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Volume 41 - Spring 2016


 
 

The Future of Bookbinding

and the Bookbinding Bus by Kate Holland
 

This article was first published in the Winter 2015 Designer Bookbinders Newsletter. I am very grateful to Hewit's for allowing me to reproduce it here (with a few updates). I hope this will mean it reaches an even wider audience. I'd also like to add that it is intended as a rallying cry, not just to Designer Bookbinders, but to all bookbinders the world over.

Bookbinding

Bound by Kate Holland
A Book of Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David
London: Folio Society. 2005.

I knew immediately what I wanted to write about for this article. It's something I believe passionately in and feel needs to be addressed right now - the future of bookbinding.

I am deeply concerned that there is now no stand-alone accredited course in bookbinding available in the UK (though I know Shepherds and BoundbyVeterans are working hard to get the City and Guilds qualification more established). I was privileged to observe the unpacking and judging of the annual DB competition. When I was coming up the ranks the competition was the pinnacle of the year with the exhibition and prize giving in the foyer of (what was then) the new British Library on Euston Road. The entries ran into the hundreds as students from Guildford, Roehampton, London College of Printing, Morley, Hampstead Garden Suburb would vie for the top prize, the Mansfield Medal. All of these courses are now closed.

A quick glance over the education section on the competition entry forms this year showed a majority with either blank spaces or a little private tuition, only one from City Lit and one from Richmond Adult Community College. Most of the top entrants had worked their way through the last few remaining binderies, notably Shepherds and Wyvern.

For five years, I was the bookbinding tutor for the Creative Arts and Graphics students at Bath Spa University. When I first arrived there was a brand new purpose-built bindery in its own designated room - imagine that! The next year the bindery was doubling up as the multi-media lecture room. The following year the whole bindery had been dismantled and relocated to a far-flung outpost of the university and by the time I left it was languishing in two cupboards in the technicians' carpentry workshop, undiscovered by students who had signed up to do courses in book production with an advertised bookbinding module.

The students loved the hands on aspect of learning bookbinding with some going as far as saying that it had been the best part of their whole degree. But the powers that be had decided that digital was the way forward, that it wasn't necessary for students studying book production to understand how a book is put together and that it was far easier to send the digital file off to the printers who would post back a complete printed and bound book with the students being none the wiser in how it was put together.

I am certain that this is symptomatic of institutions around the country and I'm sure the missives sent down from the Department of Education to encourage digital and sciences at the expense of the creative subjects along with massive cuts from government cannot help. Elsewhere around the globe, investment in creative education and making is rising. An education in craft develops creativity, inventiveness, problem solving and practical intelligence, all skills highly valued by employers. Funnily enough it reads rather similar to the prospectus for the brand-new state-of-the-art Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial College which my son has set his heart on. These aren't skills only useful to some fuddy-duddy craftspeople but integral to the cutting edge of industry. By learning bookbinding, not only are we learning design, widely recognised as imperative to the innovation process and of great economic benefit by global corporations, cf Apple etc., but also the use of materials, structure and functionality.

According to recent Crafts Council research, in the last few years higher education crafts courses have been cut by 46%. Yet craft contributes £3.4b to the UK economy with nearly 150,000 people employed in that sector. A quick trawl through the Hot Courses website and the Society of Bookbinders' education page confirms that the only bookbinding courses available are short courses, masterclasses and private tuition. Institutions have worked out that it is much more economically advantageous to charge £500 for a 3 day course in basic bookbinding which is exactly the amount that I used to pay per term at London College of Printing for my part time HND. This gave me a brilliant grounding in all the basics, starting with the single section pamphlet binding, working our way through every structure up to full leather with gold tooling. Short courses do not give you the continuity learned through repetition of techniques at the bench.

In order to find hope for the future we must look to the past. The history of bookbinding in the UK, like all crafts, has varied according to the vagaries of fashion.

After the Industrial Revolution, William Morris and friends, disturbed by the industrialisation of the workplace, set up the Arts and Crafts Movement. They believed that creativity, imagination and contentment were more important than profit. Whilst this sounds like the fantasies of the monied middle classes, they were actually astute businessmen with a thriving industry and bookbinding was at the heart of their output. It was T J Cobden Sanderson, who established the Doves Bindery to bind sheets from Morris's Kelmscott Press, who gave the movement its name.

A golden era in book production followed with equal importance placed on typography, illustration, printing and binding but after WWII there was a steep decline in the industry. The death of skilled binders during the war disrupted the apprenticeship system and, with a growing dependence on technology, artisans sought a future in areas other than handicrafts with many of the big workshops forced to close.

The Festival of Britain in 1951 was a pivotal event in bringing the creative arts to the attention of a dispirited British people after years of post-war austerity. In 1955, the formation of the Guild of Contemporary Bookbinders by Edgar Mansfield, Bernard Middleton, Arthur Johnson, Trevor Jones, Ivor Robinson et al (later to become the Designer Bookbinders) worked hard to bring new life to hand bookbinding and to publicise the newly burgeoning art bindings movement. The larger workshops were now no longer expanding and the true vitality lay in the individual ateliers. This was a great period economically for design bookbinding as patrons, who were familiar with quality materials and good workmanship, sought out work to the highest standards of the craft but which also showed artistry and originality in design.

