Coralie Bickford-Smith is the design mastermind behind many of the stunning covers of Penguin’s clothbound Hardcover Classics series. Now, she has written and illustrated her own book, The Fox and The Star (Penguin Books Hardcover Original; $20.00, published November 10), a timeless tale of an unlikely friendship and courage in the face of hardship.

The book’s production values are exquisite–printed in Italy on creamy, uncoated, Munken Pure Rough paper and bound with bright orange thread, Bickford-Smith’s intricate designs recall the work of English textile designer William Morris. The Fox and The Star has all the trappings of a modern classic, the result of Bickford-Smith’s unrelenting quest for perfection. It is a delight to behold and to read. 

Bickford-Smith spoke with me recently about writing and illustrating her own story, and how the process of putting the book together was as important as the words that fill the pages.

How did you come up with the story?

The story had been in my mind’s eye for a number years and the dream was always to make it into a book when the time was right. I wanted to distil my own experiences of life, lessons that I have learnt, into a simple story. I like the idea of turning life’s tough times into beauty.

Could you talk about the design process for The Fox and The Star?
(I imagine foil-stamping on cloth boards posed its own set of challenges.)

After the basic storyline had been agreed on, I had to get it to fit into the required amount of pages, decide how to illustrate it to create tension and pace as the book was read. Then it was about drawing and sketching out ideas for page layouts and creating dummies of the book. The process was a constant back and forth to see what should be improved, words were changed right up until the last minute before printing. As I did all my own design and art working it was an immensely involved process. The cover foiling was perfectly reproduced, we worked with the most amazing printer and this was the one area in which I knew I could be certain of producing well. My biggest battle was with my own self-confidence about whether I could produce something worth reading.

What was different (if anything) about designing and illustrating your own book?

It was a big departure for me to create an entire book instead of just visualizing and housing an author’s words, so everything felt different. I had never created a narrative visually or told a story through my illustration. For book covers I usually create symbolic elements and pattern to create a sense of the narrative contained within a book. The same skill set can seen see throughout pages of The Fox and The Star but I didn’t want to rely too heavily on this. A story needs to be told and narrated not just decorated. There was a lot to learn and consider. It was exciting to have a totally new challenge. I know that there is still much for me to learn about storytelling.

You studied Typography and Graphic Communication at Reading University. What drew you to the art of arranging type and the world of book design?

I had always been drawn to this area of creativity. Obsessed by books from a young age, constantly drawing my own type faces. It was not until I went to Reading University for my interview that I really felt that there was a place in the world for me to fit into. All my passions suddenly made sense and I was happy to be surrounded by like-minded people. It was instantly apparent that I absolutely had to study at Reading.

Your Penguin Hardcover Classic Clothbounds are considered by many to be modern collectibles. Where do you find your inspiration?

Much of my inspiration comes from looking backwards in history. Design rules are timeless. William Morris, William Blake, Rockwell Kent, Edmund Dulac and Audrey Beardsley are big influences, to name a few. This inspiration also naturally fed into The Fox and The Star. I was so eager to do an entire book from start to finish. I love the craftsmanship from the arts and crafts movement. Everything had meaning and was created with passion for the medium used. I feel that today we are becoming more and more separated from the process of creating. I want my work to be as lovingly considered as the words inside.

What was your medium for illustrating the interiors?

All my ideas come to me by drawing on paper. When something strikes me as exciting, I draw it to scale and use coloring pencils to create energy and excitement. I draw and draw until I get things right and then I take it into the computer so that it can be colored and made ready for press. I loved the fact that I controlled every aspect of the process. From writing to the drawing to the intricacies of file separation for the plates that go on to the printing press to print the right colors.

The paper stock is lovely – did you have a say in selecting it?

Yes, that paper is lovely. It is my favorite paper stock – Munken Pure Rough. I had a say in all the materials used to produce the book, right down to the orange thread that was used to sew the pages together. How the book was produced was as important to me as the story. I was lucky to be working with people that appreciate how important these elements of book design are to me.

What are you working on now?

After my time away from my Penguin day job, working on The Fox and The Star, I am once again knee-deep in Penguin classic fiction cover design. Its a bit of a treat to be back in my comfort zone again but I have a new story that is bouncing around my head so I really must start entering the zone of the unknown again.

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