Due to its size this interview it will be posted in two parts.
Samuel Feinstein is a private practice bookbinder specializing in fine bindings, gold finishing, rounded spine clamshell boxes, and new bindings in period style. He trained at the North Bennet Street School in Boston under Jeff Altepeter and Martha Kearsley, graduating in 2012. He lives and works in Chicago, and his work can be seen at: http://www.samuelfeinsteinbookbinding.com/
According to our guest:
” What most appeals to me is the work itself. It keeps my hands and mind focused and draws me in, day after day. It takes me through the history and imaginations of what I work on, and allows me to express myself through my hands. As a binder, my intention is to create bindings that are pleasing to the senses and the mind, and it is the challenge of it that inspired me. As an instructor, I do what I can to further the practice of hand-tooling, especially using gold leaf, which is applied to both historical and contemporary works. “
Samuel’s portfolio boasts an impressive array of design and period bindings – diversity is key word. With a style balancing gracefully between modern and classic I doubt anyone will not find a binding from Samuel’s work that speaks to them.
I would like to deeply thank Samuel for taking the time and effort to give me this interview.
Every artisan has an origin story, some more unique and unexpected than others. Yours is such a story – one I believe many people would also consider quite motivational. Would you kindly share with us a few words about it? Also, why was bookbinding your choice?
It’s a long story so I’ll try to keep it short. At the time of this writing it has been nearly ten years since I was involved in an accident while riding my bike on the way to class. I was studying Classics (ancient Greek and Latin) and English literature. I was bruised here and there, my right wrist was broken from the impact of the van, and I suffered a brain injury from hitting the pavement. The head injury keeps me in constant pain to this day. “Chronic, intractable, post-traumatic headaches with migrainous features” is the diagnosis I was given. For a little while I attempted to keep up with the work in my classes and some passions on the side, but ultimately the kind of cognition that I was trying to retain ended up just causing more pain.
I’ve always been the kind of person who needs to be productive, and not being able to do what I was used to led me to a very low point. I had enjoyed visual arts since I was a kid, had done creative writing in my later teens, and was always interested in books as a vessel for information. Books and art were an integral influence on the kind of mind I developed, so I was searching for what I could possibly do with my life and interests. I stumbled across the North Bennet Street School’s website, saw that they had a program in bookbinding, and everything just clicked. I could still work with books, but using my hands instead of my head. Nothing else I came across spoke to me, and bookbinding became the one thing that I could really focus on, often times literally.
I began teaching myself, and unsurprisingly, the results were rough at best. The first time I applied to the North Bennet Street School I was not accepted, so the next year was spent, in my good hours, making successively improving bindings, and researching the history of bookbinding through the collection at the Newberry Library in Chicago. The following year I was accepted and by then I knew that fine bindings were something that I would focus on in my free time at school.
One thing the accident gave me which I would not have otherwise gotten was less productive hours in my day, which taught me to focus my time on learning the specialized aspect of bookbinding that most interested me, and I spent as much time as I could in my days learning that, not allowing myself to get distracted. I still have the headaches every second of every day (though you wouldn’t know it if you met me, I’m a rather cheery person), and it’s unlikely they’ll ever go away, but you do the best you can with what you have.
People, both from Greece (where I live) and abroad, ask me from time to time how to begin bookbinding, if there is a place where they can learn the craft. Being able to attend courses at an established institution offering structured programs and thoroughly equipped workshops, under the guidance of experienced craftsmen, is significant: it allows one to explore and develop his/her skills and build a strong foundation upon which to further progress.
Although there isn’t a bookbinding academy here anymore, the one that existed has been closed for many years, teaching institutions devoted entirely or partially to bookbinding can be found in many countries around the world. The North Bennet Street School, where you attended a two-year program, is one such institution.
What can you tell us about NBSS? What are your memories from training at a well known center for handcrafts and what would you consider the most important stepping stone it provided?
A traditional trade apprenticeship is seven years. The North Bennet program is two years. Granted, the first year or so of an apprenticeship could consist of sweeping up after everyone else, but my point is that you do not have enough time to learn everything that interests you, and you also need to focus on what you believe to be the best path to employment after you graduate, bearing in mind that certain kinds of work will likely be unsalable because you haven’t had the time to achieve continuity of skill. However, unless you are able to secure an apprenticeship, it’s likely that programs like the North Bennet Street School as straightforward as it gets with foundational bookbinding education.
