Penguin designer Melissa Four talks us through how she created the 1920s Russia-inspired cover of Amor Towles new novel, A Gentleman in Moscow.
1. Read the book
For a standalone literary novel like this, it's really important to read the manuscript - to experience it for yourself before trying to represent it visually. it's such a privilege to be one of the first people to enjoy an as-yet unpublished book! That was particularly true for a gentleman in Moscow - it's so atmospheric and absorbing, I loved it.
2. Mull over the brief
The design brief for this book was fantastic. It gave lots of helpful detail, but was also quite open. Here’s a paragraph from it:
"The cover should feel stylish and rich. I don’t think it needs to say 'Russia' in any overt way, given that Moscow is in the title, and it may be nice to have a suggestion of a woman, possibly a cocktail glass… illustrative rather than photographic. In terms of images, there is a twice-tolling clock, a piano, a beautiful actress in a long silk dress, cocktails and cocktail glasses, bees; a key, revolving doors, a chair and a palm (in the reception of the Metropol), the white jacket of the waiter, gold coins…"
3. Create an inspiration board
I used Pinterest to research and collect inspiring pictures that related to the themes, style and setting of the book. This is the board I created:
4. Sketch some ideas and speak to the editor about them.
Here's the thumbnail sketch that we agreed should set the direction for the cover of A Gentleman in Moscow.
5. Develop the idea
The next step was to create something that I could show to a bigger group of people in the book's 'jacket meeting', where we get together with our sales and marketing teams to go over draft designs and decide which will be most appealing to book shoppers.
6. Create the final artwork
At this point I could have commissioned an illustrator, but I was so excited about this cover that I was keen to work on it myself.
I started by scanning the pencil sketch, then used that to draw a digital version of the final artwork in Adobe Illustrator.
This design is built up with lots of different layers containing details inspired by elements of the story (see below). You will recognise some of them from the original brief.
7. Show it to the author
When Amor saw the cover he liked it (phew!) and only suggested a few tweaks, such as changing cocktail glasses to wine glasses. Showing the author is a scary moment, it's awful if they don't like what you've come up with but wonderful if they do!
8. Create a few little extras...
Finally, I supplied a few icons for the book's chapter headings and put together an animated version of the cover to use online. I get quite attached to covers like this and it's nice to help send them on their way.
Find out more about the author
More than half a million readers have fallen in love with the New York Times bestseller A Gentleman in Moscow
'Everything a novel should be: charming, witty, poetic and generous. An absolute delight' Mail on Sunday
'A work of great charm, intelligence and insight' Sunday Times
'Winning . . . gorgeous . . . satisfying . . . Towles is a craftsman' New York Times Book Review
'A comic masterpiece' Daily Express
'If we do a better book than this one on the book club this year we will be very very lucky' Matt Williams, Radio 2 Book Club
'Abundant in humour, history and humanity' Sunday Telegraph
'Wistful, whimsical and wry' Sunday Express
On 21 June 1922 Count Alexander Rostov – recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt – is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol.
But instead of being taken to his usual suite, he is led to an attic room with a window the size of a chessboard. Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely.
While Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval, the Count, stripped of the trappings that defined his life, is forced to question what makes us who we are. And with the assistance of a glamorous actress, a cantankerous chef and a very serious child, Rostov unexpectedly discovers a new understanding of both pleasure and purpose.