bespoke bookbinding, bookbinding, Design binding, encuadernacion, encuadernacion artesanal, χειροποίητη βιβλιοδεσία, Εργαλεία βιβλιοδεσίας, δερματόδετη βιβλιοδεσία, καλλιτεχνική βιβλιοδεσία, leather binding, memoirs, reliure, Reliure D'Art
Mighty Queen Nefertiti went to see the court sculptor for a new bust.
The sculptor Thutmosis was old and wise and the Queen found him examining a block of black basalt.
“Can you make me immortal?” asked she, to which the sculptor replied, “No, I cannot, my Queen, for only the Gods are immortal”.
“Can you make me perfect?” asked she, to which the sculptor replied, “No, I cannot, my Queen, for these hands belong to an imperfect man and thus cannot create perfection”.
“Of what use are you to me then?” wondered she, to which the sculptor replied, “I can give you beauty, my Queen, and that surpasses both immortality and perfection, for even immortals covet beauty and it defines perfection”.
What is beauty?
Defining its nature is one of the oldest and most persistently pursued endeavors of the human mind. We’ve yet to reach a conclusive definition and most likely never will, which is strange for something that governs our life in all its facets, one way or another.
I was commissioned to bind the memoirs of an aesthetic surgeon and in them he writes poignantly on the matter:
“ Countless mathematicians and philosophers attempt to quantitate true beauty and define perfect proportion. While they have succeeded to some degree, pointing to repetition of forms and ratios in the natural world as proof of their theories, there exists something unquantifiable about beauty. For me, it always comes back to the moment in the museum in Paris when I knew I stood before something beautiful. If beauty could be completely and entirely described, then an understanding of beauty would be something that anyone could obtain through study. We all know that’s not the case.”
What follows is a long journey into the creation of this binding and the worlds/thoughts of the surgeon and bookbinder behind it. If that, dear reader, sounds like something you’d enjoy carry on, and maybe pour a glass or two as we’ll be here for a while…
A Surgeon and a Bookbinder
We discussed a lot with Miss V., the person behind this project, and while I had a few ideas from the get go, which managed to find their ways into the finished bindings, they were mostly concepts without yet a solid canvas to bind them into a cohesive whole.
The commission involved two identical bindings and since one was intended as a gift to the very author of the book I decided to get to know him better. As I read his memoirs, I was surprised to find parallels between our professions, more than I’d expect, ranging from the superficial to the essential. This intrigued me: I felt I was looking at a strange mirror, seeing a distorted reflection of myself…
On a first level, the bookbinder and the surgeon use some similar tools (scalpel and various other cutting instruments) and work with the same basic material, leather, although obviously in different forms. Their work has to not only look good but function properly too: a stiff book joint that doesn’t open, or a stiff face, do not make for a happy client (although it may be argued the latter is more frustrating than the former). They both have to be very precise in their work, fusing over details less than half a mm in size, and must pay great attention to detail. Both fields require a balance between a skilled and steady hand and a good perception of aesthetics. The result is either lifeless or inspired but poorly made, if one of the two is lacking. The ideal surgeon and bookbinder are both an artisan and an artist.
On a deeper level, both seek to produce something beautiful. Some will probably argue that the most important pursuit of bookbinding is to protect and preserve the text, and they’d be 100% right, but I doubt it would have become such a vast and complex craft/art if it was only restrained to its technical purpose.
On this note, I couldn’t help but share this quote where the author draws an analogy between books and his field of work – although he probably didn’t expect it would apply to his memoirs one day:
“ We are all drawn to beautiful book covers: there’s a part of us all that looks to cover art to tell us something about what is inside.”
What intrigued me the most though were the similarities between the author and me. Although there are parallels it’s also true that his profession, work and world in general, differ a great deal from mine. Yet there were certain parts which resonated deeply with me.
