Yehrin Tong’s beautiful book covers for Virago

Book publisher Virago has released new editions of books by 13 influential women writers to mark its 40th anniversary. Yehrin Tong was commissioned to illustrate the books’ covers and has created a beautiful set of patterns inspired by the eras in which they are set…

Virago was founded in the 1970s to champion work by female writers. To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the publisher has released new editions of 13 texts by leading women authors – from Zora Neale Hurston to Muriel Spark and Angela Carter.

Each book is packaged in a patterned hardback jacket. Illustrator Yehrin Tong worked with Virago Art Director Hannah Wood to create a mix of classic and contemporary designs for the book’s covers.

“The brief [was] to create vibrant repeat patterns for the book covers that could frame a flexible diamond-shaped grid developed by Hannah,” explains Tong. “I was given free reign to do what I wanted within each template, so I took the opportunity to be playful with the format and try different approaches to pattern-making for each book.”

“I tried to be mindful of the time eras of each book, creating more classic patterns for older books and more contemporary ones for newer books,” she continues. “Part of the brief was to interweave the Virago green into the covers where possible and it is present in most covers – except monochrome ones like Memento Mori.”

Tong won a V&A Illustration Award in 2015 for her work on Michel Faber’s novel The Book of Strange New Things. She is known for creating intricate patterns and Wood felt her versatile style would be a fit for a series that spans a range of time periods. 

“In the past, we have always featured existing historical textile designs [on covers] but it felt right here to celebrate the work of a contemporary illustrator. Yehrin’s work is modern, varied and incredibly intricate which suited this broad range of titles and themes perfectly,” she explains.

“I wanted to escape the tradition of a box sitting over the top of a pattern so when I created the grid, I asked Yehrin to incorporate negative space within the patterns to position the typography,” adds Wood. “I settled on a strict diamond structure that really helps keep the consistency of the series style, allowing Yehrin to experiment with different styles appropriate to each title.”

Tong began by researching vintage patterns: “[It] gave me the opportunity to delve into bookmarked references I’d been saving – from looking at vibrant 60s dress fabrics for Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado [to] studying baroque cutlery and jewellery detail for Nora Ephron’s Heartburn or a nod to bold movie graphics of 50s noir thrillers for Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori and Patricia Highsmith’s Deep Water.

“My favourite was Hannah’s clever suggestion to use New York fire escapes for The Collected Stories of Grace Paley. The motif fits perfectly around the diamond-shaped layout and when light hits the black foil, it gives the effect of stairs casting shadows on the book,” she explains.

Tong then sketched out pattern ideas on paper before refining designs in Illustrator. “The strict structure of the layout meant I had to be a bit more technical in my approach, using symbols in Illustrator to see how small changes would have a knock-on effect on the rest of the layout. But I think all the limitations added to the unique look of the series,” she says.

The result is an imaginative and varied set of designs that draw on a wide range of references. Green spines provide a nod to Virago’s past – they once appeared on all Virago Modern Classics titles – and Wood says foil detailing and flaps have been added to give each paperback “an extra special finish”.

Virago’s Modern Classics 40th anniversary series is out now and available to buy from bookstores and virago.com. See more of Yehrin Tong’s work at yehrintong.com

GROUP GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Bedford, Bedfordshire