve? Was coming up with patterns one of the original concepts?

The series grew out of my mild obsession with cloth bindings, which I’ve been able to indulge on an occasional basis for a while. Titles including Hans Christian Andersesn’s Fairy Tales and Penguin’s Poems for Life were well received and – crucially – sold well, so it was decided that I would bring a similar aesthetic to this series. I decided early on to use patterns that all conform to the same grid – it seemed the best way to impose a recognizable style that could work across a series of ten or more books, while allowing the covers to convey something of the character of the individual titles.


How did you choose the motifs for the patterns? Was it hard to narrow down an entire novel into one icon?

One of the great things about designing for the classics is that the material is so rich and full of possibilities – it’s not about finding the one and only perfect signifier for a book, but one that works within the context of this series, and perhaps which takes a slightly new angle on a familiar work. I read the books and discussed them with one of out picture researchers, Isabelle De Cat, then we created mood boards full of ideas, and narrowed it down from there. Some of the final patterns are more literal than others. The peacock feather on Dorian Grey, for example, plays on the book’s themes of vanity and the superficial, whereas the leaf motif on Jane Eyre refers directly to the lightning-blasted chestnut tree, a concrete element in the text that serves as a potent symbol of the book’s central relationship.


How did you go about picking the colors? Were they predetermined or did the books themselves evoke certain colors through associations?

My palette was limited by the available materials, so I began by finding compelling combinations and then matched them to the titles. Again, the connection with the text is more obvious in some cases – the black and white of Dorian Grey suggests stark duality, and also references Aubrey Beardsley’s Wilde illustrations – while others are more about capturing a certain mood.

CLICK HERE for the rest of coralie’s interview after the jump!


Is all your work done on a computer or do you start with hand sketches?

Everything ends up in the computer, but I start with lots of sketches, collecting and playing with images. I like the hands on creative process, especially with a project like this, which is all about evoking a pre-computer era of craftsmanship and fine binding.


What were the biggest challenges in this project?

Getting the foil blocking right took some time. Matte foil is a tricky material, especially on cloth, with different colour foils behaving differently on press, and I was quite demanding in terms of getting as much out of the process as possible. So there were visits to the printers, discussions and experiments. I had to make fine adjustments to some of the designs to take account of the tolerances of the machines, and the printers put in a lot of work to achieve the end result as well.


How do you “collect” your ideas?

Notebooks. I love a good notebook.


Where are your favorite places “to go” for inspiration?

As your quote marks imply, with so many great visual resources on the web there are plenty of places to go without leaving the desk. I can happily spend hours mooching around sites like Ffffound!, Ace Jet 170, But Does It Float, and Design Sponge of course, as well as checking out amazing objects on eBay. Sometimes though there’s no substitute for getting out and seeing things that aren’t mediated by a computer screen. London’s great for that, with so many amazing museums and libraries. The V&A, John Soane Museum and the London Library are among my favourites. Also bookshops and charity shops.

How would you describe your personal design style?

If I have a distinctive style it’s probably best left to others to describe. I suppose there are recurrent elements in some of my work, such as an Arts and Crafts influence, limited colour palette and a love of period detail, but I tend to approach each brief individually. That’s the nature of cover design really – the designs are there to serve the writing, and there’s such a range of material that we design for that a personal style isn’t necessarily what you want the customer to see.


Do you have any new upcoming projects you can tell us about (or at least give us a hint)?

I’m working on another hardback series – different materials and the work of a single author this time. Can’t say much more right now, except that I’ve been immersing myself in Art Deco influences. Away from work, I’m also working on a fun piece for this exhibition curated by the wonderful Garudio Studiage.


Is there a dream project you’d love to work on?

I’m very fortunate at Penguin to be able to work on dream projects regularly. Outside of books, I’m interested in moving into textile design. So far I’ve dipped a toe in the water with a t-towel design, but I have ideas for something on a larger scale.

