The Folio Society: A Conversation with Joe Whitlock Blundell

By Steve Kroeter and Stephanie Salomon September 23, 2014
Joe Whitlock Blundell, Design and Production Director, The Folio Society (London)
View Joe Whitlock Blundell’s Profile

The Folio Society, based in London, has been producing special editions of classic books since 1947. Joe Whitlock Blundell, design and production director of The Folio Society, answered some questions for us about the enduring allure of the beautifully crafted book and walked us through a Society book’s typical design process.

Designers & Books: The dream of the founder of The Folio Society, Charles Ede, was to publish beautiful books that were affordable to everyone. How hard is it, almost 70 years later, to maintain the commitment to both beauty and affordability?

Interior spread from The Deeds of the English Kings by William of Malmesbury, written in the 12th century, The Folio Society edition

Joe Whitlock Blundell: Very difficult indeed! We think we’re pretty good at the beauty part, but it requires considerable creative ingenuity to deliver this at an affordable price. If, by keeping our prices reasonable, we can encourage more sales, a “virtuous circle” will result, with longer print runs helping to keep prices down.

D&B: How would you describe your typical subscriber and do you find you are able to attract younger people who have grown up on books that are more a product of technology than artisanship?
JWB: Historically our typical subscriber is relatively elderly and predominantly male. You have correctly identified the challenge of attracting younger customers to our very tactile publications through the non-tactile digital media available today. It is not easy, but we are reassured by the fact that once people—of whatever age—actually handle our books, they are wowed by them.

Spine and cover of The Deeds of the English Kings, The Folio Society edition

D&B: Your editions are noted for their fine materials and detailed attention to design. Can you talk about a recently published title you are particularly proud of and what went into its creation ? 
JWB: Our redesigned edition of The Deeds of the English Kings, an ambitious history of the English kings originally written in the early 12th century by the librarian of Malmesbury Abbey. Folio Society senior designer Charlotte Tate describes the process:

“Our aim with every Folio title is to create an edition in which the production and editorial values reflect and heighten the qualities of the original text. With a book such as The Deeds of the English Kings, rooted as it is in a particualr aesthetic tradition, this presents a particular challenge.

The inspiration behind the design began with a trip to Lambeth Place Library to view MS 224m one of five manuscripts believed to be written in Malmesbury’s own hand. Although digital technology means that some illuminated manuscripts are now available to view online, there is no substitute for handling the real thing. It was important that our edition didn’t become a pastiche: we wanted to evoke the original manuscripts while creating something accessible. Malmesbury’s manuscript follows the two-column grid common to texts of his age, but our edition employs the single text area that present-day readers are accustomed to. The generous margins, however, are influenced by the proportions of medieval manuscripts. The two-colour printing also echoes the design of those earlier works. It aids the reader’s navigation through the text, while contributing to a visually interesting design.

As a book designer, I take great care choosing typefaces. For the main text of this edition, I opted for Minion, a 20th-century face whose readable letterforms complement the initial decorated letters and display typefaces. Extracts are set in Givry, reflecting the delicate bâtarde flamande writing in the originals. Chapter numbers are printed in red and set in Clairvaux. I hope you’ll agree that with The Deeds of the English Kings we have achieved something quite special: a book designed for the modern reader that simultaneously pays homage to the heritage and traditions of the original illuminated manuscripts.”

D&B: And what about a title from your archives that you feel especially demonstrates what the Folio Society stands for?
JWB: Rather than go back so far I’d rather choose a title we published just ten years ago, The Wind in the Willowswas illustrated by Charles van Sandwyk with drawings, watercolors, and etchings set off admirably by the idiosyncratic Founder’s Caslon typography. The slipcase, binding, and endpaper designs all work together beautifully.

Spine and cover of The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, originally published in 1908, The Folio Society edition

Interior spread and slipcase from The Wind in the Willows, The Folio Society Edition

D&B: How is The Folio Society doing in the face of the challenge of eBooks? Is the joy of holding and feeling a book an endangered sensibility?
JWB: I am often surprised at the vehemence of opposition to e-books, not just from members of The Folio Society, but from the public at large. Inevitably electronic media have had an impact on book sales, especially those books which exist to provide information rather than literary content—and this is no bad thing: surely the iPad is preferable to a 40-volume encyclopedia, and clearing the latter from your shelves gives you more room for Folio Society books.

D&B: How do you determine which new titles are offered in Folio Society editions and what are some of the upcoming titles you are particularly excited about?
JWB: Decisions on new titles are made by a publishing group involving representatives of the Editorial, Design and Production and Marketing departments. We all come up with ideas, and we only go ahead with the ones we are excited about, so the short answer to your question is—all of them! To select a couple more-or-less at random, look out for Juvenal’s The Sixteen Satires uncompromisingly illustrated by David Hughes, and In Parenthesis by David Jones—one of the literary masterpieces to come out of the First World War, with calligraphy by Ewan Clayton.

Cover and spine of The Sixteen Satires by Juvenal, written in the late first and second centuries AD, The Folio Society edition

From the interior of In Parenthesis, by David Jones, an epic poem originally published in 1937, The Folio Society

All images courtesy of The Folio Society.

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