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.”
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.”
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.