In September 2009, type designer Jessica Hische started what would become a wildly popular personal project: Daily Drop Caps, in which she intricately illustrated a decorative letter every day and uploaded it to her blog. Her lettering style modernizes an age-old typographic tradition: a drop cap is the single large letter that starts a book chapter, often seen in sacred texts or early editions of classic literature. The artform dates back to 2,000-year-old illuminated manuscripts.
In collaboration with Penguin art director Paul Buckley, Hische has applied her colorful, ornate drop cap lettering to 26 book covers for classic works of literature and poetry–one for each letter of the alphabet. The Penguin Drop Caps series features bright jewels of book covers, each with an illustration of the first letter of the author’s last name, starting with Austen, Bronte, and Cather. The last batch of letters–X, Y, and Z for Xinran, Yeats, and Zafron–has just been released.
Inspiration for each letter came from the books themselves, with the letters including subtle, clever references to the story’s content. “The author would describe a pattern, a scene, a character, or a mood, and I’d try my best to visualize it and portray it within the letterforms,” Hische tells Co.Design in an email. “Some of the letters are more narrative than others, but when they became more abstract I just tried to make sure that the style felt appropriate for the story, setting, and timeframe.” Austen’s Pride and Prejudice features a bright yellow “A” constructed from the feathers of peacocks (the proudest of birds); Melville’s Moby Dick is decorated with an “M” speared with a harpoon.
The alphabet of covers cycles through the color wheel–the whole rainbow is represented, from Jane Eyre in the bright scarlet of the infamous “red room” to Moby Dick in seawater blue to rosy pink for Yeats’s fairy tales. “I create all of my final artwork in Adobe Illustrator, with the only restriction for this project being that the art had to work in just two colors,” she says.
Now that e-readers are increasingly dominating the publishing market, the book industry often resorts to extra eye-catching covers to convince readers to buy books in hardcopy. These editions double as decorations, and convey a sense of nostalgia for the tactility and aesthetic power of a physical book and for a centuries-old tradition of beautiful lettering.
Penguin Drop Caps are available for $22 each here.