Volume 37 - Spring 2014


Opening the Door to Florence: Bookbinding and Paper Arts

Kath Thomas speaks with David Lanning about her new project, the bookbarnkat Studio in Florence



DL - Why have you created a studio for the book and paper arts in Florence Italy?

KT - There are so many answers to this question that it's hard to know where to start. I suppose the first question to try and answer is "why this city in particular?"

I fell in love with Florence when I first visited the city in 1969. At the time, I swore to myself that if I ever had enough time and money I wanted to spend it here. Also at the time, I had no idea what I was going to do once I got here but to study art or, more truthfully, appreciate art because art courses weren't included in my college curriculum in business school and I didn't feel I had the tools to really understand art, just a naïve eye for beauty.

Since then, of course, I've visited Florence as many times as possible and finally found the opportunity and the means to begin to fulfil my vow when I retired in 2009.

But I still didn't know for sure what I was going to do when I got here other than to study bookbinding with masters and learn more about restoration of books and paper through hands on work in Italy under people credentialed in that art. Also, in this location it would be relatively easy to take courses from other instructors throughout Europe. Even had I not been fascinated by Florence personally, as the cradle of the Renaissance and a major early power in the fields of printing and bookbinding and other related arts, Florence has a strong tradition to draw on.

DL - So why the book arts rather than some other project?

KT - I've been interested in books forever, but my passion for paper and bookbinding is a more recent thing. I've also been interested in photography for a long time, since I was a child in fact. So, it is no surprise that I became interested in 'scrapbooking' at the height of that fad in America. It was an easy fun way to start to organize my many thousands of photos and to start to document my family's history as my older relatives began to pass the torch. That led to me working part time in art stores to fund my hobbies and to begin to collect fine papers and frame my own collection of art. At one point I thought it might be interesting to take some classes so I could begin to make my own photo albums. San Francisco Center for the Book, which was 80 miles away from where I was living, had a course. But they had a set of required courses you had to take first. I was working at both a full and a part-time job which prevented me from just leaping on the first opportunity that showed up. The courses were in high demand and sold out quickly.

In fact, it took me several years to fit in those first three courses. But by then it was too late, I had become a passionate bookbinder. I never ended up taking that album-building course. I had become addicted through contact with the materials and working with my hands instead of computers, through loving the results and the examples of the great teachers that I had the luck to take courses with there. I couldn't get enough of bookbinding, I'd get cranky and anxious if I didn't get to bind a new book or take another class often. Of course, I'd make mistakes in class and that fuelled my desire to work at getting better both through taking more courses and reading when I couldn't do that. I had no studio of my own except the kitchen table to work on. So, I joined a couple of local groups that worked at art book making in a non-serious way at meetings once a month and took a few courses in Japanese calligraphy. But it was all somehow just not enough, there just wasn't enough free time to work at it and not enough structure for me to feel satisfied with this part of my life. I was just making it up out of many disparate sources without any guidance.

DL - So what changed?

florenceKT - Suddenly, in 2009, due to positive changes in my professional and personal life, I was able to consider retirement and had a summer free from work if I wanted it. Just in time to sign up for two whole months of back-to-back classes with Dominic Riley and Michael Burke at the San Francisco Center. Yes, it would mean a brutal commute everyday but no worse than serving my previous clients would have required, so I took the plunge. And that changed everything.

For the first time in a long time, I was doing nothing else but being driven by great teachers, pushed past my experience and creative barriers daily and loving it. There was no time for hesitation or excuses; there was just the work. I became particularly enamoured with gold tooling, in particular, and when I asked where I could read up in English on what tool designs came from what era and how to assemble a cover appropriate for a restoration of a book of a particular era, I was told, "There isn't one - so go write it." This was stunning! And inspiring - not to say intimidating. I started talking to experts and reading and thinking about how to do that.

I also became very interested in book structure, how a book works or doesn't because of materials and design choices, and in the restoration of books that are damaged in use or due to bad original structure design choices. I started researching where to study restoration and realized that there were few programs where I could actually work on books right away and even then the programs were years long, very expensive and, without an undergraduate degree in art, I was probably not likely to get accepted into. Furthermore, even with a degree, it would be difficult to find an apprentice position in which to gain the practical bench experience I was looking for immediately. During this exploration, I talked to several restorers and conservators and they confirmed what my research about the field was telling me.

florenceI began to see that there might be a way to combine these interests with my love of Florence. There I could possibly pay to study one-on-one with bookbinders and restorers and research in some of the world's oldest libraries, as well as more easily take classes in EU locations. But if I was going to do that, I needed to get moving, literally. I needed to get rid of most of what I owned, decide when I wanted to move so I could apply for an Italian visa, and make sure that all my affairs were in order so I could move. Not only that, but I needed to visit and get the research done on the tool collections in North America before I left for Italy. As I worked through the legal and practical requirements, I also travelled extensively researching the No.1 American collections of gold finishing tools, starting with all the collections identified in Tom Conroy's book 'Bookbinding Finishing Toolmakers 1759-1969', and finding others as I spoke with conservators of those. It was an exciting time, I got to visit the conservation departments "behind the scenes" of many great libraries and met experts in the field who were interested in my project. I took a couple of quick trips to Italy to make sure I still wanted to live here, to make contacts in the local bookbinding community to make sure that I could study as I'd hoped and to obtain the lease on a place to live required to accompany the visa application.

