Thursday, 19 February 2009

Coralie's Caustic Cover Critic Conversation

One of the frequently featured cover designers on this blog is the wonderful Coralie Bickford-Smith. She was kind enough to agree to be interviewed about her work and experiences. So, without further ado... (And remember to click for much bigger versions of every image here--unless otherwise noted, every cover was designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith.)

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: How did you end up in book design--was it always the plan or a serendipitous accident?

CORALIE BICKFORD-SMITH: As far back as I can remember I was always into William Blake and William Morris, and the beauty of the books they produced. When I was six, I collected editions of bibles and made my own dictionary... I think I might have been as obsessed then as I am now.

Above is William Blake's original frontispeace for Songs of Innocence and Experience, while below is William Morris's frontispiece to the 1893 Kelmscott Press edition of News from Nowhere.

Looking back, it seems sort of inevitable that I ended up here, but it took a while for the plan to come together. My first job after graduating was with a publisher, but it wasn't until I'd explored other design work that I realised my heart was in books and set my sights on Penguin.

CCC: The beautiful new Arabian Nights set—is working on something of this scale (3 volumes, boxed set, big prestigious project) daunting, or is it just heaven?

CB-S: Now that it's done, I'll say it was great... but there were times when I was daunted and nervous. The best projects make me feel like that. It is always a thrill to try and come up with a fresh approach to a book has been done so exquisitely so many times.

I love Edmund Dulac's cover for Sinbad. Looking at masterpieces like that is inspiring, but it's also when the doubts come in - what could I possibly bring to the table? Eventually, though, you just have to start, and keep at it until you find something that works.

Below, the Dulac-illustrated Sinbad: electronic versions of a number of Dulac-illustrated books, together with all of the illustrations, can be found here.

CCC: What would your dream book be to work on, from any era, doing the covers and interior art?

CB-S: I'd love to do a McSweeney's Quarterly. They're so inventive, with a huge scope for fitting form to content in intriguing ways. That level of creative freedom to experiment with the book as an object would be glorious.

Alternatively, it could be working alongside William Blake on one of his books. The time travel requirement might be stretching the "any era" part of your question a little, but hey, its just a question.

Oh and Dante, The Divine Comedy. Now you've got me started, the list is going to keep going on in my head.

CCC: You work with a lot of different illustrators--what's the process involved?

CB-S: The first thing is to find an illustrator with a style or a sensibility I think will work well for the project. Once they're on board, I have to brief them, which usually starts with a terrible drawing from me that they have to interpret. I think the best way to get across what I want is to draw it, with lots of arrows explaining what the stick figures and blobs represent. The illustrator then comes back with a rough, which we discuss before moving to final artwork.

It can be a tricky process sometimes; I need to be clear with the brief so that I can be confident of getting what I want, but also leave enough creative freedom for the illustrator to get their teeth into the project and bring something extra to it.

CCC: Are there any other book designers do you admire?

CB-S: There are many great book designers that I admire, too many to mention. I'm always seeing amazing new work and new designers. Check out The Book Cover Archive, if any evidence of the amount of talent out there were needed.

Ok I will mention one, I love Helen Yentus's work - her black and white Albert Camus covers are pure joy.

Below, Helen Yentus's three Camus covers for Vintage US.

CCC: Are you on the staff at Penguin, or do you live the alarming freelance life?

CB-S: I am full time at Penguin. I have been here for six and a half years.

CCC: Visually reinventing classics is something you've done a lot of: is it more fun to come up with a new approach on something well-known, or to work on a brand-new book about which nobody has any preconceptions?

CB-S: The way Penguin is structured, my department works on classic fiction and new non-fiction, so I could be working on a Nineteenth-Century swashbuckler one minute, and something weighty on physics the next. I like the variety of doing different types of books; it keeps my brain fresh and and ensures I keep learning new design skills and approaches.

On the classics side, it can be fun to play with or challenge people's preconceptions. The Sherlock Holmes series was great for that, because the image most people have of that character is quite different from what you find in the books.

CCC: What are you working on now?

CB-S: I'm working on Penguin's Poems for Love, among other things. It's the follow up to Poems for Life, which I designed last year. That one is now on something like it's sixth edition, which for a hard back is rare, especially as its still being printed and sold along side the paperback.

It's a challenge to follow something like that; my goal is to make something equally desirable but also fresh and different, so I'm starting from scratch rather than limiting myself to the style of the first book, which is nice.

CCC: Are there any early cover designs out there you'd take back if you could?

CB-S: Of Course! But that's for me to know and everyone else never to find out

CCC: Can you tell us about a great book that nobody seems to know about?

CB-S: One little known book I'm very fond of is my dad's book about travelling the world to find all the places called Norwich and Norfolk [The Norfolk and Norwich World Family by Derek Bickford-Smith].
Norwich and Norfolk..., designer unknown

Perhaps of more interest to those readers not part of the Norwich and Norfolk "World Family" is Typography, When, Who, How by Friedrich Friedl, Nicolaus Ott and Bernhard Stein.

German edition of Typography, designer unknown

I don't know how many people know about it but it's a massive tome on typography.

CCC: Thank you, Ms Bickford-Smith!


Juliet said...

Absolutely fascinating - great stuff.

JRSM said...

Thanks, Juliet.

Mos Stef said...

Fantastic interview, and I appreciate you putting in a lot of photos of the work. Now I'm looking through the rest of your blog and I think I'm addicted!

JRSM said...

Cheers, Mos Stef: also cheers for the pointer on your blog to 'Telex from Cuba' by Rachel Kushner--I'd never heard of this, but it looks fascinating.

Max Cairnduff said...

Hm, having just criticised these on a comment on one of your other entries, reading this entry it's actually an impressive body of work.

Love the Arabian Nights cover.

JRSM said...

It is beautiful, isn't it? I think that you're right--she's produced such a wide-ranging body of work that some of it may well not be to your taste, but then there's something else that's just bloody wonderful.

Craig D. said...

Dig the pencil cover. Unique and eye-catching without being overly showy.

For some odd reason, I didn't like the Camus covers when I first saw them, but they grew on me. The cover shown for The Stranger replaced the one I used to have, which I lost...

...and I think it's an improvement.

As long as Camus is being discussed, I have to add this bizarre-as-fuck Stranger cover to the pile:

JRSM said...

That's mental: aren't they the guys walking along the beach with Pierrot David Bowie in the 'Ashes to Ashes' clip?