Alphabet Road Trip | the blog of Iskra Design

Category: Book Covers

Designing a Calligraphy Quote for Marie Antoinette, Who Actually Didn’t Say “Let Them Eat Cake…”

Designing a quotation in calligraphy for the modern age is not, forgive me, always a piece of cake. Sometimes it is quite vexing, especially when you test your ideas out on a trusted focus group and they say things like “Why does that calligraphy look like frosting?” or “You know, Marie Antoinette never actually said “let them eat cake….” Sigh. . . .

It appears to be true, that my favorite diva of a previous gilded age was not the author of that quote and was in fact a lovely woman who showered the peasants (her peasants) with presents. Regardless, given the current rehash of the gilded ages playing out daily on television, internet and IRL, Marie Antoinette and her current doppelgängers have been on my mind. These classic Words That Marie Did Not Say sound completely contemporary today.

Here are three different approaches I took to creating a modern broadside from a classic text. I knew I wanted the letters to echo the form of both a gown and a cake, and settled very quickly on the style of script. The big question was context: what kind of background should the lettering have? The first version was done in the spirit of the parlor, with an ornamental touch.


Marie Antoinette Cake calligraphy by Iskra

Marie Antoinette on a plate, with lace.

Then I started thinking about the French Revolution, which wasn’t really that pretty. Think rioting in the street, guillotines, torches and smoke. This version feels cinematically correct, and evokes the mood of a revolution:

Let them eat cake quotation in French revolution style

Marie running from the riots.

Lastly I did this version, in which the cake stands in for an urban kiosk, and could be right down the street in my own fair city, with its lush graffiti gardens and cyber-dystopian perfumes. I know, you can’t really read it, but that’s the beauty of urban walls.

Let Them Eat Cake Graffiti Style by Iskra

Marie, dressing for a riot.

I dearly hope Marie is not offended by my liberties. I grew very fond of her while hand lettering the title for her biography:

Maire Antoinette Title design by Iskra

The Real Marie.

Let me know what you think. Should I have actually baked a cake and done the words in real frosting? Next time! ‘Til then, follow me on Instagram and theispot to see what’s cooking in the studio.

Expressive Calligraphy | Personal Work

Calligraphy and photo collage by iskra design

A Father-Daughter collaboration, calligraphy, photography, watercolor

There are certain phrases and titles of books that I have been going back to for years as a touchstone. Nabokov’s memoir, Speak Memory is one of those. I could design the cover of that book a thousand ways. This version is a personal elegy to my father. Before he became a newspaper reporter he took about eight “art photographs” and put them in a little album which was passed down to me. The flowers are from that album, a tiny little black and white snap from the time of film and sprockets, when dust and scratches made themselves without a filter.

I do adore photocollage, and the infinite ways we can now merge media. Here I have blended my father’s photography with a painting and calligraphy of my own, a script done with a ruling pen and walnut ink. To collaborate in this way is a lovely way to bring someone who is gone back into your life.


(Do) Judge a Book by It’s Cover: Design Process for a Bestseller

lettering design tools

Olde skool tools for modern tymes. In my process I use everything, but I have a special place in my heart for these timeless shapers of letters.

Designing a cover for a women’s novel  isn’t as easy as it used to be. The line between “romance” and “literature” is getting increasingly blurry, and all of a sudden (with the merciless invention of the Kindle) nobody seems to want to be caught reading something that looks like a romance. So even if a book is about Love, somehow it has to look neutral. Yeah, Love. Whatever. I’ll call you, but maybe not. It’s cool . . . .

This cover for author Emily Giffin was a lengthy process. There is a lot at stake in a cover design for a major author. Even if a book is found online and is never picked up before purchase, the little half-inch avatar on the screen that represents the book has to capture the imagination. Once the book is in someone’s hands the job of the book cover is to support the reader’s belief in the words inside and to create a loyal bond. The book jacket also has to sit around, sometimes for years, when it isn’t being read. While it seems to be languishing idly on coffee tables and night stands it is actually working hard, whispering to anyone who walks into the room, come over here, sit down, fall in love with the world between these covers. It has to have presence.

I started out this cover design by testing scripts that could express different flavors of modern love. Casual, sophisticated, breezy, or nostalgic (just a little) for the days of holding hands.

Iskra Design, custom calligraphy for a book title
New direction came in to go a bit retro, and “ornamental/but not.” Very tricky to get these particular words to lock up decoratively, and still read quickly at one-half inch on a small smartphone, the ultimate test these days. This one was drawn with pens and curves and then I laid in color and charcoal.
 Vintage style script by Iskra Design
Another meeting, a new direction: let butterflies say romance and dial the letterforms back to a classic hand-drawn typography. (I did not do the butterflies or other illustrative elements, and it was decided early on to keep the author’s name in a font.)


Hand drawn typography by Iskra

On the other hand . . . maybe hand drawn is where we want to be, but looser. Pen calligraphy with watercolor, letting mistakes happen and not trying to control the process very much.Watercolor calligraphy by Iskra Design

Book cover lettering by Iskra

I refined and clarified the script design, returning to a typographically drawn style, and the charcoal texture I created was further distressed and integrated into the whole. The finished cover is very spare and open. When I see this book in a field of covers that rely for impact on color photography it stands out for its feeling of light and optimism, as well as the simplicity of the elements. This is an unusual combination of modern and retro styling, and it could only have emerged out of the process of a lot of back and forth and human collaboration. (#designbyhumans #notatemplate )

To see more of my book cover design and lettering check out my full portfolio here.

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If you have a project in mind I’d love to talk. Get in touch!

Work in Progress: Ink!

Details on this project soon, but I couldn’t resist posting these shots of work in progress. Watching ink dry as it sinks into paper is one of those rare occupational perks of being a calligrapher. The scent is heavenly on plush white rag Fabriano. Calligrapher’s perfume….







Ink on Paper: Expressive Lettering by Iskra. © Iskra Design