Welcome to another Techniton Politeia interview!
This time we get to talk with Robert Wu about his Reliure d’Art, marbled papers and miniature bindings.
Wu is a Taiwanese-Canadian bookbinder and paper marbler located in Toronto. He makes one-off or small editions of books, presentation boxes, leather fine art bindings or jewellery boxes and decorative papers for individual collectors, libraries or institutions.
He holds a Masters degree in Architecture and also a Bachelor degree in Architectural science. He has also studied classical painting techniques for 3 years at Toronto Academy of Realist Art.
Wu Started bookbinding in 1990s through CBBAG in Toronto with Don Taylor, Betsy Palmer Elderidge and furthered his training in bookbinding with Masterbinder Monique Lallier & Don Etherington at AAB (American Academy of Bookbinding) in Colorado USA, where he was awarded the “Tini Miura Scholarship”, selected by the masterbinder herself. Later on he received full-time intensive private training in French reliure d’art technique with Tini for more than a month. He also attended a workshop at the Center for the Bookarts in NYC with Masterbinder Luigi Castiglioni of Italy.
He has taught several workshops at CBBAG and participated in Designer Bookbinders International Competitions UK twice, with his submitted bindings chosen for the touring exhibitions. In 2012, he had the honour of being invited to participate in Album Amicorum – an International marbling exhibition in Turkey, USA and Europe.
Collections of Wu’s marbling art and bindings can be found worldwide in private collections or libraries.
Last but not least in his own words:
“Besides bookbinding and marbling, I also occasionally do letterpress printing with a floor model antique Gordon treadle press and an antique Sigwalt tabletop press for printing stationery, invitations or business cards. In my spare time, I enjoy playing the piano and the cello with a local orchestra. Phew! Where do I find the time to do all these!“
We live in an age in which speed and efficiency matter a lot, often in expense of quality. Almost anything can be instantly found and bought from a shelf, be it a garment, a furniture or appliance, a car. Custom handmade objects on the other hand take a lot of time to be made. Bookbinding is definitely a good example of this; a book may take weeks, months and some times years to be finished.
Can you explain to us why a binding may take so long to be completed? Which was the longest time you had to work on a binding? What are the requirements of such lengthy commissions and what are the problems a binder could encounter?
It’s true a lot of things are made to be disposable nowadays. I prefer the care and quality of things made in the past, where they were made to last. I made a clear decision at the beginning of my career to focus on the French design art bookbinding technique. So I went to study at AAB (American Acadmey of Bookbinding) in USA to further my training in the French technique with masters who studied in Paris.
A full fledged French art binding has about 100 steps to complete and design takes time to nurture. I would work on a bunch of books at the same time up to the same stage. But when it comes time to do finishing/design, I prefer to focus on just one binding at a time. I usually give my clients about 1 to 2 years of waiting time to complete a commission.
Bindings can be works of art. However, unlike most art objects which will sit safely on display high on a wall or behind a piece of glass, bindings have moving parts, must function properly and must endure the wear and tear of handling for a long time. That’s quite a lot to ask from an artisan and people tend to forget about these aspects of bookbinding. I believe one reason is because most don’t often -if ever- get the chance to handle a fine binding. We’re used in seeing still-pictures of them and therefor lack the sense of their “materialness”.
You often accompany your bindings’ photos with videos where you take them out of their protective cases, display them from various angles, open and page through them. I’ve seen this done by a few other binders as well. I believe such videos are important because they highlight the material nature of a binding, its volume and tangibility.
Please share a few thoughts on this aspect of our craft; the demand to produce a sound and long lasting and yet pleasing, both to they eye and touch, object. How can a binder balance between functionality and aesthetics? How does this dual task affect you personally as an artisan?
Art bookbinding is considered as a fine craft rather than fine art because it is essentially a book that needs to be read in the end. Unfortunately we couldn’t compare our work to fine paintings or charge our work accordingly even though a design binding might take just as long to complete as a fine painting! But I still think book-art is more interesting and rewarding than a painting or sculpture as you can touch, feel and smell a binding and enjoy reading the text and images. A book engages all senses and it tells you a story in many ways!
I also think that music is an important aspect of my work. So whenever I create or design a binding, I want the viewer to experience that aspect when they handle my bindings. Videos are a good way to include that and show all details of a binding that you couldn’t see in pictures. And off course, handling a fine binding in person is a totally different experience! I became hooked on fine binding after I first held my teacher Tini Miura’s binding in my hand. It was a magical experience. A binding like that has soul.
Your work is often characterized by sumptuous covers and it is evident that you don’t shy away from combining various decorative techniques on a single binding.
If you could only pick one what would you say is the most important element of a design (any design) – the defining characteristic? Something which always plays a key role during the initial stages of planning and comes to bind -pun intended- everything together afterwards.
Furthermore, once you’ve settled on an idea about the design how do you choose which decorative techniques to use? Can you give a few advices on how to make different elements and techniques come together for a design without it looking “noisy” or “overdone”?
Good question! Personality wise, I am a hopeless romantic. To me, LESS IS LESS and it’s BORING. I love a complex design. At the same time a complex design doesn’t have to look busy. It’s a fine balance. I admire the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, Carlo Scarpa, George Barbier, FL Schmied, the music of Chopin. They are all masters of composition and details. God is in the details. I want my designs to look spontanious and dynamic. Since I am trained as a designer (architecture), I can usually work out my designs or ideas down on paper very fast, within the hour, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I would refine and change minor things but I believe in the importance of trusting your vision or intuition or inspiration – whatever you call it!