A good example is his words on perfectionism:
“ But the great ones (surgeons) are awakened by challenge and driven by a chronic dissatisfaction with anything that could be better. ”
I highly doubt I’ll ever be considered one of the great ones and I’m not implying that here – it is, after all, a title that’s always bestowed by others upon one’s person, as the author does here. That said, perfectionism has been an incredible driving force but also an occasional plague for me – I’ve talked about it and the effect it has had on me as an artisan in quite a few of my posts.
Here’s another one:
“ Aesthetic surgery is the perfect place for me. There is an intersection of art, science, and medicine that can’t be found in any other field. ”
Upon reading this I said to myself “Yes, exactly!”.
Bookbinding is an incredible amalgam of crafts and arts, unmatched (feel free to argue with me on this one) in the number and variety of craft fields it encompasses. No other craft comes close to it and it is this vastness and depth that I have fell in love with, as it makes every part of me come alive: it is about encasing the human intellect and psyche in a three-dimensional artifact and making sure it is functional, long lasting and beautiful.
Sounds like something a wizard would say describing his art, doesn’t it…?
But the part which resonated with me the most was his recollections of Paris, and more specifically coming face to face with masterpieces of art:
“Paris was an incredible setting for expanding my horizons. I spent my time immersed in a culture that gave rise to some of the most beautiful art in the world and spent hours in the most celebrated museums. I was charged. Anyone who appreciates art knows the moment in a gallery or museum when perception of the sound of the floorboards or the knocking sound of your shoes on concrete gives way to the tidal wave of visual stimulation bestowed by a painting or sculpture. It shakes you. It isn’t just your eyes, but a feeling. You just know, with something beyond your eyes and brain, that what you are looking at is beautiful and meaningful and true. That feeling has the same force as the one that brings people to tears at symphonies and causes riots after Avant guard plays. As a young man in Paris, I experienced that over, and over, and over again. Standing feet away from perfect human forms released from marble, the abstract and yet completely controlled paintings of Seraut, and the luminous pastel forms of Degas, it clicked. The nebulous appreciation for art that had permeated my childhood coalesced and became a central part of who I am.”
The feeling he describes is something very familiar to me and I’ve had the pleasure to experience it in many cases. None of it however prepared me for my recent trip to Rome…
Rome was sublime. I never imagined such an immense scale of art and beauty -magnificent art that ranges from fragments of the ancient past to enormous masterpieces of the renaissance and beyond- could exist in one place in the world. It was simply too much to absorb and I’m still trying to process it.
Perhaps the most characteristic single instance was in Palazzo Massimo, which I highly recommend spending the time to explore.
Here I must note that I had the huge privilege to be almost entirely alone there during my visit, as it was during “off-season” (as much as it can be in Rome) and while the pandemic was still in almost full effect. This allowed me and my partner to have entire floors, sometimes entire museums, to ourselves, making the experience deeply personal. It was as if all of this art and beauty was created and collected there just for us…
Anyway, back to Palazzo Massimo. While it contains some extraordinary pieces of art, like the breathtaking sculpture of the Wrestler, it was something entirely different that stood out for me. At the 3rd floor of the museum are on display, excellently preserved, the interior walls and paintings of a Roman villa. Among them was a room portraying a garden.
Viewing it in the serenity of absolute silence and solitude, I was moved. There was something in that artificial garden, it’s hard to put in words, as if this unknown painter was so in control of his skills, so confident and at the same time so humble and close to what he was depicting, making it seem completely effortless and full of life, as if he could do anything with his art. He could bring forth the mysteries of existence but instead created this garden, which felt in some ways more real than the real thing. I was almost in tears.
It also brought to mind what Picasso (supposedly) said after seeing the Altamira cave paintings “We’ve invented nothing”…
It was this trip to Rome that gave me the inspiration I needed for the design, which is somewhat of an irony since I was asked by a couple of people if I believed it could find its way into my work and, having a hard time digesting the excess of excellence I came in touch with, I remember thinking to myself the unlikeliness of such a possibility.
