Penguin’s Great Food series features 400 years of culinary writing encased in beautiful covers by Coralie Bickford-Smith.

Penguin’s Great Ideas series brought together 20 key theoretical texts that, the publisher claimed, had “changed the world”. No doubt CR readers will have enjoyed the writings of Freud, Nietzsche et al but many found equal pleasure in the beautiful typographic covers that housed these seminal works. The publisher’s Great Food series gives culinary writing similar treatment.

Conceived by Penelope Vogler, who combines duties as Penguin’s publicity manager with her Pen’s Great Food Club blog, it brings together “the sharpest, funniest, most delicious writing about food from the past 400 years”, Penguin claims. Coralie Bickford-Smith, Penguin’s senior cover designer, was given the task of creating covers for the series.

Bickford-Smith worked closely with picture editor Samantha Johnson who reveals that the original concept for the covers was to try to use three-dimensional objects in 2D form. In search of inspiration, Bickford-Smith took a stroll from Penguin’s offices in The Strand to Charing Cross Road, the London street famed for its secondhand bookshops. “Whilst there I ended up in the craft sections and I found a few old books on the history of ceramics,” Bickford-Smith says. “In the backs were drawings of all sorts of ceramic shapes that were popular in certain eras. I thought they would be perfect as typographic labels on each cover.” Bickford-Smith had already been thinking about using book trade labels, small adhesive labels that were once used by shops to identify their stock, in a project: Great Food combined the two.

“Each ceramic shape is historically relevant to the book, not only the period it was written in but what kitchen implements were used in the recipes,” Bickford-Smith explains. “Then, to tie it all together, the typography was to echo the ceramic mark found on the back of the ceramics of that period. I commissioned Stephen Raw to work on the lettering – I worked with him before on the Books for Boys series.” The result is an eclectic series, but one that has consistency: “As a designer I have always adhered to strict grids but this time I wanted to have a set of rules that were a bit more fluid,” Bickford-Smith says. “I was very worried I would be making things difficult for myself but I soon found that the rules were leading to a very varied and visually exciting series.”

The images used also relate to the ceramics of the period of the writing but researching and using the relevant designs proved a challenge. Johnson contacted some of the leading manufacturers in the UK in search of their record books – albums in which each decorative ceramic pattern was printed flat. Unfortunately, many of the older ones had disappeared as firms went out of business or were taken over. The series makes great use of images from sources such as the V&A but Bickford-Smith also found herself having to spend hours redrawing and Photoshopping patterns so that they worked as cover images, painstakingly recreating the effects of glazes and handpainted designs.

Bickford-Smith admits that the use of so much colour and pattern, brought out with a liberal use of embossing and translucent and some gold foil, was at odds with what she calls her with “two-colour tendencies” which “were slowly eradicated through lots of talking with [Penguin Press art director] Jim Stoddart. The liberal use of colour was a very scary thing for me to do but I am very happy I faced those fears and lived with my discomfort along the way,” she says.

The final flourish is a Great Food logo featuring a dancing penguin holding a knife and fork. Bickford-Smith found the penguin on a 1935 press ad, one of a sequence. Her suggestion to use it on the covers apparently raised a few eyebrows challenging, as it did, Penguin’s identity guidelines. The result, however, is a charming addition to what is a visually resplendent series that successfully avoids foodie cliché. “It felt good to design a series on cookery and not have food on the cover,” Bickford-Smith says.

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