An Interview with Book Cover Designer Coralie Bickford-Smith

I've mentioned before what a huge booklover I am. I love everything about them: how they look on my shelves, the way they feel in my hand and the richness and wonder contained inside each and every one. That said, it should come as no surprise that I also adore good book design. Those that share this obsession know what I'm talking about...

And they probably also know the name (or at the very least, the work) of Coralie Bickford-Smith, senior book cover designer for publishing darling Penguin Books.

Her Clothbound Classics have become classics in their own right, gracing Anthropologie's retail shelves and appearing in magazines and blogs the world over. And her deco-inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald books are on the wish-lists of bookworms and design-istas everywhere. This month, a new set of Bickford-Smith- designed books will be released: Great Food, a collection of the most evocative food writing of the last 400 years. Once again, the designer has created book covers as engaging as the content itself.

Recently, I interviewed Coralie to learn more about the collection, her design process and her personal inspiration (I'm happy to report that she's as delightful as her cover designs!).

Your work for Penguin Books has been embraced by impassioned book lovers everywhere. Why do you think your cover designs have struck such a strong chord with the book-buying public?

Because I am working with literature which is already so well loved, it holds huge appeal. To cover such a collection of classics is an honor. I am amazed that my own vision for the covers has pleased so many lovers of that literature. I try not only to entice a new audience to the title, but not to alienate the diehard fan, either. I also try not to be too literal in my interpretation, and instead look for intriguing details within the text to illustrate symbolic meanings found within the story. I love the minute detail in pattern, all the way through to the materials used for binding. Every little detail has to be right and well produced. I have always seen the book as a beautiful object and like to refer back to the lush way that books were bound in the Victorian era. I see books, not as disposable, but as something that enhances the pleasure of reading. I work with some of the finest literature ever produced; my job is to echo the inside on the outside.

According to Penguin, this new collection "brings together the sharpest, funniest, most delicious food writing from the past four hundred years." Do you like to cook?

I have two talents in the kitchen: a perfectly fluffy poached egg and hot pepper tofu. Penelope Vogler is the mastermind and the chef behind the conception of the series and I have learned so much from both her enthusiasm and by reading her books. She has a wonderful Great Food blog and is also part of a food club.

Where did the design inspiration for these newest covers come from?

When this series was briefed the word 'ceramics' was included. So, the first thing I did was explore the many book shops of Charing Cross Road and research cookery books. There, I often ended up in the craft sections where I found a few old books on the history of ceramics. In the back of the books were drawings of assorted ceramic shapes that were popular in certain eras of ceramic design. Each ceramic shape depicted on a cover is historically relevant to the book. Not only is it from the period in which it was written, but it represents which kitchen implements were used in which recipes. The pattern behind the shape is also from a certain ceramic piece of the relevant period. The typography ties it all together, by echoing the ceramic mark found on the back of the ceramics of that period. I commissioned lettering artist, Stephen Raw, who I have worked with before on the Books for Boys series. Together, Samantha Johnson, our in house picture editor, and I started researching. We read, talked and investigated ceramics from the relevant periods and eventually got a series style going. The first cover to come together was Pleasures of the Table - featuring a Sèvres hot chocolate cup with a Sèvres pattern and typography influenced by the Sèvres ceramic mark. (I hope I have put a bit in for everyone that was watching and helping these covers evolve.) It was a hard but rewarding process.

You've mentioned previously that when working on fiction titles, you like to read the books themselves for inspiration. Was that the case with this series as well? Was there any cooking involved (on yours, or anyone else's part?)

Yes, I read them all. It was like studying the history of food writing. It was fascinating because it was an area of literature I had not really immersed myself in before. My favorite was Alice B. Toklas' Murder in the Kitchen. She and Gertrude Stein had such adventures on the road with 'Lady Godiva,' who lead them to new restaurants along the way. The way Toklas wrote about how and when she came to make a certain recipe added a sense of place that was so interesting. Design-wise my favorite is Love in a Dish, I even found the bowl featured on the cover and had it sent over from America. I now have a whole new collection starting, although I have always collected Tams Pottery. I love their bright colored spotty plates. Penelope Vogler has been cooking up a storm and is documenting it all on her food blog.