The 1960s and 70s and the counter-culture revolution saw an explosion of interest in handcrafts and the first generation binders became mentors to a willing and capable younger audience, but since the recession of 1990-2 there has been another decline. The glimmer of hope I see now is amongst the hipsters, the young fashionable people who lead the trends and form the opinions of the rest of the country. In this period of massive technological advances and digitilisation of everything, the youth are harking back to the 70s and the handmade. Flares, beards and dimple pint glasses are in along with crochet, pottery and letterpress printing. We just have to make sure that bookbinding is in there too.

I'm excited as I feel the tide is turning but we at DB must work hard to publicise bookbinding to the wider world. I applaud Rob Shepherd and Dan Wray's recent articles calling for more collaboration with the antiquarian book trade and the world of book arts. I have to admit to bias as I was the manager of an antiquarian bookshop in a previous life but these people know their market and they already have established bibliophile customers with disposable income.

In the past, the close relationship that booksellers had with the binders was of fundamental importance to their economy. In my own small way, I am developing a range of contemporary bindings on well-known titles with the prestigious Mayfair bookshop, Heywood Hill. This acts as a commercial sideline to my more labour-intensive design bindings, much like a fusion range for a couture fashion house. If I were to think too hard about the hourly rate I can charge on a design binding then I would probably give up tomorrow. The bookbinders of the future need to see that there is money to be made in bookbinding and that it is not a "gentleman's hobby" as someone once described it to me, much to my inevitable fury.

Unlike many career prospects, the crafts sector is looking positive. Crafts Council research shows that 90% of crafts graduates are in paid work, though we'll gloss over the dearth of courses available. There is currently a buoyant market with opportunity for much growth and many affluent customers particularly keen to buy goods with local provenance, long tradition, a good story and ideally an element of bespoke, something made just for them. People have decided that it is worth paying a little more for something that will not be in landfill in 10 years time.

The advent of the Kindle has also not sounded the death knell for the book as was widely predicted. Sales of physical books are up and e-books down. Publishers are producing high-spec limited editions of classics with top quality production and illustration. The digitisation of the printed word is conversely raising the profile of the book as art-object. Design binding should be the logical conclusion to this trend.

Books have not merely weathered history, they have helped shape it with their ability to preserve, transmit and develop ideas. Historically books were a luxury item but in the 20th C paperbacks made them available to the masses and in the 21stC digital technology and global markets have made the written word even more accessible. The printed book is a really competitive technology. It is portable, hard to break, it has high resolution pages and an everlasting battery life. In the face of the e-book there is "now an imperative to make the entire physical package itself special" (Arion Press). It is notable that in the San Francisco area, that hub of high tech innovation, courses in bookbinding proliferate.

Somehow in the UK hand bookbinding doesn't seem to be riding this crest. The applied arts are afforded great status but in the recent V&A exhibition "What is Luxury?" there were no bookbindings. At this year's ABA fair at Olympia I think I counted 4 contemporary bindings on dealers' stands and none by practitioners working today. (I know that DB has a stand at the ABA but it is not well visited by dealers, the very people we need to enthuse.) At Collect and Tent, the two most prestigious exhibitions of luxury crafts, not a binding in sight. (I am delighted that we are working towards exhibiting at Collect in 2017 and this must be supported.)

Typographers, illustrators, printers and binders should all be of equal merit. Currently the first three are acclaimed but the binders are being overlooked. We used to share an equal billing on the applied arts platform but no longer. Search the Crafts Council Directory and there is only one bookbinder (me). It doesn't take much to apply but the more of us that are on that Directory the higher the public profile of bookbinding.

With this in mind, I am currently embarking on a project to raise money to equip an ex-council mobile library as a travelling bindery. The Bookbinding Bus (a not-for-profit project) will take bookbinding workshops out to literary and music festivals, schools and city centres to introduce this fantastically rewarding craft to as many people as possible. I believe strongly that the more people we convert at grass-roots, the more we can enthuse to pursue it to the highest level. We are booked for workshops.

Bookbinding

Making fosters wellbeing. It is a vital part of being human. All over the country, people are rediscovering what our ancestors knew - that making something with your own hands gives you satisfaction, pleasure, solace... it's the perfect therapy for the age we live in. We at Designer Bookbinders must all work together to spread the word about bookbinding to the wider world. If we encourage more people to study the craft the institutions will want to offer the courses. If we raise bookbinding's profile within the applied arts more people will want to buy into it. It doesn't just make altruistic sense, it makes commercial sense. I won't let bookbinding die on my watch - I hope you won't too.

Together we can make bookbinding relevant for the 21st century.

Kate Holland - is a self employed bookbinder based near Frome in Somerset. She specialises in contemporary fine binding to commission. She is evangelical about spreading the word and relishes getting her hands on the (as-yet) unconverted student of bookbinding. She was elected as a Fellow of Designer Bookbinders in 2015 and has books in the British and Bodleian Library collections.

Twitter @katehollandbook www.katehollandbooks.co.uk

 

Skin Deep - Volume 41 - Spring 2016

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