How Aino-Maija Metsola designed the award-winning covers of Virginia Woolf

The Finnish artist behind the beautiful Virginia Woolf Vintage Classics series on the power of watercolour and designing book jackets for a literary icon.

Virginia Woolf Vintage Classics by Aino-Maija Metsola. Matthew Beedle for Penguin
Matthew Beedle for Penguin

In October of 2016, publishing house Vintage released a new series of Virginia Woolf classics. Maybe you’ve seen them: colourful, compact, somehow joyous and stately at the same time. They’re the work of Helsinki, Finland-based artist Aino-Maija Metsola. Vintage Creative Director Suzanne Dean commissioned after seeing Metsola’s work in textiles.

“I was looking for an artist who had a definite style of their own, and could give a sympathetic and contemporary interpretation of the Woolf collection,” Dean recalls now. “Aino-Maija’s work was ideal as it had these qualities, plus I felt it echoed the interior decoration of Charleston House,” the East Sussex farmhouse made famous by Woolf’s loose artistic collective of peers and friends, known as the Bloomsbury group.

Dean’s instincts were correct: less than a year later, Metsola was accepting the V&A Illustration Award for the Best Book Cover Design. We decided to get in touch with Metsola to ask her about the process of book designing, the pressure of doing artistic justice to a literary icon, and leaving room for interpretation.

I was interested in Woolf's images and words blending together, and I thought that connected well with watercolour.

What does a rough timeline look like, for an artist to design a book jacket?

Suzanne Dean from Penguin Random House contacted me in February 2016 and asked if I would like to work on a small series of Virginia Woolf book covers. I was immediately interested, and after sharing some thoughts with Suzanne I started working. I made some roughs, discussed with Suzanne, painted a lot and finally the covers were approved in late April.

Where did you start, conceptually? Did the initial designs differ much from the final product?

I believe that for me it was clear from the start that I would paint the illustrations with watercolours. I like to experiment with techniques, but for me watercolours and brushes have been the most important tools for years. I think this technique allows me to work very intuitively, which I felt was important in this project.

I also thought that painting with watercolours enabled creating pictures that suit Woolf’s writing well. While reading chapters of Woolf’s books, I was interested in the images and words blending together, certain fluidity and intensity in her writing and I thought that connected well with watercolour. 

Were you taking inspiration from any unexpected places for these designs? Other artists or designers?

Suzanne sent me pictures of the original book covers designed by Vanessa Bell and some interiors from Charleston house. She felt that there is some similarity of spirit between my illustrations and Bell’s work. That was an interesting idea to me, but I never felt that I should look at Bell’s design very closely when working on the covers. I explored her art a little at first, but in the end I worked quite intuitively.

How well did you know Virginia Woolf’s work before taking on this project? Did you find it intimidating at all, or exciting, working in the world of such a literary icon?

I felt quite humble facing this challenge. But I like challenges. I knew some of Virginia Woolf’s work, but wasn’t familiar with most of the six books in the series, so I had to start by getting to know them better. There was a limited amount of time, so I remember reading parts of the books, summaries and, at some point, I watched the 1992 movie of Orlando.

Once you’d settled on the watercolour format and colour stories, how did you design each title? Did you always take a cue from the novel? For example, Mrs Dalloway seems to be flowers-based.

I tried to find out what is essential and what the atmosphere is like in each text. In many cases I wanted to depict a mood more than anything very concrete in the text. But yes, the Mrs Dalloway cover is flower-based, which is a theme I picked straight from the beginning of the book. Woolf’s writing feels very intense, which was very inspiring for me as an illustrator.

In a novel, it’s easier to find design cues, for example details in nature, colours or seasonal elements.

Which title was the most difficult to find a cue from, to design?

I think the above mentioned Mrs Dalloway may have been the easiest one, and possibly A Room of One’s Own was the most difficult at first. The other books in the series are novels but A Room of One’s Own is non-fiction. In a novel, it’s easier to find design cues, for example details in nature, colours or seasonal elements. With the cover for A Room of One’s Own I remember making many versions of the illustration and trying different approaches. In the end I painted characters floating freely in the air, like a text about to form.

You designed other books before these ones. What did you learn previously that helped you the most while working on these?

Yes I have designed some books before. In 2007 and 2008 I worked in a big Finnish publishing house briefly as a graphic designer. Working in an old publishing house was a great experience; I got to work with so many kinds of books and remember learning a lot. When I make book covers I of course want to respect the content, but I believe that the cover shouldn’t be too obvious. I want to make covers that catch the eye but don’t tell very much, so that there is something that poses questions.

You won the Best book cover design at the V&A Illustration Awards 2017 for the covers, so it seems like they did the trick.

That was of course very nice, especially because I was myself quite happy with how the series turned out. It was a project that I enjoyed a lot: it was interesting, challenging and rewarding. I hope it shows.

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