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 interview Grace! These books are all so beautiful. Even with the limitations due to the selection of cloth colors—the colors are so vibrant and the patterns so appropriate. I think Coralie’s covers really breathe new life into these classics. It looks like only 8 of the books are avail. in the U.S. so far. I hope all 20 are soon. It would be awesome to have a whole set.

  • thank you! thank you for this interview! i pre-ordered all 8 that were available the day you broke the news they would be for sale in the states! I am a publishing designer and LOVED hearing from Coraline about her experience with this beyond beautiful series!

  • These books have been available in Canada for awhile, and they’re indeed beautiful! But…I have to say that the design on the cover wasn’t that durable. The images on copy of Cranford wore off very quickly as I carried it around in my purse. It was a total bummer.

  • Yay! I just got the 6 titles that were available at my local Anthropologie this week. They are so, SO pretty. I hope they stick around for awhile so I can keep collecting them. I was a lit major, and the thought of owning that whole set makes me feel all warm inside!

    Thanks for posting this interview with Coralie! Her designs are just lovely.

  • The “Customers Also Bought” section includes the Domino Book of Decorating and the Sartorialist’s new book…gotta love the crew these books hang out with :)

  • Thanks so much for the great interview! By happenstance, I became aware of Ms. Bickford-Smith as the Penguin Classic designer. I love a good book cover, and am proud to say I am now a big fan. Her work is really lovely.

    D*S continues to be a wonderful place of inspiration and information – thank you!

  • I absolutely adore this collection. I first saw it back in March in Brazil (the translated versions also have the same amazing covers). I can’t wait to add beauty to my library in the form of these covers! Congratulations to Coralie, Penguin and D*S!

  • Though I own many, many copies of some of these classics, I will (eventually) buy each and every one of these new classics. People who don’t love books say that we are crazy to continue to load our shelves, but what better justification is there than this! Does anyone know when Penguin will release more titles in the U.S.?

  • Is there any way us Amercians can get the other set up Coralie books that include the Odyssey and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, my two favorite books of all time? I am dying to have them and I have already ordered every Coralie book available on Amazon.

  • I LOVE these! as an avid book reader and someone who appreciates design these are perfect!

    I’m in Toronto and a friend of mine picked up a couple of these a few months ago – so I assume they’ve been available here for a while….

  • On a recent trip to Toronto, I had the poor Chapters salesman spend 20 minutes tracking down these books. We tried the store catalogue, the Penguin site, everything! Finally I had him google Penguin +Design+Sponge, and although the D*S site was blocked on the computer, he could see the images. “Oh that set! Yeah, those are nice! They’re on the final clearance tables!”

  • These are amazing..but if what Emma posts is still an issue they may want to check the stamping impressions and or sharpness of the dye being used..heading to amazon now!

  • does anyone know where i can get the alice in wonderland book? they don’t have that title at amazon or the anthropologie that i work at

  • absolutely beautiful, simple, and inspiring. i loved how you focused on her creative process… i love hearing the way other designers go about their work. thanks!

    (i think i got the right post this time! :-) )

  • thank you so much for this very interesting interview. Like Emma said these books have been available in Canada for some time and they are so affordable! (15$ at Chapters-Indigo) I couldn’t resist buying a couple when I saw a whole wall of these colorful beauties. Compared to a lot of books that have wonderful covers but boring spines these ones are pretty on night stands AND bookshelves.

  • these are so wonderful, we’re getting ready to put a new bookcase in our family room and I love that someone has taken the opportunity to make something new out of old classics. Just perfect.

  • Being both a graphic designer AND a bookworm/lover of classics, I was so delighted when these books were first posted here! I’ve been collecting them in Canada as I see them, and I must say, I thoroughly enjoy the way they look grouped together on my bookshelf at home. I’ve got 8 so far, with another 10 on the way! Coralie, thank you for these. I will cherish them :)

  • i absolutely love these books, but i had a question… do you know if the series from the uk will ever be released here? it seems that the ones in the us are different then the original series from the uk, i am dying to have the whole set!

  • These are absolutely beautiful. I just purchased Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights for my mother’s Christmas present and can’t wait to see her open them on Christmas morning. Lovely.

  • Love them! Especially the little ribbon bookmarks – such a nice touch. I’ve ordered the ones available on Amazon – and I’m sending my brother (who’s currently in the UK) a list of the rest that I need :)

  • Mine arrived today! I LOVE THEM…except this first set is missing Crime & Punishment (did they think Americans wouldn’t react well?! j/k). Can hardly wait for the rest to make their way across the ocean…

  • “That’s the nature of cover design really – the designs are there to serve the writing” sounds like music to my book editor ears! Beautiful beautiful beautiful work, Coralie!
    Grace, you’re the best!

  • These are so gorgeous. I bought “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” from a Canadian Website, and have most of the first series pre-ordered on Amazon. I just wish they were all available in the US (like the Odyssey).

  • Wow, this is amazing – i was just looking at these books earlier this week at Borders (in Australia) and saying to my mum why don’t they make all books this beautiful. So great to know more about where the design/concept came from.

  • Does anyone know when the 10 titles in the top row will be released in Canada? I purchased the original 10 earlier this year at chapters but as far as I can see the others have not been released in canada or the us.

  • i love this interview.. i’ve always wanted to know what the inspiration was behind these amazing and beautiful book covers. knowing the meaning of the cover makes me want the books so much more~

  • I fell in love with these the first time they were posted. I ordered all the ones available on Amazon, and my sister is visiting London right now so she picked up Madame Bovary for me as well as The Odyssey. I’m only missing Crime and Punishment from the first set, but she couldn’t find it for me so I’ll keep looking.

    I would have bought the whole of the second set, but she wouldn’t have appreciated me weighing down her suitcase anymore!

  • The first saw Coralie’s penguin classics on design sponge and have been in love with them ever since! I have been following your articles about them and was so excited when the first several titles were released in the states! Mine just arrived a few days ago! This was a fantastic interview!!

    I am so excited for the rest of the classics to be released in the US!!

  • they’re so beautiful! Thanks for the interview, always enjoy a good read about graphic design which envolves foil endorned bookcovers :-)

  • 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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