Ruben Toledo has long brought couture fashions to life with his whimsical, surrealist illustration (just ask his designer wife, Isabel, with whom he frequently collaborates). Now the Cuban-born artist is tackling the written word. His assignment? Create covers for a trio of classic novels — Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights,” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” — to be published in special edition paperbacks from Penguin. The results are now in bookstores.
Toledo took a break from his summer position as artist-in-residence at glass wizard Dale Chihuly’s Pilchuck Glass School near Seattle to talk to WWD about the books.
WWD: How did you wind up doing this?
Ruben Toledo: When the Penguin folks asked me if I was interested in doing the covers for some of their classics, I jumped. I love to read and my wife Isabel usually reads to me while I work.
WWD: Did you re-read the books for inspiration?
R.T.: I must confess I didn’t re-read the books — I never read them in the first place. (I was a really bad student as a kid!) It was great to enter them without a preconceived notion of where the story was going, which really triggered my imagination. I took all three manuscripts with me to Miami Beach last New Year’s break and spent time reading under the palm trees.
WWD: Did you get to choose which novels you illustrated?
R.T.: No, but I’m a very lucky man. I really got some gems to work with….What an honor to draw for Emily [Brontë], Nathaniel [Hawthorne] and Jane [Austen] — hope they like ’em.
WWD: Did Penguin give you any directives or did they leave you to your own devices?
R.T.: My only command from Penguin was to make art that would make youngsters want to read — to introduce these stories to a new public no matter what age. That’s why I think the fact that I had never read them was an asset, [combined with] the fact that they are all period stories, clearly set in another time and ruled by the mode of their time in history, yet are totally relevant to this Twitter world we live in.
WWD: Are your drawings narrative representations of the novels, or are they intended as abstract, evocative images?
R.T.: I did approach each story as abstract images — visual quotes from a dream. As I read, I was playing the animated movie in my head. These masterpieces are all so well written. I was only sad that we only had room for a cover — not the whole illustrated story.