The Beauty of Coralie Bickford-Smith


Emily Sproch, Tin House Super Intern!, takes us to a recent appearance by Coralie Bickford-Smith, the artist responsible for one of the most alluring book campaigns in recent memory.

We all have our favorite ratty old classics—the copy of 1984 with the doodles from tenth grade English; the 1963 Signet Classic printing of Great Expectations that we rescued from the free box at the public library; the beloved, mildewed Middlemarch that survived the floods in our first (basement) apartment. There is comfort to be found in these sorry pages, the bookworm’s equivalent of droopy, one-eyed teddy bears.

What happens though when newer, more beautiful editions of old titles make their way to the shelves? Is it shallow to shop for a fresh Gatsby simply because the new cover is, well, sexier? Or do beautiful exteriors enhance and glorify the contents within?

Coralie Bickford-Smith would never presume to say that her book covers enhance great works of literature, but there’s no question that her versions call to you from across the store. She is a senior cover designer at Penguin and, if the turnout for her appearance at BookCourt this past Friday night is any indication, a bonafide literary superstar. The event was standing room only, with hoards of (mostly female) fans, all twittering nervously in the presence of this young, unassuming artist from London. Her work is not only popular with readers, but with interior decorators who meticulously stack her titles for glossy photo shoots (Gwyneth Paltrow listed Coralie’s clothbound series as number seven on her list of ten “things she can’t live without” for Elle Decor). A BookCourt employee made it clear that Coralie’s work is in constant demand, with a steady stream of customers asking where they can find the “pretty version” of Jane Eyre. The pretty version in question is Coralie’s muted grey cloth hardback with dappled, paprika-colored chestnut leaves.

So popular is Coralie in the interior design industry, that her Q&A at Book Court was conducted by Grace Bonney, founder of Design*Sponge, a website that the New York Times calls “the Martha Stewart Living for the Millennials.” During the course of their conversation, the rapt audience learned that Coralie always wanted to work with books, but first had to pay her dues—before moving to Penguin, she did the layouts for the promotional circulars at a pet supply company (hey, if you can make dog food look good…). One of her first projects at Penguin was a series of ten clothbound classics, among them that famous Jane Eyre, a series which has since expanded to include 16 additional titles. More recently, she did a Fitzgerald collection—six hardcovers with paper flaps in art-deco patterns of silver, copper, and gold foil.  The books are glamourous; just to look at them gets you in the Scott/Zelda/Midnight in Paris mood.

Naturally, there was a lot of talk on Friday about e-readers. Would Bickford-Smith’s work endure or is it only a matter of time before her job is obsolete?  She made a good case for her particular niche—”you really have to think about the physical book more now if it is going to survive,” she said. People have to want to desire the physical object, and in order for that to happen that physical object must seduce.

But don’t think that Bickford-Smith is all shine and no substance. She loves the books she designs for; she doesn’t just read them, she inhabits them, living in their pages until some central image or pattern emerges. Her books may have a reputation for enhancing the coffee tables of the Anthropologie generation, but the depth she brings to these heavyweights is the real deal. As Grace Bonney put it: Giving a Coralie Bickford-Smith edition as a gift is like hiding pureed broccoli in a cookie. It can get people excited about what’s good for them.