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Summer is almost here and the Covid-19 crisis has pretty much left Greece, hopefully soon the rest of the world as well.

We return after a long pause at Techniton Politeia to talk with Kate Holland.

Before we get to the interview I would like to thank Kate who managed to find time while juggling a number of things amidst the chaos.
She approached the interview openly, with a “playful” attitude and as a chance to explore her own thoughts and introspect, thus making it feel less “formal” and more like I was there at the bindery, having an interesting conversation with a fellow binder. It was a pleasure.

When asked for her artist or artisan statement -I tend to use both terms because people sometimes prefer one over the other- her reply was:
Artist or artisan, that is the question. But what about artistan? I think we can be both.

I’d always loved the visual arts and I studied Mandarin Chinese at university with the vision of becoming a contemporary Chinese art dealer but a stint of unemployment (or fortuitous circumstance) led me to take on the role of manager of a prestigious London antiquarian bookshop. I had grown up near the book town of Hay-on-Wye and had always loved books so this was a wonderful job, handling some of the world’s most important and valuable books. It never ceased to amaze me that all our civilisation, so far, was contained between these covers. I started a morning class in bookbinding at City Lit (an adult education establishment) with Flora Ginn as a way of learning to refurbish and repair the books and I was immediately hooked. From there, an HND in bookbinding at London College of Printing (now Communication) and stints with Jen Lindsey back at City Lit and Mark Cockram at Studio Five before setting up on my own. All while raising three kids.

My work is fairly evenly split between artist bindings, either on commission or for exhibition; the whole book, either my own artist’s books or one-offs and limited editions for clients, supervising typesetting and layout, printing and binding; and teaching, currently at West Dean College, Shepherds or in my own studio. I was elected as a Fellow of Designer Bookbinders in 2015 and am a regular binder to The Booker Prize. I have books in The Walker Library of the Human Imagination, British and Bodleian Libraries, National Art Library at the V&A, as well as numerous other public and private collections.

In 2018 you had the honor of being chosen to bind one of the six shortlisted books, Mars room by Rachel Kushner, which was then presented to the author. BBC’s The One Show featured your work in a lovely 5 minute video giving us a bit of insight into the creative process behind that binding and bookbinding in general.

I was wondering: what is the Man Booker prize and how does a binder get chosen to bind on of the shortlisted books for the award? Can you tell us a bit about your experience with this binding and maybe share the author’s reaction upon seeing it?

The Booker Prize is the foremost literary prize awarded annually to a work of fiction in the English language. Past winners have included such luminaries as Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Iris Murdoch, J M Coetzee. A longlist of about 20 titles is announced in July and then a shortlist of 6 in September Each of the shortlisted titles is bound as a design binding for presentation to the author at the awards ceremony. Only Fellows of Designer Bookbinders are eligible to apply to bind these and we are chosen on a rotating basis. We do not know which title we will get until the shortlist is announced. On that day a mystery package of unbound sheets arrives. We have between 4-6 weeks to read the book, come up with a design and bind it. These are expected to be full design bindings with all that entails – sewn headbands, leather joints, doublures etc. so it is incredibly intense with lots of late nights but it often throws up some really interesting and exciting responses.

I was really pleased to get “The Mars Room” as my book. It touched on one of my favourite themes – that all humans are born equal, or at least in theory. I am fascinated by how circumstance – where, when and to whom you were born – can affect the path you take and the choices you make. How does a girl, like Romy, from a ‘nice’ middle class background become a sex worker, imprisoned for murder? Throw in an abusive mother, an absent father, early sexual abuse, rape at a formative age, a drug habit to numb all those feelings and a predatory stalker and maybe we begin to understand. In my bindings I seek to explore the yawning divide between the haves and the have-nots. I have covered topics such as illegal immigration, homelessness, drug addiction, rape, asylum seekers. I chose to write on the endpapers of The Mars Room some of the grim statistics about the abuse that sex workers suffer on a daily basis, about the mass incarceration with which the US chooses to manage its population and the number of women who are stalked. 

In the video mentioned previously you also talk about the continuity of our craft and how our tools and equipment have remained practically unchanged through the centuries – along many of the techniques we use, if I may add. You also bring up the bonefolder saying it’s “man’s earliest tool”, which is fascinating if one stops to think about it…

What are your thoughts in regards to this continuity: why is it important and how does it affect your mindset towards your work?

I love the fact that a bookbinder from 500 years ago would recognise the tools, the techniques, the equipment that I use today. Though I would hope my aesthetic and sentiment have evolved. Tools of polished bone, used to scrape hides and make leather, have been found in Neanderthal sites from over 50,000 years ago. That the bone folder I use every day, is one of man’s earliest tools, is an exciting connection to one of the most integral parts of what makes us human – our ability to use tools. And we humans have gone way beyond ”just” using tools and can aspire to stupendous levels of craftsmanship.

