01 May 2012

Pulling Out the Emerald City

As books become electronic, and public-domain texts are as easy to find online as ads for World of Warcraft, one response for print publishers is to make their books into beautiful objects—luxury goods that readers will want not just for the content but for the form and for what they say about their owners.

Among these ventures seems to be the Penguin Threads line, which describes itself this way (minus the all-caps):
Commissioned by award-winning Penguin art director Paul Buckley, the Penguin Threads series debuted with cover art by Jillian Tamaki and continues with art by Rachell Sumpter for gift-worthy Penguin classics. Sketched out in a traditional illustrative manner, then hand stitched using needle and thread, the final covers are sculpt embossed for a tactile, textured, and beautiful book design that will make truly special gifts and will be welcome additions to any craft or literature lover’s collection.
Last month Sumpter gave a publicity interview to the Huffington Post about one project, sharing some rejected designs and a picture of her work in progress. The public-domain book was an omnibus of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Emerald City of Oz, and Glinda of Oz. The canned interviewer asked:
In your own words, what is this book about?

A child figures out the rules of a strange land and helps others believe in themselves after getting stranded. She goes on a quest to return home. She’s reluctant to be exceptional, the person everyone in Oz thinks she is. Believes strongly that she is normal. Always does what is right. I think it’s a child’s perspective of how to be a hero.

What was the mood, theme or specific moment from the text you depicted with this cover? 
This is Dorothy and her companions approaching the Emerald City. Oz is such a dense world, it was challenging to pick out one moment. There are important elements from other parts in the book also. The poppies are so iconic and beautiful I had to include them. I also wanted to include the four main heroes since the book is about how they support one another.
Although Sumpter had created some noted book covers before, particularly for books associated with McSweeney’s, she didn’t have that much experience in stitchwork or embroidery design.

That may be one reason this cover strikes me as busy and unattractive. The approach to the Emerald City along the Yellow Brick Road is an iconic American image, but this mass of blobby colors doesn’t evoke that cultural memory. Though it’s possible to pick out the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion in the bottom half of the scene, Dorothy’s faceless figure appears as just another blob and Toto’s an asterisk.

Sumpter does a better job with The Wind in the Willows, showing Mr. Toad at the wheel, and Tamacki’s Black Beauty brings an older Penguin Classics look to the new medium.

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