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CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: You have a long and interesting history of design work: how did you first get into the field of book design?
ALICE SMITH: I studied book design, collage and philosophy at uni. I’ve always collected books, but growing up with the internet boom, I started studying web design then rebelled back to books in my final year, especially artists books, Lucy Schofield taught me bookbinding, and my dissertation was about ‘grotesque’ aesthetics and illustration. A friend gave me his manuscript – I spent the year reading, ripping it apart and illustrating with imagery and photography.
After graduating in 2005, I did a stint at a Manchester design studio, learnt a lot about paper and digital printing. Then I went freelance, moved to the outskirts of London, lived in an open house where I met a lot of writers and artists, a lot of projects happened from there. I moved back to Lancashire where I’ve got space and time to do what I want, and I’ve become more involved with Bracketpress. I also got to know Graham Moss and Kathy Whalen at Incline Press, they’ve given me a lot of insight into the making and publishing of hand printed books, and have been very inspiring. The same month that I moved back to Lancashire, I did my first mainstream book cover with Hamish Hamilton (the On Kindness cover); the editorial staff at HH have been a pleasure to work with, and projects keep happening.
The cover artwork and endpapers for On Kindness
CCC: What's your relationship with Bracketpress?
ALICE SMITH: Bracketpress is Christian Brett, my partner; we met at uni, now we live and work together. He’s a typesetter, he’s got a fine eye for typography. We often help each other out on projects – a lot of the time we use each other as sounding boards, but sometimes we become properly involved in each others design projects. I sew a lot of the pamphlets that Christian puts out.
CCC: And how long have you been designing The Idler magazine?
ALICE SMITH: I don’t, Christian took over typesetting and design of the magazine three or four years ago. When The Idler returned to being self-published, he persuaded Tom Hodgkinson, the editor to make it more like a book; hardback, cloth bound with no book jacket, and printing it on a high-quality paper stock. I did my first illustration for The Idler about 4 years ago.
Last year Tom invited me to be 'Art Editor’, where I choose which essays I think ought to be illustrated and which illustrators to work with ... and I also get to fill in the gaps. The Idler works on a very limited budget so can't afford to commission a great deal of illustrations. With the forthcoming issue (No.43, 'Back To The Land') I wanted just solid black and white line – engravings, woodcuts, linocuts and line drawings. I've managed to get some really fabulous artists to contribute work including: Stanley Donwood, Clifford Harper, Keiron Rhys Johnson, Joe Wilson, Sarah King, Matthew Green, John Lawrence and Abigail Rorer. The leading article in the new issue is a lengthy conversation with David Hockney, who has provided us with a couple of illustrations explaining his theory on perspective along with a self-portrait done especially for the issue!
Two of Alice's illustrations from the current issue of The Idler
CCC: Is your collage work primarily digital these days, or do you prefer more traditional methods? How much 'new' illustration do you tend to use when creating a collage?
ALICE SMITH: It’s mostly freefall and whatever works at that moment in time. I start with hand and eye, then gravitate to onscreen, and sometimes back again to working by hand. After sketching ideas, I make compositions using inks and pens to bring collages together, the pen marks might have disappeared in the finished composition, but it’s the pen marks and the rough sketch that helps bring it together. I use old imagery for ethereal effect, playing with visual alchemy and nostalgia. And the quality of printing pre 1950s, photoengravre and proper litho is so much nicer than the pixel fuzz and dots of newer digital printing.
The cover and the full collage for The Smell of the Continent
CCC: Collaging must require something of a magpie eye: where do you go to immerse yourself in images?
ALICE SMITH: Our flat is lined with books, posters and prints, I’ve got an auto-pilot eye and know exactly where to sink my head for a specific element, or sometimes I just sit and wait til a spine and a memory of an image in a book leaps out at me. Gardening’s good too, looking for weeds, shapes, textures, colours, compositions. And there’s the old bookshop - that’s in the next town – the last proper bookshop here closed last year. I keep shopping at the independents, old bookshops and Oxfam shops, boycotting the big chains – Amazon, WH Smiths, Waterstone's. It's such is a racket how they operate and some of the nonsense publishers have to put up with dealing with them.
Movie poster for Follow the Master
CCC: You work on books, films, musical projects, fashion designers and more: do you have a favourite field of art, or is it the mix that makes things more interesting?
ALICE SMITH: Books are my favourite, but I am quite eclectic. Things keep happening, projects come out of the blue. I like the idea of not defining what it is that I do. No constraints, labels, predictability or routine with projects, means I can approach new projects with an open mind and play more.
CCC: What book, out of any ever written, would you love to completely design if you had no editorial or budgetary constraints?
ALICE SMITH: Harold Pinter’s plays. J G Ballard’s work would be horrific and fantastic to create imagery from. Maybe The Female Eunuch, The Second Sex, would be a challenge. I like bending my brain, illustrating philosophy and psychology/analysis. I love working with poetry. Lolita would be a great one . Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. I’d love to reinterpret any of the Grimms.
I‘ve been slowly working on illustrating Paradise Lost for a couple of years. Which I hope to eventually print letterpress. But above all, I love to work with brand new material, a manuscript that I’ve never heard of and has no visual obviousness about it.
CCC: Is there any forgotten or neglected book you'd like to press on the public?
ALICE SMITH: That manuscript that I mentioned earlier, is called This Crippled Flesh, by Penny Rimbaud. It altered my I-sight, it has been a really profound experience to work with that book, and I think it is a monumental read . It’s certainly not to everyone’s taste and over the past several years it’s been turned down by every mainstream publisher in the UK and a few American ones too, though there were a lot of replies saying it’s a great book, but they couldn’t possibly think of publishing it ... and don't know where it would sit in the market.... Anyway, we’re planning to publish it ourselves under the Bracketpress imprint later this year.
The front and full covers to This Crippled Flesh, and some of the internal illustrations
CCC: Thank you, Ms Smith!
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Alice's blog is here, and her website/portfolio here.