I came to bookbinding via antiquarian bookselling handling some of the greatest books ever printed. The codex form has been used to transmit the wonders of civilisation for centuries, whether science, literature, travel, art. It works well. The pages open and you can read the words, the covers protect the pages. Why fix it when it ain’t broken? But this all sounds like I am wedded to the past. Far from it. It is imperative to respect tradition and all that has gone before in order to be able to push the boundaries and move forward. My son is currently studying design engineering and together we are exploring ways of integrating the most cutting-edge technology into one of our oldest technologies, the book. 

Your bindings often feature alum tawed skins and various dyeing techniques – to great effect I must add. Your Paradise Lost and Regain’d bindings come to mind.

What is it that makes this creative option so appealing to you and what would your advice be to fellow binders who would like to try their hand at leather dyeing? Any suggestions when it comes to the materials and techniques used?

I suppose my love affair with leather dyeing came from my need to have a wider palette to work with. I didn’t want to be restricted to just the colours available in ‘off the shelf’ leathers or my bindings to be identified by the number on the colour chart of the tannery catalogue. If you can dye your own leather then you have an infinite range of colours, textures, subtlety and intensity to hand. I tend to use fair or alum tawed calf or goatskin, generally sourced from Hewit’s – the fair gives a more nuanced, warmer colour and the alum tawed a starker, brighter colour being a whiter base. I use either Hewit’s Aniline dyes in powder form or Selladerm dyes available from Leather Conservation Centre. I buy only red, yellow, blue and black and mix accordingly.

I am currently particularly fond of graduated colour schemes such as in “Paradise Lost and Regain’d”. I think most people assume that this is airbrushed but, in fact, the colour is built up in thin washes incredibly gradually over several days to give a much more subtle and sophisticated finish. Always remember to fix the dye as well before covering! I use Dyefix or Tinofix which are the respective fixatives for Hewits and Selladerm.

Silly question but I’m really curious: what’s with the dot fascination?!
Many of your bindings feature dots as a recurring decorative element. Is there something to it?

Early in my career I made two books for the annual Designer Bookbinders’ competition – Elizabeth David’s “Book of Mediterranean Food” and H E Bates’s “Through the Woods”. Both of them wholly featured dots as the design motif. And they won respectively Second Prize Set Book and First Prize Open Choice and Mansfield Medal for Best Book. Around the same time, some well-meaning person had advised me that, in order to become a successful bookbinder, you had to have a recognisable, signature style. I had had no artistic training, only being allowed to study needlework at school not art, and I struggled massively with my self-confidence and my ability to design. Dots seemed quite easy so, I guess, I thought I was onto something.

That was until a well-known dealer commissioned a design binding from me saying, “Just do your dots thing.” I did, but, it was a huge struggle as dots were so wrong for that book. I vowed that I would only produce designs that truly reflected the book’s contents, not just another iteration of a previously successful, but now hackneyed, motif. One of my greatest compliments recently, was that my bindings looked like I had actually read the book!

While reading about your binding on Doors of Perception I thought about Huxley’s use of psychedelics and how many artists have used them as a means of searching for inspiration or expanding their creative expression. Bookbinders, at least to my knowledge, can’t benefit from that: bit hard to use a paring knife while tripping… That said if a design binding is to live up to its name it does require of the binder to be immersed in the book’s story to some extent. I believe your words “When I’m working on the books they become my whole life, I live and breathe them…” represent this in a very poetic manner.

So, how do you experience that immersion? (In what ways do you live and breathe in/through the book you are working on each time?) Are there any steps or guidelines you follow to facilitate it? Is it a purely positive state or does it also come at a cost?

I can testify that I have not yet found a stimulant which helps in the actual process of bookbinding! Hand-eye co-ordination when handling sharp tools or delicate leather requires absolute concentration. I immerse myself utterly into the world of the book I am working on, reading it, taking notes, re-reading if necessary, researching the times in which it was written, artistic fashions, societal upheavals, political tensions, historic events. All these affect the writer and the writing and I aspire to be able to reflect them equally in the binding, but hopefully with a contemporary twist.

I usually have about five or six books on the go at any one time, in different stages of research and development, experimentation and materials gathering, then actual execution. Any more than that and my head would explode. My process, if you can call it that, is to consume as much as I can find intellectually and then let it percolate for a bit – I find walking and swimming incredibly helpful for emptying the mind and working through these creative conundrums. I also use my insomnia as an excellent time for reflection and problem solving. Though my husband might not agree!