Let’s focus on a particular piece from your work. I was absolutely enamored with your binding of “A Voyage towards the North Pole”, I couldn’t find something I don’t like about it, even if I tried. More specifically, although the “Faux Ammolite” emulating the northern lights is particularly impressive, the eggshell panel for the ice-covered mountains stole the show for me – so fitting!
Please share with us some behind-the-scenes stories about its making; why did the pages require such an extensive treatment and what did it include? How did you come up with its design? What was the most difficult part of making the decoration? Can you tell a few things about your “Faux Ammolite”?
The Arctic binding was a commission from a library. I was given the task to create a design binding on a 17th century book. First, it was a very moldy and dirty book. I advised the client that I had to wash the book before I could make an expensive design binding. It was a neccesity.
The design was inpired by the beautiful etching images in the book. I wanted to capture the grandeur of the North pole and came up with a new idea of creating my “Faux Ammolite” panels to represent the mysterious northern lights! I was very happy with the effect and overall design of this binding with eggshell panels. I love Art Deco. So I enjoy incorporating materials like my creations of “Faux Ivoire” or “Faux Ammolite”. It’s necessary to push the boundaries, to get out of the comfort zone and try out something new! It’s rewarding.
One of the things that stands out amongst your work is miniature bindings. You’ve made quite a few of them and they boast a dazzling variety. Some are slightly larger than a big coin, yet they have almost all of the characteristics that can be found on a normal-sized binding.
Why miniature bindings, what makes them so fascinating to you? Can you explain to the readers the intricacies and difficulties of making such a small, often tiny, binding?
I started getting interested in bookbinding via origami. I was folding little origami books out of one sheet of paper. But I couldn’t really write much in it so I came across a little bookbinding manual in a bookstore to see if I could make my own journals. At the beginning it looked so difficult with all the tools one would need to make a properly bound book. So I started making a tiny properly bound blank book by following the instructions in the manual and used whatever simple craft tools I had. After that, I was hooked on bookbinding and wanted to learn more so I started taking workshops with CBBAG.
So just like anything in life, one starts small and your interest grows, and you start to have bigger ambitions. It’s just a natural process. Miniature bindings are a great way to learn all aspects of bookbinding in a smaller scale so it’s more managable for beginners. But a masterpiece in miniature requires the reverse process and it’s definitely more difficult to do than its large counterparts.
On to another topic; it is obvious that marbling holds an important place when it comes to your creative identity. Your marbled papers have a distinct character and almost all of your bindings feature them.
How were you initially drawn to marbling and what kept you to it? How did you go about learning it? And finally how has such an asset -being able to make your own marbled papers that is- affected your creative approach when it comes to binding books?
I am mostly self-taught in marbling. I did take a beginner course in marbling with CBBAG. But it was very basic. I started to marble because I could use my own marbled paper for my own bindings. Like anything, the more you do, the better you get. I experimented for a long time and it eventually evolved into marbling art which I call “Marbled Graphics”™. I love compositions, regular marbled papers don’t satifsy me, so I started creating marbling art with my own compositions. The general public appreciate my marbling as art but most people are not that creative so they don’t know what to do with regular full patterned marbled paper for bookbinding or craft. They think they are just fancy wrapping papers, lol!
Many of your marbled papers -especially those used as endpapers in your bindings- seem to be inspired by classic western marbling, yet they veer off in a very different, very personal, direction. They are often abstract, sometimes almost free of pattern, but instead of looking like “mistakes” or failed patterns they have an air of confidence. As if having crossed some boundary and being bold but at the same time relaxed about it.
Does this come naturally to you when marbling or is it a result of meticulous care? Can you define the elements that contribute to the uniqueness of your marbled papers?
I love details and compositions. My marbled paper or marbling art also reflect that. I like finess in everything I do. Doing regular marbled paper for store orders is very difficult because if I make a mistake or get an air bubble in my paper, I can’t sell them to the store. Doing edition marbling for store orders is a challenge because consistency is hard to achieve and when you have to do a couple of hundreds of sheets at a time for a couple of months, it takes the fun out of marbling. Being meticulous is a must for doing professional marbling or fine binding and it’s not easy!
No matter how talented a binder is, or any artisan, he/she can only learn and become adept in certain aspects of a craft. Our time is limited and, since our skill-tree translates itself into the identity of our creations, we must choose wisely which skills to learn and improve along the way. Many, I’d even dare to say most – given the immensity of our craft, will be left out or acquired at a very basic level.
Is there some particular skill or technique/s, within the vast horizon of bookbinding, that you’d like to try your hand at or feel you haven’t explored as much as you’d like?
I guess I am lucky to have discovered the art of French Design Art bindings at the very beginning. I was pretty focused to seek out training in the French techniques after I had read my alma mater, Tini Miura’s book “My World of Bibliophile Binding”, where she talked about the French technique being the most perfect and sublime. Finesse is everything in reliure d’art. I share that sentiment. We were lucky to have Tini in USA and teaching at AAB because one gets to learn the best technique from one person without having to travel to many different places and study with many different masters in Europe. Tini told me that when she was stuyding in Paris in the 60’s, the best master binders worked behind closed doors. But being a female, she was not deemed as a competitor to them so she was never refused or denied lessons. Her male counterparts were not so lucky.
I believe that if you possess good techniques, perfected through centuries and passed down from masters, you really don’t need gimmicks to stand out. I try to focus on good designs and develop my own style and still keep an open mind to new techniques to compliment my work.
You can see more of Wu’s work at Studio Robert Wu.
If you enjoyed this interview there are more you can read at my blog section Techniton Politeia.
Till next time!