Finely produced limited-edition books have long attracted niche followings among those who savor the look and feel of volumes in slipcases, but few are more devoted than the devotees of The Folio Society. For the estimated 100,000 members of the publisher, which offers books on a subscription- and single-sale basis, well-printed, classically illustrated books are still in fashion. Due to their patronage, the Society—founded by Charles Ede in in London in 1947—is able to continue producing exquisite editions of great literature in the uncertain digital age.

What a boon for some very talented contemporary illustrators like Sam Weber, who brought new life to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Ben Jones, whose A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess is beautifully distinct from the Stanley Kubrick movie. Yet for Folio artists, each piece poses a particular challenge: How to avoid the cliches that have become associated with classic stories over time?

Sheri Gee, the art director for The Folio Society since 2008, is responsible for commissioning the artwork and guiding the artists through the process. To glimpse what she looks for in art, look no further than the Folio illustrations for A Clockwork Orange. “The film is so iconic, and yet the film and book differ on many points in terms of design and narrative,” she says. “Ben Jones tried hard to keep away from the film's imagery. But [he] couldn't resist a nod on the cover in his use of a bowler hat—there are no bowler hats in the book.”

A Clockwork Orange illustrations © Ben Jones 2014
A Clockwork Orange illustrations © Ben Jones 2014

Breakfast at Tiffany's is similarly inseparable from images of Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 movie. Yet in the book, Holly Golightly is blonde; Capote himself wanted Marilyn Monroe for the part and never liked Hepburn in the role. Thus artist Karen Klassen gave Holly straw-colored locks for the Folio version. “Ultimately, we're producing editions of fine literature,” Gee says, “so any art direction should advise staying true to the text. Some [artists] have more trouble than others, fighting off the ghosts of previous illustrations or film imagery.”

Breakfast at Tiffany's illustrations © Karen Klassen 2013
Breakfast at Tiffany's illustrations © Karen Klassen 2013

Sam Weber, who illustrated Farenheit 451, stylized his imagery with the intention to avoid recreating any hints of the famous film directed by Francois Truffaut. To do so he produced his images in color and expresses the eerie abstract notions associated with dystopias through photorealistic tableaux. Although there are only six images sprinkled throughout the book, each is monumental in its own right. Weber’s cover, depicting a stormtrooper-festooned fireman in an Uncle Sam “I Want You” poster pose, forces the viewer to experience the despair of those who live in a world where firemen set fires rather than the extinguish them.

For illustrators to draw art that complements a plot yet also adds depth to the story requires a certain amount of strategy on the art director’s part. The fact that the illustrator is being asked to convey characters and narrative across a series of illustrations, rather than distill a concept into one punchy communicative piece, is another challenge. Gee matches up illustrators with books based on their portfolios: “I don't encourage anyone to change style,” she says. “Any divergence is a natural impulse of the illustrator during trial or commission.”

Fahrenheit 451 illustrations © Sam Weber 2011
Fahrenheit 451 illustrations © Sam Weber 2011

Illustrating fiction can be as simple as drawing verbatim what happens in the text, “but the more inventive illustrator can weave in subplots and build tension, throwing new light on the written scene with interesting angles and compositions,” Gee says. On an informative level, they inform the reader on key points. On an aesthetic level, she notes, “They add immensely to the beauty of the book and enhance the reading experience.”

There is a myth that illustrated books are designed for younger readers or are only produced for the musty classics. Gee says the point of Folio’s illustrations is to appeal to all audiences. “As time marches on and more recently written books are being considered classics,” she says. Indeed, The Folio Society has expanded their scope by publishing more modern titles and adding new genres to their library, recently science fiction. With digital editions encroaching on the market, these special or limited-edition volumes are like the members of the book-preserving underground in Fahrenheit 451, keeping alive an intimate means of engaging with words and ideas.

To read an illustrated book properly, Gee told me, “You have to slow down and consider the image before you. [It’s] an indulgence, perhaps, but also an antidote to today's fast-paced culture.”

Fahrenheit 451 illustrations © Sam Weber 2011
Breakfast at Tiffany's illustrations © Karen Klassen 2013