Bookbinders gradually diverged from classic decorations that were purely ornamental in nature and started viewing their bindings in a different light: a complex, multilayered, functional object offering limitless potential as a medium for artistic expression. Design bindings came to be known as the modern face of bookbinding.

“[…]Though there is absolutely no inference that this is to disguise a hedonistic lifestyle like Dorian Gray’s but purely a comment on the contemporary pursuit of the preservation of youth and beauty. ” Kate Holland

I consider your binding on Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray, with its stricking covers and unexpected endpapers, a perfect example of what a Design Binding can be: not just a creative representation of the book’s content but also a commentary that expands beyond it and becomes a reflection on society, posing questions that challenge us and our views on the story they came from.

Isn’t that what art is in its essence – making connections between a thought or realization, a creation based on that thought and our world, redefining our perception of all 3? And the amazing thing is that this fermentation, taking place in the mind of someone witnessing a piece of art, can potentially have infinite outcomes.

What were your thoughts while making this binding? How did you end up with this design and endpapers? And how do you view design bindings in general?

I had always held Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray” in mind as a potential title to bind having seen photographs of a collection of Dior dresses with a fabulous peacock feather design of highly embellished beading. However, it wasn’t until I read an article about the world of extreme plastic surgery that these two, seemingly disparate worlds, collided in my head and, along with a long-held love for the artwork of Aubrey Beardsley, I came up with this design. It just goes to show that you never know where inspiration will strike from and you have to soak up anything and everything around you to get to it.

Bookbinding has traditionally been one of the applied arts, a merely decorative and protective covering to the bookblock, albeit a highly technical and exacting one. It rarely referred to the contents within, save the title. Generally, any tooling would be to a prescribed formula, whether a house style or to reflect the owner’s taste and wealth. With modern design binding came a move towards a more fluid style and a decorative response to the text within. I would argue, though, that there is still room to push bookbinding one step further into the “art” world, by drawing analogies between classic texts and contemporary issues, whether to make a political statement or as a simple emotional or intellectual stimulus. I’m increasingly drawn to the term ‘artist binding’ over ‘design binding’.

My lack of art education means that I’ve always struggled with calling myself an artist. I felt there was something rather egotistical about going to art school and being an artist. I always referred to my space as a workshop not a studio. I always called myself a craftsperson not an artist. But very recently an artist friend of mine described me as an artist bookbinder and I thought I’ll take that. In a way, though, I feel liberated by my lack of art education – I have no rules to follow, I just have to try and achieve what I envisage in my head and see what happens – so more of a happy accident than anything.  Now that I feel relatively (and I use that in the loosest sense) at ease with the technical side of making a book, I am free to explore the intellectual exercise of confining my ideas to the book form. I worked out that there are 13 planes on which to express yourself creatively, not including the box, which gives such wonderful scope, how they work singly and interactively. 

What’s interesting about design binding, though, is that, unlike most other artforms eg painting, sculpture, you’re not starting from a position of zero. You’re always reacting to someone else’s artistic output ie the author, the illustrator, the typesetter, the printer etc. I have recently been questioning binding the work of others and wanting to be in control of the whole book so I am currently looking at printmaking and letterpress printing though I feel I must keep this under control and concentrate on the binding alone. It’s an ongoing internal argument.

An excerpt from a 1918 manual (see image) describes bookbinding as an excellent therapeutic aid for various disorders.

It is a testament to the many and diverse benefits our craft has to offer. I would kindly ask you to share your personal experience on the matter, given that you recently had the privilege of seeing all that in effect.

One of my particular passions is teaching and converting new people to the joys of bookbinding. I have seen the immensely therapeutic benefits of it when working for the charity ‘Bound by Veterans’ which teaches bookbinding to wounded, sick and injured ex-servicemen and women. Also to children with learning difficulties and on the autistic spectrum. There’s something so wonderful when you are “in the flow”, your head and hands working together, you forget all your cares and the sense of achievement and growth in self-esteem is palpable. I’m thinking of one particular girl who had just been diagnosed with Asperger’s and told that she wouldn’t be able to work in the “real world” and that she would require lifelong care. On day 1 she felt unable to attend the bookbinding course, due to her social anxiety but by day 5 she was fully immersed and loving it. She now has a skill which means she can work from home and hopefully make a modest income.

My local medical practice in Frome is at the forefront of the social prescribing movement, where patients with multiple health issues, who are struggling with their mental health and well-being, are being prescribed access to a wide range of resources, whether it’s park runs or talking cafes. The decrease in GP appointments and hospital admissions there has been dramatic. Together with a GP friend of mine, we are looking at getting some qualitative measures of the therapeutic benefits of bookbinding and other crafts, so that we can eventually look at applying for NHS funding to provide these.