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  • Great post! I LOVE LOVE LOVE these book covers. Cloth covers are so beautiful and tactile and the special foil blocking is delicious!
    All the patterns are absolutely gorgeous too!
    I’d like to get the entire range and proudly display them on my book shelf. Time to go shopping!

  • Thank you for a beautiful and inspiring interview. I love, love, love everything about these book covers; the patterns, color combos and of course what is on the inside.

  • So appropriate to honor the tangible book. I was just speaking with my mother about the value of amassing a book collection in the Kindle age. It is totally worth my $ and time.

    But, oh so affordable too. Thanks for the Amazon link. . .can’t believe $13 a pop on used.

  • Forget putting these on a shelf, I cannot wait to turn these into Book Purses! Then you can carry around one of these gorgeous covers with you everywhere you go. I just hope the Little Women and Alice covers are available soon, those are my favorites.

  • Does anyone have the ISBN numbers for her second collection (with Emma, Oliver Twist, etc.)? I have the first collection and am dying to get the second. She is a wonderful designer and I love her work!

  • I bought the first series from a Canadian online bookseller (Shapeters.ca) last year, and they are absolutely gorgeous. It is such a joy to read something that feels so lovely in the hand. However, after spying the American version in Borders last week, I can tell you that those in the US are different. While the designs are the same, the quality is lower… The material of the cover feels rougher somehow. And the US copies are not numbered, while the ten original books overseas are numbered 1-10 along their spines.

    I am going to ask Santa to order the next set from Waterstones for me!

  • The cloth coverings for over 20 books is hard to find, and my husband works for Pearson!!
    I wish they were all still available in the cloth binding. I will keep searching.

  • When I search for them on amazon, I come up with what appears to be the US versions (Oct 27, 2009) and then a second set which I assume to be the UK versions (Unknown Binding (2009)).

    In the pictures the UK ones appear to be more brightly colored (all of them) and/or different color combos than the US ones (Great Expectations). Is this the case?


  • Being in love with books myself, I find Coralie’s work a tremendous inspiration! I’m very saddened by the fact that I only heard about these books last weekend. I picked up on clothbound book at my local Anthropologie store and bought all possibly existing books from this collection at amazon. Unfortunately, I’m seeing that this collection consists of 20 books. Can anyone tell me where I could purchase the remaining books as amazon only carries a limited variety of them. Please let me know!

  • Julia, you can enter each of the 2nd set’s books ISBN numbers into Amazon and pre-order the books now.

    The Hound of the Baskervilles – Arthur Conan Doyle – 9780141192437 – Releasing 9/10/10
    Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens – 9780141192499 – Releasing 9/10/10
    Emma – Jane Austen – 9780141192475 – Releasing 5/10/10
    The Odyssey – Homer – 9780141192444 – Releasing 5/10/10
    The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins – 9780141192420 – Releasing 9/28/10
    Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson – 9780141192451 – Releasing 5/10/10
    The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint – William Shakespeare – 9780141192574 – Releasing 9/28/10

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence – 9780141192482 – Releasing 5/10/10
    Little Women – Louisa May Alcott – 9780141192413 – Releasing 9/28/10
    Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass – Lewis Carroll – 9780141192468 – Releasing 5/10/10

  • Of the 20, I’ve seen 13 are available for purchase in the US, and six more can be pre-ordered from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, etc. 9/28/10: Madame Bovary, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Oliver Twist, The Woman in White, Little Women, and The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint. Someone posted all the ISBN above.

  • One correction to my previous post — only FIVE titles will be released 9/28. I spoke to someone at Penguin Group, and Madame Bovary as well as Crime and Punishment will not be reprinted this year. Possibly Spring 2011. Madame Bovary is one of my favorite books — and what a luscious pomegranate design on that cover! Well worth the wait..

    • renee

      there should be a link to the books on amazon on this post- if there isn’t, just visit amazon.com and look for the titles :)


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