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Dear readers, this is how obsession looks like… Allow me to explain!

Titus AndronicusA year ago I decided to take part in the international Designer Bookbinders competition the results of which were announced very recently. I signed the form, payed the fee and everything was peachy. The topic of the competition was simply “Shakespeare”, which I found great cause in many cases these competitions are about binding a specific book that all binders have to obtain. While that is certainly challenging I believe freedom of choice regarding the book indulges creativity more and Shakespeare is as inspirational of a topic as it can get.

First quartoI acquired (not without trouble) a wonderful copy of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s (said to be) first tragedy. The copy cost some 450$ and was printed in 1901 by the famous Ballantyne press. It’s no surprise they became famous; every single aspect of the edition is astonishing and, along with Leon Bakst, I can say it was the best book my bench has seen so far.

The story of Titus Andronicus unfolds in ancient Rome. It begins with the joyous return of general Andronicus after a successful campaign and slowly spirals into a full revenge-driven blood bath. The story feels in some ways similar to a Tarantino movie (I can hear Shakespeare scholars gasping after this “crude” comparison but that’s how it is!). Overall it was a great choice.

Shakespeare rounded and backedAs soon as I got the book a certain design came to mind. It was perfect for Titus and sooner than later I began work. It involved a new technique that I had found by accident. I did countless tests and tried the whole decoration more than once on blanks that were prepared exactly like Shakespeare. Things were going as planned and three months before the deadline I started binding the book itself. However, when it finally reaching the tooling stages everything was simply a disaster. The technique involved treating the cover’s entire surface so there was no room for corrections, I had to do it all over again. Nevertheless, prompted by confidence gained through numerous tests and practice I did over months, I bound the whole thing again. Yet it turned out a failure, in quite a different way this time. I couldn’t get my head around it, I bound it a third time, alas the result was once again a disaster. It was as if the damn thing didn’t want to be finished! By then I had become fixated and most importantly I was out of time.

Headband 1The book was bound anew, for one last time. Now however it was a matter of a day or two to miss the deadline. I had no time to think and prepare something to my heart’s desire. I came up with a different binding, the one you see here. The leather is hand-dyed dark grey goatskin sprinkled black to lightly imitate a type of tombstone marble. Romans made ancestral masks by producing molds from a person’s face. Using this as a base of reference and also taking elements from ancient theatrical masks I made a number of onlays that were hand painted and blind tooled. The onlays are thick on purpose to resemble a mask hanging from a mausoleum wall. Some of the masks represent basic characters of the story, if you’ve read the play you’ll probably be able to recognize one or two. The Latin words act as a tombstone inscription of the driving forces behind the play’s characters and were tooled using 22 carat gold. The headbands are made from silk thread.

Although I finished it just in time I never sent it. It was not what I had imagined, it didn’t represent me the way I wanted. Call me excessive and you won’t be wrong, for me it’s either “all or nothing”. Just like the characters in Shakespeare’s play became willingly fixed on something they could stop or avoid I too became obsessed with doing THAT design, which ultimately proved to be a huge mistake. And that’s how an almost year-long spanning chapter closed. The experience was stressful and frustrating on many levels but looking back I have to admit I learned a great deal, both purely technical but also regarding the approach of such endeavors in general.
Fellow binders (or craftspeople of any sort!), care to share your story of obsessive craziness?

Watermark1I leave you with the wonderful watermark I discovered. It becomes visible if you hold the first blank pages of the edition against a light source. I did some research on the paper and experts informed me that it is of special making. Wasn’t shocked; it was the most durable and pleasant paper I have ever worked with. Till next time!