As it happens this interview is taking place amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.

The outbreak has brought the entire world to a halt, changing or taking away many of the things we took for granted and imposing a new reality. It made us sceptic of the future that awaits us in the aftermath and has put a questionmark on various aspects of our lives.

I’ve been talking with a few fellow binders and here in Athens – we’ve been in lockdown for a while now. Some felt creatively numbed and took a step away from our craft to reevaluate it’s importance in a situations like this, others told me the exact opposite – that it provided a way for them to remain active and creative during self isolation and took the opportunity to explore ideas previously left in the backburner.

How has the Covid-19 outbreak affected your relationship with bookbinding? What was its impact on you firstly as a professional binder and secondly as a creative maker. Please share with us your experience and thoughts so far.

(Click on the photo and zoom-in for a detailed look in HQ!)

Wow, what interesting times we are in right now. I confess I am really enjoying them, though I feel terribly guilty saying that. My eldest children are back from university, my youngest home instead of school and my husband off the daily commute hamster wheel. We are incredibly privileged to live in the countryside and have a garden. We have both been able to keep working so we have some income at least. My heart goes out to those trapped in flats with no outside space or forced to go to work at great risk to themselves and their families.

I have spent much of my time helping to set up and maintain Mask Force, a community of volunteers making fabric facemasks for key workers and the most vulnerable. As I write, we have donated around 2500 facemasks and now have 8 satellite groups around the country. I have also been working with the #Masks4All movement, a group of activists who have been instrumental in changing public and political thinking worldwide about the importance of wearing facemasks to stop the spread of the coronavirus, though the UK government is still proving a hard nut to crack.

I have been bookbinding, though, interestingly and unwittingly, I have chosen to concentrate on the jobs which don’t require too much creative input. I have a huge typesetting and layout project to work through which involves lots of mind-numbing screen time and several commissions for relatively straightforward bindings, for which, I luckily manged to get all the materials gathered before lockdown.

I frankly haven’t had time to explore ideas left on the backburner. I wish I had. There are so many.

” It cannot be overstated how important it is for all of us to work with our hands on some level. It should be made compulsory in schools. “
The above quote from you resonates with me a lot. I remember back when I was at school wondering why everything is geared towards “doctor – lawyer – IT”. Why did noone ever mention I could be a woodworker, a machinist, a jeweller, a bookbinder…?

For 99.9% of your existence as a species we had to work with our hands and,  although it still remains essential to our civilization, it almost seems that somehow handcrafting has faded into obscurity in our lifetime.

What has our negligence towards learning to work with our hands caused? Why do you think it should be a part of our school curiculum? And last but not least, do you have any thoughts on how it could be implemented?

Humans are the only great ape who have evolved not only opposable thumbs but tiny bones within the thumb which allow us to manipulate tools to create really fine and delicate work. The further we move away from making for ourselves, and into the world of consumerism and globalisation, the sadder we are. I teach undergraduates who cannot thread a needle or tie a knot. This is shocking.

Too many children are spending their learning lives in front of screens and not exploring some of the most basic skills and there is far too much emphasis on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) here in the UK curriculum with the Arts subjects being sidelined. Bookbinding used to be taught in primary school here. It covers so many basic skills – measuring and estimating, calculating and cutting, folding and manipulating, fine motor skills such as threading and sewing. It can be taught as a supplement to any of the academic subjects – English, Modern Languages, History, Geography, Design Technology, Art. Children who struggle to engage with the written word in manufactured books, relish the idea of putting their own words into their own books. I have had the chance to speak about this to the APPG (All Party Parliamentary Group) on ‘Art in Education’ on the importance of bookbinding and making in general. And I am cooking a plan to fund a “Bookbinding Bus” which will go to schools, festivals, city centres, inner city estates, anywhere to spread the joy of bookbinding and hopefully impart some of those basic skills.

The importance of using the creative ‘right’ side of our brain as well as the logical ‘left’ side cannot be overestimated. Creativity is problem solving and invention as well as expression and feeling – where would we be without those? And making with our hands is so much a part of that creativity. Hopefully some of the backlash to the onward march of technology will be an increased resurgence in making by hand and a respect for the handmade. We must appreciate the handmade, the artisan, the crafted for its integral value to mankind and not just as a marketing tool.

Be sure to check Kate Holland’s site and also IG account!

Closing I would like to thank you for visiting the blog and reading our talk with Kate Holland. If you enjoyed it consider having a look at the blog section for Techniton Politeia, where you can find more interviews.

Till next time!