Code X: contemporary book binding

Presented in association with the 2017 Australian National Conference of Bookbinders.

Code X: contemporary book binding features work by Cathy Adelman, Guy Begbie, Lee Bratt, Dario Castello, Sandy Corbett, Edith Csontos, Coleen Curry, Sarah Davies, Fabienne Devillard-Nicolaj, Tiia Eikholm, James Elwing, Gabrielle Fox, Lisette Gaucher, Külli Grünbach-Sein, Jill Gurney, René Haljasmäe, Lang Ingalls, Lisa Isley, Rosemarie Jeffers-Palmer, Diane Kelly, Sirje Kriisa, Kaia Lukats, Ken McKeon, Avril Makula, Erika Mordek, Linda Newbown, Monica Oppen, Mo Orkiszewski, Piret Männa, Friedhelm Pohlmann,  Beverley Quenault, Bronwyn Rees, Sylvie Richard, Tähti Roostalu, Barbara Schmeltzer,  Thomas Schmitz, Suzanne Schmollgruber, Elizabeth Steiner, Wayne Stock, Signe Taremaa, John Tonkin, Joy Tonkin, Jonathan Tremblay, John Turner, Terence Uren, Marama Warren & Vicki Woolley.

Joy Tonkin, Australia Detail: Exploring Japanese Books & Scrolls. Colin Franklin, Jean de Gonet binding, exposed sewing on leather and paper tapes. Box calf spine. Boards decorated with hand calligraphy on hand-made Japanese paper and decorated Japanese papers. Title by calligrapher Gemma Black. Sewn French headbands.  Acrylic painted head.  Hand-made Nepalese end papers.

Code X: contemporary book binding

Here is an exhibition of books, and some have come from afar: poised and posed, their outer finery is peacocked here for your pleasure. Fine, so fine. Spend time admiring them, for that is their purpose. Like all books, they connect the eye, the hand and the mind, but in this case it is your eyes, someone else’s hands, and many minds.

Your eyes should stroke them, pause upon small details, and feast upon the various materials. Your mouth may perhaps water: the binding descriptions read like a degustation menu. Red box calf; Morocco leather; handmade tricolor silk headbands; goatskin doublures; suede pastedowns; buffalo leather; half-frame binding with ostrich leg and crocodile suede, moose leather, Exocarpus cupressiformis dyed linen thread… it’s all quite delicious (or perhaps repulsive, depending upon your relationship with eating animals). There are touches of contemporary experimentation with materials and techniques such as Tyvek (a plastic paper), laser printing, extruded plastic, Perspex, graphite and solar printing.

 Occasionally your eye may light upon a flaw: remember that this is a human craft, an intricate process of many stages, each one full of potential for misadventure, each achieved through care and skill. As with all hand-made things, what you are seeing is a souvenir, an artefact of the process, of the binder’s own experience in working on the object; once the object is made, it is out of their hands and mind and hopefully into the hands of the collector.

 Walter Benjamin speaks of the way that book collectors think in terms of copies rather than general books, that the most important fate undergone by [a] copy is its having collided with [the collector]. In this situation, a copy of a book moves through the hands of a binder, whose work aims to make it collide, to connect the book with a certain future of care and love. US bookmaker Clifford Burke says that it is an historical truism that the aesthetic element is the principal ingredient that survives the passing of cultures. The making of a valuable book, prized because it is beautiful in what it is no less than in what it presents, is the single most compelling stroke in its survival. These books are contenders.

Binders are always on the watch for interesting book-pages (blocks) to work with. Ideally, the book pages are original, still in sheets (unfolded, uncut), perhaps – optimally – hand-printed, but these can be hard to find, especially in Australia, so often a bound book is unbound from its commercial binding and re-bound, finely, by hand. You won’t get to see these pages, because that’s the inside, and these books, this exhibition, is all about the outside. Yet, if these books were blank, they wouldn’t be as effective. It’s a rule of engagement for this kind of work that the books have printed pages containing a story or theme. Each binding, if truly accomplished, extends the text outwards to form the complete book. You should be able to get some sense of the book’s contents from the binder’s work: in this case, you can judge a book by its cover.

There are many countries represented here, the most fascinating being Estonia, whose bookbinding traditions were interrupted by Soviet annexation after WWII. Cut off from other cultures and forced to use creativity vocationally rather than independently, binders found their own small ways to play with their designs, using what was available to them. When the Soviet Union opened up in the mid-1990s, exchange exhibitions with other countries produced great excitement and a rediscovery of fine binding techniques.

This sounds like an exotic tale, but Australia was almost as isolated thanks to our geographic distance. Unless you were able to travel, it was difficult to know what was possible, to find interesting materials and instruction. The first international binding exhibition that allowed an interchange of techniques and ideas was in Canberra in 1984, and this is around the same time that more experimental book arts began to influence the craft. Since then the internet has improved matters considerably! Thank goodness for the digital: it is not the enemy of the book. It has opened up access to ideas, materials, book-blocks, tutorials, and comrades. It is important to recognize that the material and the digital go hand-in-hand, feeding and freeing each other.

 Fine bookbinding is what is now whimsically called a ‘rare trade’ or ‘lost craft’. It is indeed rare, but not lost, as this exhibition demonstrates. If what you see here excites you, there are groups and guilds around the country (including a wonderfully active group here in Canberra) who would be happy to share the knowledge and skills.

Caren Florance

Caren Florance is a book artist, Accredited Professional Member of Craft ACT and former Vice President of the Canberra Craft Bookbinders Guild. Florance’s practice focuses on paper, the book and the printed word and is informed by material bibliography and book history. She works predominantly with text, particularly poetry, and publishes under the imprint Ampersand Duck. By using traditional letterpress and bookbinding processes along with more contemporary technologies, she produces works on paper across the book arts spectrum, from zines to books and installation work. Florance is collected by national and international institutions and private collectors.

BENJAMIN, Walter. 2009. ‘Unpacking my Library’ (1931), in One Way Street and Other Writings, London, UK, Penguin, 163.

BURKE, Clifford. 1980. Printing Poetry: A workbook in typographic reification, US: San Francisco, Scarab Press, xi.