Vellum wonders

No newfangled electronic book reader can compare to a delicately crafted, hand-bound edition of your favourite title. Emily Pacey marvels at what can be done with that age-old craft, bookbinding, when money is no object

Every year, authors shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize are presented with a hand-bound copy of their masterpieces. Each book is painstakingly crafted by contemporary design bookbinders responding to the work, which they reflect in their choice of materials, cover design and binding method.

It’s a highly skilled craft, and hand-bound books sell for up to £5000. Their collectors are convinced that a book bound in leather, vellum, or even carbon fibre and Perspex easily beats the iPad or the Kindle as a status symbol.

Kathy Abbott is a member of contemporary bookbinding group Tomorrow’s Past, and is currently working on a book of poetry, whose author contacted Abbott
to create the book after encountering her work at exhibitions of hand-bound books. She will only make one copy, so it will be a unique item.

Abbott and her cohorts do every step of the binding by hand, sourcing the finest materials from British suppliers. The traditional bookbinding materials are calfskin, known as vellum, and leather, often blocked with gold leaf. These remain the most popular materials, but modern binders deploy them very differently to their forbears.

’We want to make antiquarian books look good using modern tones, in a restrained and Modernist way, making them both beautiful and well-functioning,’ says Abbott.

Abbott is not keen on the label ’craft’ for bookbinding, saying ’the word tends to bring connotations of felt mice’. She favours the word ’art’. In her favour, the creative process can be akin to that of an artist or a designer.

Working on Wilson’s book, Abbott describes ’reading his poetry and really responding to his words. Some imagery immediately came to mind, along with the colours. I want to make it look very minimal and just let the work breathe’.

Designer Bookbinders president Lester Capon is working on The Worshipful Company of Leathersellers’ visitors book to celebrate the guild’s new building, which has helped to inspire the design. He distinguishes modern design bookbinding from traditional bookbinding. ’In old bindings you will see nice gilt spines that are purely decorative, but now the design reflects and reveals an aspect of the book, whether that be the text or the typography or the illustrations.’

Illustrations are never taken literally, however. Says Abbott, ’Our job is not to illustrate work, but to lure a reader in to engage with the book by making it feel, look and smell nice.’

As Capon explains, the books’ literary content is by no means always the main inspiration for the binding’s design. As visual people, bookbinders often respond to the typography or the format of the book, as Peter Jones did in his recent work Punctuation.

Jones stumbled across the instructional book Punctuation at a private press book fair in Oxford. His passion for the book was nothing to do with its contents. ’I was just so struck by how tall and magnificent the book was, and I wanted to accent that feeling,’ says Jones.

Jones, a part-time carpenter, likes working with unusual materials, including carbon fibre. For Punctuation, he chose Perspex and wood, creating bold vertical tiger stripes, that gives an illusion of bars with empty space between them. ’This interpretation is very much a reaction to the physicality of the book,’ he says.

Not all materials are suitable for bookbinding, however, with metal being particularly challenging because of its weight. ’The only concern with a material is that it should be able to be fairly thin, so that it is in proportion with the book,’ says Capon.

Tracey Rowledge belongs to the group 60/40, which is attempting to ’push the boundaries of experimental craft’.

’I am using the traditional language of bookbinding to create something entirely contemporary and ideas-based,’ says Rowledge, who studied fine art at Goldsmiths. When she started out, Rowledge imagined making a living out of bookbinding as a way of supporting her art, but soon

ealised that ’bookbinding itself can be a very creative medium’.

Despite their high price tags, the hundreds of hours of work that can be involved in just one book means that design bookbinding is not a well-paid occupation.

’It is extremely labour intensive and you work for nothing, really, but you do it because you love it,’ says Abbott. She is keen on creating hand-bound blank notebooks, but finds them almost impossible to sell. ’A lot of people don’t appreciate hand bookbinding because you can go into Paperchase and buy a bound notebook for a tenner.’

They may not be for every pocket, but these hand-bound gems arguably represent some of the finest pieces of work that today’s publishing industry has to offer.

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