Mica Murphy/Penguin

In the early days of social distancing, Kensington Palace wanted to show us the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were making do by working from home, just like the rest of us. When book cover designer Coralie Bickford-Smith woke up that morning, though, all she saw was a sea of Instagram notifications. Those were her re-designs of classic books that sat on Kate Middleton’s desk.

‘There were hundreds of notifications. I was like, “What?” Eventually I found the photo and was going to screengrab to send to my sister, when a text from her came in to say, “Look, your books are on the front of The Daily Telegraph.” I was amazed, it was totally bonkers.’

But Bickford-Smith, who has been designing covers for Penguin since 2002, was more astonished, she says, by the fact that people knew who she was – and what her role had been in bringing the clothbound classics into being. ‘That was really cool. It seemed like these books had taken on a life of their own.’

It wasn’t the first time a major statesperson had picked up a Coralie Clothbound Classic: a few years ago Barack Obama had been given some, and they went back to the White House on Air Force One. They frequently pop up in films and music videos. Over the past 15 years, Bickford-Smith’s designs – never in more than two colours per cover, foil glinting in intricate, beguiling patterns over cloth – have come to represent a new generation of classic book. They invite us to start libraries of our own.

‘There was a shift towards making books really beautiful again,’ Bickford-Smith tells me about the creaton of the series back in 2005. ‘It was a reaction to the rise of the eBook. Everyone was worried about what would happen to publishing, whether print was dead.’

Bickford-Smith said she found inspiration in Kelmscott Press, which was founded by William Morris in the dying days of the Victorian era with a similar intention of making utterly desirable books. On just three presses, Kelmscott Press printed 52 exquisite tomes, with Morris painstakingly creating everything from hand, from the typefaces to the paper. ‘We couldn’t do that because everything was on a budget,’ she explains, ‘But wouldn’t it be amazing, we thought, to go back and create these things of beauty, that are cherished and pass down through generations.'

The Jungle Book

Coralie Bickford-Smith/Penguin

Today, there are more than 70 clothbound classics, with more on the way each year. All of them share Bickford-Smith’s original design fascinations: foil, cloth and pattern. ‘I just got really obsessed with how foil and cloth was used on Victorian bindings,’ she says, explaining that she rummaged through printers’ samples to unearth ‘amazing colours’ of both.

Editors were won over to the idea when Bickford-Smith - who has also written and illustrated three books of her own – pointed out that these books would do away with traditional dust jackets. Snags at the printers ensued – imprinting the foil pattern all the way around the book, rather than just on the spine meant they 'had to rebuilt the presses’ – but it was worth it. The designs were a near-instant success. 

Each Clothbound Classic design features the same icon on repeat. The selection involves a monastic-sounding process in which Bickford-Smith delves into the era of the book’s creation or setting, as well as the text itself. For Dracula, it's a skein of garlic flowers like those woven around women’s necks for protection in the novel. Bickford-Smith said she liked the idea of giving the reader their own means to ward against the vampire on the bedside table: ‘I wanted to trap Dracula inside the book, that the garlic flowers on its outside would keep you safe’.

Emma brought with her a series of Regency-era chairs, representing the endless conversations and cups of tea that comprise Jane Austen’s novel. The scissors of Little Women represent the ‘pivotal’ moment Jo cuts off her hair, which Bickford-Smith says changed the ‘feel of the book’. When she encounters these moments while reading, she has ‘to sketch straight away’.

The difficulty of taking on stories that are so familiar is challenging the depictions that have gone before. Bickford-Smith studied hundreds of printed versions of Robinson Crusoe while at university, and was all too aware of how different generations of illustrators had simply borrowed the same themes. ‘I wanted to take a totally different angle and make it fresh,’ she says. In the end she alighted on the post Crusoe puts notches in to make sense of time. ‘So I used the moon as a symbol of timekeeping. No-one would necessarily get [the link], but it might make them think, “Why has she done that?"'

Bickford-Smith is currently working on several new clothbound editions – a couple of George Orwell titles, which she says have been the most daunting to take on to date – as well as a Virginia Woolf book and one by Philip Pullman, which the author himself is fond of.

There is, however, one downside to the quiet sense of establishment Bickford-Smith’s covers have now gained: cover meetings (where the editorial team discuss and decide upon the final book covers). ‘I don’t know how this happened, but I used to not have to put them through a cover meeting,’ she laughs, ‘which is quite bonkers. They just went under the radar.’ These days, there’s no chance of that happening.

Still, she says relishes the challenge of feedback, the opportunity to ‘push my brain a little bit further’. Which, after all, is what redesigning a classic book essentially boils down to. ‘I want to take people’s emotional and intellectual love for the books really seriously. It’s what keeps you going.’ 

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