One aspect of our cultural world that seems to be almost constantly decreasing in value is literature. As fine art and design art reach stratospheric prices, books have become virtually disposable. Once a symbol of wealth and intellect, today you can buy a paperback for £5 in almost any supermarket or corner newsagent. Add to that a growing fashion for e-books and it’s easy to see why bookbinder Jo Bird is a rare beast indeed.
‘Modern books are crap quality,’ says Bird, acknowledging the decline of the bookbinding craft. ‘They’re machine-bound, the paper is cheap and the glues are rubbish. You need to be very committed to become a bookbinder today.’
Trained as an illustrator and graphic designer (she graduated from Norwich School of Art in 1997), Bird developed a passion for paper in a post-university stint as an assistant at an art supplier. She decided to combine her love of typography and paper to create a book of her own and discovered the art of bookbinding. A series of evening classes – few if any universities offer full-time bookbinding courses – and apprenticeships followed, and in 2005 she won a competition, received her first commission and began her own business.
Four years on, Bird primarily creates fine bindings. Her clients are collectors who come to her with rare or limited editions in the form of loose-leaf pages and ask for a bespoke binding. She also has commercial clients such as photographers and galleries looking for short runs. On all her projects, Bird starts by reading the book. ‘I take a lot of time thinking about my approach; the design has to relate back to the text and illustrations,’ she says.
Bookbinding is a diverse discipline: along with the cover design, Bird creates the boxes that house the books, sews the loose-leaf pages together, chooses the material for the cover and hand-crafts the cover design and edge decoration. Bird likens bookbindingto ceramics. ‘Bookbinding is quite an organic process. It’s like working with clay; you have to feel how your material develops as you go along.’
Alongside colour, texture and material considerations, Bird spends time considering the structure of a book. ‘Discovering a book through touch – how you handle it, how it sits in your hand, how it opens – is as important as the visual elements,’ she says. ‘I don’t design just the front and back board. There are always extra layers: a box and perhaps a chemise, a loose cover that acts as another layer of protection and exploration.’
Her illustrative and graphic approach, and varied choice of materials give Bird’s books a very 21st-century feel. Colourful paper and leather replaces the traditional black-leather cover, silver foils offer a twist on the standard gold, and graphic abstract designs predominate. Working with traditional methods that she gently subverts, Bird’s designs are simple yet intricate, and bold without being overwhelming. A recent project saw her bind a limited edition of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. Bird created a bespoke box and a hand-dyed leather cover with an abstract sea-based design of inlaid calfskin, painstakingly made with strips just 0.2mm in thickness. She also added a delicate edge decoration and hand-tooled title.
Bookbinding involves meticulous, detail-focused design and Bird says it has, at times, brought her to tears of frustration. ‘It’s a very delicate and time-consuming process, and if I make a mistake, I have to start the entire piece all over again. It is worth it, though. Often I’m so absorbed and completely lost in the process that I lose all track of time. It’s deeply satisfying.’
It can take Bird up to two months to complete a project and hand-binding starts from about £1000 per book. Perhaps in the future, as e-books take over and paper versions become increasingly rare, well-designed books like hers will once again become objects to be revered.