With the Clothbound Classics, each cover design was organized on a grid to ensure that the books would stand as a cohesive collection. What organizing principles did you employ across this collection of books to achieve the same effect?

I have been such a strict grid person in the past, but this time I wanted to have a set of rules that were more fluid. It's all about shape and pattern. I was very worried that these rules would make designing the covers more difficult, but I soon found them leading to a richly varied and visually exciting series. My previous 'two color' tendencies where slowly eradicated through many discussions with Jim Stoddart, the Art Director of Penguin Press.

Every series you've designed has been unique, (Great Food, Clothbound Classics, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gothic Horror, etc.). Is there a particular collection that resonates most with you personally?

I always think, this time I can do something new. But each time you work with such different literature, and it soon becomes apparent that it has its own personality that needs to be expressed. For me, the Cloth Classics were special. They hit a moment in time when the book had become disposable once read. The reaction to them was so surprising. It was like I had suddenly created something that not only I loved but that was loved outside of me. It was very gratifying. I also think there's a broadening appreciation of the book as a designed object. There's the gift market, and people are using books as an element in interior design. Then there's the e-book factor. If it's cheaper and more convenient to read a novel on your phone - and many classics are available for free that way - then books have to justify their presence and expense by accentuating the qualities of the physical object. Materials such as foil and cloth are ideal for that because they have a tactile quality that can't be replicated digitally.

I've read that you are often inspired by interior design. Can you expand upon that a little?

I am very inspired by interior design. William Morris has always influenced me - the way he cared a great deal for not just design, but the production values. I thought, if these books sit on a shelf for a long time, they have to be something special. These are objects that are (hopefully) crafted so that, if you choose to live with them, they will stand the test of time. Everything has a reason. Spines on a shelf are not just for seeking attention in a retail environment, but also for sitting beautifully on the bookshelf at home. Orla Kiely, David Hicks, and Florence Broadhurst are a few of the designers that I adore and inspire me.

For many of us, books and bookshelves play an important role in our home décor. As a designer, do you often imagine how your books would look in someone's home?

Not really. I start by imagining the love someone would have for that particular piece of literature. Or I imagine Tim Burton creating his own imaginary worlds and wonder, what kind of bookshelf would inspire that? I try to design book covers that create a riotous mix of color and wonder. Ones that would line up on my bookshelf and make me dream about literature and echo different worlds, emotions and imaginary realities. Literature is a feast of imagination. I wanted to make my bookshelf a celebration of that. I never thought that my own world would mirror so many other people's love of literature. When I see pictures of book covers I have worked on in people's homes, I feel very proud that something I had a hand in has a life I never knew about.

How would you describe your décor style? Has your work influenced this style at all? (Or vice-versa?)

My work came about before I ever had a space to call my own. So, the expression I've found in my work is much freer than my home décor. At home, my objects need to breathe, but my bookshelves are where all the action happens - a huge splurge of color. I love white walls and minimal fuss. Every piece of art or decoration has a story behind it. I like to surround myself with meaningful memories and things that make me smile. I have art that inspired me as a child and objects with personalities that take on their own existence within my own. I have never been the sort of person to go out and buy things for the sake of it. Every item has to have a story or a function. To go out and buy lots of new things without reasons feels wasteful and exuberant.

What are 5 of your favorite items at home right now?

1. A blue glass owl money box from an antique shop in Lewes.
2. The sock rabbit I bought for a friend's child from a charity supporting abused women. It never made it to the child...
3. The green art deco reading chair I've upholstered in a pattern called safari swirl.
4. My Jo Gordon scarf. I love her use of color.
5. A side table from Catch Weasel called The Paperhound. I seem to have a thing for things with eyes!

To view the complete collection, visit Great Food | Coralie Bickford-Smith.

More great interviews with Coralie:
Fast Company
Design Sponge
The Casual Optimist

Images: 1-4. Coralie Bickford-Smith 5. Coralie Bickford-Smith, Jo Gordon, Catch Weasel