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Decorating my apartment with some help from Jane Austen

Illustrator Coralie Bickford-Smith’s redesigned clothbound classics help brighten up my apartment

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As a writer and academic, I have a lot of books, ranging from textbooks on cyber intelligence to young-adult tales of love at first sight. While I have fond memories around a number of them, nothing quite matches my passion for my ever-growing collection of Coralie Bickford-Smith titles.

Bickford-Smith is the award-winning designer and illustrator behind a series of reimagined clothbound hardcovers for Penguin Classics, which often feature a repeating motif in the style of Victorian book bindings. I currently own more than 50 titles redesigned by Bickford-Smith, and proudly display my favorites on a mini desktop shelf in my home office. (The rest are divided between other shelves and storage boxes.)

A small white shelf on a desk holds rows of colorful books.
A selection of the author’s favorite Bickford-Smith titles, displayed on a mini desktop shelf (a similar design can be found here).

My first Coralie Bickford-Smith was a gift. When I completed graduate school eight years ago, my grandmother presented me with a bright yellow hardback of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

“You’ve studied hard enough,” she said as she gently patted the book, before doing the same to the top of my head. “Time to take a break and read some of your favorite books.”

I was amazed—both by my grandmother, who, despite not knowing how to speak English, braved a solo trip to Barnes & Noble to purchase what she knew to be my favorite Austen, and by the design of the book itself, which was utterly stunning.

Books with metallic patterned covers sit on a bed.
Released in 2010 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Fitzgerald’s death, Penguin’s F. Scott Fitzgerald Hardback Collection features dazzling metallic covers designed by Bickford-Smith.

The cloth cover and yellow bird design reminded me of all the hours I had spent dreaming about the splendors of Mr. Darcy’s library at Pemberley—and of the day I could have one of my own to rival. After looking up the edition and realizing this was just one of many titles in Bickford-Smith’s expanding portfolio, I knew I wanted more.

I’ve since gone back and collected Bickford-Smith’s older designs, beginning with a series of Art Deco covers of F. Scott Fitzgerald works, originally released in 2010. I generally make sure I have everything by one author before moving on—I now have all the Austens and the Fitzgeralds.

Occasionally I’ll spontaneously purchase a title based just on design, like when Bickford-Smith collaborated with the Victoria & Albert Museum in London on a special edition of John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, now featured on the bottom left corner of my desktop shelf. With every title, I feel like I’m building my own grand library with books that look as good as they read.

Celeste Pewter works in politics and is also currently a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. She has bylines in Teen Vogue, Marie Claire, and The Mary Sue, among other publications.

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