My visa application was approved and I arrived in Florence in July 2010. Not long thereafter I began studying bookbinding and structure with Enrico Giannini, a fifth generation Florentine bookbinder and restorer, taking classes, and attending bookbinding conferences in the EU and elsewhere. I continued research on tools in great library and private collections and began visiting the few existing toolmakers left in the world. Significantly, at the recommendation of several people, I went to visit Geert van Daal in the spring of 2011. Geert is a well-known bookbinder, gold-tooler, printer and publisher and also a fifth generation artist in those fields in The Netherlands. I really enjoyed seeing his extensive tool collection and doing research in his famous library of books on books. When I learned that he intended to retire, I quickly returned there to take his last gold-tooling course in the bindery. While there we began to talk about what would happen to certain pieces of the bindery equipment and that eventually led to my purchasing from him what is now the majority of equipment in my own workshop and teaching studio in Florence several years later. At the time, I had hoped that I could find space where I could have both a workshop and to live, in a suburb of Florence.

florenceUnfortunately, due to Italian and local regulations, this was not to be, and over a year later (things move slowly in Italy at times), I was able to find a suitable space in the centre (centro) of Florence (Firenze) to locate the equipment and for classes for up to twelve students in a converted 14th century palazzo at via dell'Amorino 8R. The studio is within two blocks of most of the sites that the centro is famous for or that a tourist might want quick access to: The Duomo and the Baptistry, the famous San Lorenzo market, the Medici-Riccardi Museum, the Strozzi Museum, the Santa Maria Novella and San Lorenzo churches (with the Medici Chapel), Piazza Republica area designer shopping, art stores, rare book shops, the train station, etc. The street where the studio is located is a newly restored zone and earmarked for development for artisans. This larger space was needed because I learned that there was a need for a place for experts to come and teach here. I had met many in the local community that wanted instruction in the book and paper arts and was continually having to say that there wasn't a dedicated school and I would be happy to teach basic skills if only I had a place to do so. There was also a need for space where bookbinding exhibits and competitions could be held that was more intimate and spontaneous than in the great museums here. In order to be able to offer instruction under IT and EU rules, in January 2014, I affiliated the studio with ARA Italia (Amici della Rilegatura d'Arte), a long established Italian cultural association for bookbinders and appreciators of fine binding which has similar goals for reinvigorating the art of fine binding.

The studio was named "bookbarnkat studios" which is a play on my interests and name and the amusing studio logo which can be seen on the studio website www.bookbarnkatstudios.com. In addition to providing information on workshops and exhibitions (to include in the future not only our own), the site includes a large number of exclusive resources and links for bookbinders and other crafts persons to locate supplies and other associations internationally. My goal was to offer the resources my wanderings had discovered freely to answer the question I often confronted and would spend days researching before trips "Ok, so I'm going to Paris (or whatever location) for this or that class or conference, what else of interest to a book or paper artist do I want to see?" and I had found that there was never one site, just various sites and not often updated, so I tried to capture what was out there in 2013, and will keep it updated annually from my own efforts or more often as I receive new input from others. As should be obvious, it will be most content rich for Firenze for those coming here, but clearly important to keep up to date on other cities.

florenceDL - So where are you at now?

KT - The studio's first public workshops begin in April 2014 with classes by masters of calligraphy, paper marbling, fine binding techniques, leather dyeing, gold-tooling and other leather decoration techniques. A basic core of bookbinding classes is in development. Classes in metalsmithing for bookbinders (creating book hardware - hinges, clasps - and jewelled bindings) and other advanced techniques are in the planning stages for 2015 and in 2016. Also, in 2016, our non-exclusive emphasis for classes will be on restoration and conservation in honour of the 50th anniversary of the 1996 Firenze Flood (November 4) here which changed those fields of expertise and our respect for the art of the book forever.

DL - Tell me about the new Studio

KT - The bindery equipment in the studio includes a mix of the best new and vintage equipment, board cutters, book presses large and small with press boards and blotters, a horizontal backing press, Fortuna leather splitting and paring machines, sewing frames, finishing presses and ploughs, student tool kits (so students do not have to bring all their own tools unless they want to) and lockers, metalsmithing equipment, workbenches, the most comfortable workbench seating on the planet, individual lighting sources, large amounts of decorative and restoration papers, bookboard, etc. A small kitchen area with refrigerator and cooktops, fully equipped bath and cloakrooms are also available in the studio. The studio is in the pedestrian zone but there are two large private parking garages along with numerous hotels, B&B's and both fine and inexpensive restaurants, cafes, pubs, etc. within two minutes walking distance. Public transportation is only two blocks away, taxis are allowed in the zone and there are three taxi ranks within two blocks of the studio. Services offered to students and instructors by the studio include locating lodging, assisting with transportation arrangements, arranging for tours within the city and area (outside of the classes themselves) and providing what support we can to make your experience in Florence feel comfortable and like you've got a native on call.

Ed - You can learn more at www.bookbarnkatstudios.com


Skin Deep - Volume 37 - Spring 2014

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