As far as I know, the US does not have any bookbinding programs like the North Bennet Street School. There are book arts programs that cover many aspect of bookmaking; there are book arts centers, schools, and institutions where workshops bookbinding are offered, as well as private lessons with established binders, but none of these are multiple year programs, bench-oriented, and focused on craft the way North Bennet is. You start off learning paper grain and folding sections, and you end up having made a great number of structures, variations on those structures, many kinds of repair and conservation techniques and treatments, fine bindings, historical structures, and develop a broad range of traditional bookbinding skills which can be applied in whichever way you decide to utilize your hand skills. Graduates from the school have found work in conservation labs as technicians and conservators, in private practice doing repair and conservation work, fine bookbinding, edition work, make artist books, and some teach in addition to doing these. I attended the program from 2010 to 2012. Some of my most nostalgic memories are the moments where the room, noises, and people all drift away and I’m left there with the only things in existence: me, my tool, and the book that I’m tooling. It was a rather often occurrence.
As a stepping stone, here in the US, the North Bennet Street School has a reputation for training highly skilled bookbinders, and I used that as much as I possibly could, networking within the bookbinding field, getting to know as many people as I could. I spent a fair amount of time in the school’s library poring through exhibition catalogs, articles, and so on so that when I was introduced to someone new, there was a fairly good chance that I had heard of them before. I would go to as many events as possible, doing as much as I could to become familiar with people who might eventually become clients. As well, North Bennet offers a small business class for students in the final year of their program. This was extremely beneficial for me, since I began my private practice after graduating, and it’s very important to have a good idea of the business side of things when you want to make bookbinding your career.
Short courses and seminars is another way to gain new skills or hone existing ones.You’ve attended many seminars offered by distinguished bookbinders and craftspeople. Can you note a few things from those seminars that made a significant contribution to your progress as an artisan?
For me, most of the short courses or seminars that I have taken that directly correlate with the work that I do now were taken after having some experience doing them, which I either taught myself or learned during my time at NBSS. By the time I took a class with Monique Lallier, I was already familiar with all of the steps of doing a fine binding, so I was able to note how her process was different than others I had seen or done, and I was able to focus on the two things I most needed help with then: headcaps and corners, and wanted to learn edge-to-edge doublures. Even though I only took one class with her, I still think about the way she looks at a binding when she is examining it, and do my less experienced version of it when I am examining my own bindings.
While at NBSS, we learned knife making and sharpening from Jeff Peachey, who comes by to teach each year. The discipline he teaches in keeping your tools in proper shape is something I implement and will always be grateful for. There’s nothing like a well maintained tool to do just exactly what you need it to, and learning the significance of this helps instill a discipline and practice that carries on into every aspect of bookbinding.
On to your work – your bindings are frequently a harmonious blend between classic and modern elements. Binders often try such a combination but a balanced result is difficult to attain. Where do you draw inspiration for your designs and how do you proceed with creating them?
With my fine bindings, I draw from within the book. I see a book’s binding as a part of the book as a whole: the author, illustrator, illustrator, printer, paper-maker, time period, place of publication (for older books) and so on have already made an impact on the book, so my goal is to make a binding that is harmonious with the rest; something that emulates some of the ideas, feelings, imagery, etc. of what is in the book. Instead of making an artistic statement with my designs, I prefer to speak through craft. It’s not controversial to say that the history of bookbinding flows through my veins as I design. That history has made its impact on each and every book created, even if the book is a revolt against the history of the book. As such my designs tend to be more representational—I am less interested in making an artistic statement and more interested in creating something that will be aesthetically pleasing.
With just a few exceptions, I always have the design completely finished before beginning any work. I take my time with each project in the design phase. I’ll read the book, take in the illustrations, jot down some thoughts, scribble out some design ideas, and so on while working on other books. My design phase tends to take a while, but after that is done, the binding work itself is mere execution. I’ll still evaluate the binding at each stage, making sure the physical object works as well as the idea in my head, but it’s rare for me to change course once after I begin. Then I’ll make a clamshell box for it, make sure I’ve got a write up of technical aspects as well as design, and ship it off to the client. I don’t think there is anything unique about my process.
It’s hard to pinpoint one as the most important, since each step for me is woven together. The obvious option is the design. As I said above, the design is complete before I start any work at all. This means I’ve already spent a while with the book, gave ideas time to gestate, and have a good idea of what direction to go with the book.
The budget does play a role in a binding’s design. Working within the construct (not limitations) of the budget for each project, the different ways of interpreting a book, or expressing an idea are explored to create a unique binding that does for you what you want it to and does for the client what they want it to. At this point, I make up boards and plan out everything: leather choice, endpapers, leather hinge or paper pastedown, edge decoration, sewing structure, headbands, secondary board attachment if needed, decorative techniques, what finishing tools will be needed, etc. Once the binding is started I’ll evaluate it at each stage of forwarding, and will carry the binding to completion.
(Note by the interviewer – Please observe the outline in the photo above. Every number indicates a detail that has to be tooled individually with a separate tool. The overall result requires many hundreds of actions that require extreme precision – and all for a very small area of the binding…)
End of Part 1, stay tuned for part 2.
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