The word “designer” before anything is never a good sign. Here’s what designer bookbinding looked like in the time of Alberti.
To be fair, most books also had designer pages. They weren’t for everybody. Here’s a designer book that could easily have been on the shelves in a Palladian villa.
Here’s an example of German bookbinding from the time of the early Bauhaus. Here’s an interesting article on Hitler’s bookbinder, Frieda Thiersch.
“Probably no one up until now has dealt with the motif of the Swastika so naturally, completely, and thoroughly as Frieda Thiersch.”
Designer bookbinding is an emotive subject. Depending on how you look at it, it’s
- a waste of time and resources
- poor man’s Fabergé eggs
- a creative art continuing a long tradition
- an ancient way of separating value from content
- an ancient way of separating rich people from their money
- proof Adam Smith was right when he said “With the greater part of rich people, the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches.”
Sounds familiar – let’s investigate! The idea is to take a book and give it a cover that’s a display of design and production skills and that, by the by, is a reflection of the contents. Regular designer bookbinding competitions are held to give bookbinders the opportunity to show their stuff. There is usually a set theme. Kafka’s Metamorphosis is a popular one. Here’s designer Richard Tuttle’s take on it.
So’s Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Thus the brief is doctored to promote sensationalism justified by an obvious and shallow contextuality. “Concept” seems to count for a lot. Designing covers for actual texts is the intellectual end of the scale. It’s not unusual for a theme to be a single evocative word with text(s) selected to suit.
Water is a book commissioned by Designer Bookbinders and printed by Incline Press for an international bookbinding competition set for June of 2009. A group of the books where sold unbound or “in sheets” to binders through out the world at a cost of 100 GBP (approx. $200). Then binders had about 10 months to complete the bindings and send them back to England for judging. The text is made of short poems and prose with the theme of water giving a wide range for designing the binding. [!]
Check out the link for an insight into what it is a bookbinder thinks and does all day.
Here’s some more.
Some designers get very technical.
There’s more examples here. You get the idea. Here’s a blank book with what’s known as coptic binding and finished with natural oak boards.
If that was a John Pawson book, this one then would be a Peter Zumthor Book.
This recycled ibook shows irony’s undead. Somebody put a stake through it. I first thought this next example might also be ironic but it takes itself a bit seriously. It “speaks so much of its contents” it seems like it’s trying too hard to become them. Somehow sad.
There are of course, shapeist books, but there’s no need to go there. If The Duck was a book ….. I can imagine the contents of the heart-shaped book but I’m unsure about the pizza book. Or is it cake? The Japanese cranes on the cover don’t tell us.
The Japanese. They already had a long history of adding value to objects under the guise of design and craft so, in the 1970s, they understood immediately what bookbinding was all about and took to it in a big way, generally making rather beautiful things whilst aestheticising the hell out of it.
Bookbinder Ohie Toshio (b. 1949) is an exemplar of the long Japanese tradition of adopting and adapting foreign art forms. The practice of bookbinding was first introduced in Japan by Ohie in 1974 after studying the art in France. Through Ohie’s efforts patrons began to see their favorite works of literature as treasures to be enshrined in a splendid binding, enhanced by graphic design and materials developed to suit the writing, and with illustrations by esteemed artists. Decorative bookbinding had to first be brought in line with Japanese tastes before local audiences could appreciate it. Ohie’s patrons were convinced to appreciate leather-bound books through the introduction of deluxe Japanese papers, the use of leather onlays in Japanese color harmonies, and the incorporation of frontispiece illustrations by popular Japanese artists.
Putting the word “contemporary” in front of any noun also usually spells trouble. Here’s a selection of contemporary bookbindings. Guess the book!
Yes, it’s Gulliver’s Travels bound in black goat skin with inner covers lined with dyed reindeer parchment. And five strands of black and dyed tan leather cord couched (huh? “to fasten a thread with small stitches at regular intervals“) onto the covers and with cast pewter beads at their ends. There’s more here. Here’s an interesting one from the same book-artist.
Ostensibly a book because it has some writing on it, the artist’s description makes for uncomfortable reading.
These sculptural book forms play with the notion of what can be considered a book. Some of them explore multicultural and ancient book structures. The array of materials used is without limits. When the book form meets artistic expression the results are visual stories what do not necessarily need words. They can be read from the interplay of materials, textures and colours.
:o= Here’s a clamshell book. Sigh.
Here’s a fancier one. The spine is the tanned skin of a barramundi, a large fish found in river estuaries in Northern Australia. It’s stronger than the hide of land animals apparently. A strong spine is a good thing.
I imagine the appeal of clamshell books is they’re satisfying to hold open in the palms of one’s hands. If that’s how you like holding your books. They must be a genre because here’s a fake one. I’m trying hard to be outraged.
Our journey through this strange planet of designer bookbinding is almost over. I’ll leave you in the very strange world of avant garde book binding. Daniel Essig‘s books cross the line. He’s making objets d’art. The pages are there so it can be called a book. It makes no difference what the text is. Here’s his Book of Nails.
Most of what’s called Book Art riffs on the fact that books contain words that mean stuff. It’s not necessary to know what they are. Completely breaking orbit now, this last example is a statement about censorship and, although the artist has “bound” and nailed this book well closed, it’s in the name of art and has nothing to do with bookbinding.
* * *
A quote from designer bookbinder Faith Shannon.
“The book offers the perfect vehicle for the combination of a painter’s eye, a designer’s training, a craftsman’s skills, an artist’s imagination, a soul, a love of invention – and a sense of humour!”
* * *
Penguin Books was founded in 1935 by Sir Allen Lane, It was his experience of the poor quality of reading material on offer at Exeter train station that inspired him to create cheap, well designed quality books for the mass market. Penguin revolutionised publishing in the 1930s through its high quality, inexpensive paperbacks, sold through Woolworths and other high street stores for sixpence. From the outset, design was essential to the success of the Penguin brand. Eschewing the illustrated gaudiness of other paperback publishers, Penguin opted for the simple appearance of three horizontal bands, the upper and lower of which were colour-coded according to which series the title belonged to; this is sometimes referred to as the horizontal grid. In the central white panel, the author and title were printed in Gill Sans and in the upper band was a cartouche with the legend “Penguin Books”. The initial design was created by the then 21-year-old office junior Edward Young, who also drew the first version of the Penguin logo.