In his memoirs the author writes:
“ Standing feet away from perfect human forms released from marble […]”
“In many ways I consider myself a sculptor, and my medium human cartilage, bone, and tissue.”
I knew there was something I could -no, not could, should!- work with there. But I couldn’t come up with something. After returning from Rome, and while I was trying to convince my ideas to work in unison, I kept thinking about the trip. I remembered my visit to the Vatican museums. The first stop was their great collection of Egyptian antiquities, among which were artifacts and statues made of black basalt. Suddenly, something clicked. A concept began to emerge, my up-until-now random ideas gravitating towards it.
An important part of the design I came up with was to surface-gilt the back cover with a foil that would make it look like dark granite or basalt. This was a technique I was familiar with and I also did various tests, which looked great in person. However, when I went on to apply it on the bindings themselves disaster struck: for some reason beyond the result was “clotted” and didn’t look at all like the test boards, although the materials and the process was exactly the same.
Hmm, this felt familiar…
Fortunately, I am not the binder I was 10 years ago. This disaster forced me to rethink the design and the final piece of the puzzle was revealed: I decided to use a material I bought a while back and had been itching to use, a paper with a stone texture.
Why didn’t you think of it in the first place, I hear you ask? I’ve no idea, tunnel vision I guess. The point is abandoning the surface-gilding technique and introducing this paper freed me and eventually led to a much more nuanced design.
One of the reasons I immensely enjoyed working on this project was how well it lended itself to my beloved play on symbolism. As you might have seen in my South Sea Scheme or Hamlet binding, I like to create layers of meaning, some of which point inwards and some outwards, by playing with the three elements interacting with each other: the book’s content, the thoughts it creates and lastly the binding, the physical object, itself.
However in this case the concept of layers took on a much more literal meaning as well, a nod to the topic at hand. Books have layers, just like human bodies. And just as is the case with people those layers take on a metaphorical sense as you peel deeper: Books and People are more than the sum of their parts.
I tried to incorporate the aspect of layers in different ways. First by actually taking off a piece of leather/skin from the face on the front cover, “unveiling” that way what lies beneath. The cover itself is a layer and when you open it you are once more left facing the tissue underneath, but bigger/closer now. The endpapers are followed by a section of two papers that differ in hue and texture, to add tactility but mostly to simulate a transition from one layer to another into the human body. And finally, we reach a paper in the color and texture of bone upon which the thoughts of the author are laid.
The layer concept, as described above, also doubles as a play to the authors quote on being a sculptor with human cartilage, bone, and tissue being his medium.
The cases could be considered as adding a final extra layer over the bindings.
Moving on to the covers themselves, which I named Pre-operation side and Goddess side respectively in my mind.
The Pre-op side features, with some artistic license, surgical markings inspired by Langer lines, which normally depict skin tension.
The detail that stands out the most on this side, in fact one of the core elements of the design in general, is the incredible marbled paper that Daniela from Papiers Prina managed to create, custom made for this project, which was also used for the endpapers.
I had the idea of such a paper in my mind long before the design began taking shape and so a lot of it was created around this paper. I needed something that would bring the image of human muscle, tissue and blood veins in mind, while being artistic and interesting to look at – beautiful but also slightly disturbing. It was, as requests go, very specific and at the same time quite vague.
Daniela’s paper surpassed my wildest expectations. It was extremely difficult to make, as it was triple-marbled and required a great amount of experimentation and precision to achieve the intended result and have all the layers show through each other in the right way. In the end though her skills, meticulousness and artistic perception allowed her, through the strange mix of chaos and order that is marbling, to create the most unique marbled paper I’ve ever owned and used.
I wanted the Goddess side to have a transcending quality to it. To be a beautiful face but also one that isn’t exactly real. Gone are the anatomical lines and the jawline indicating a face contour, the skin and tissue underneath: a black stone with intense texture, abstract lines and gold accents has taken their place. Its shape, the shape of the face now, is not anymore bound by the restraints of human anatomy. The straight colorless hair has turned to golden ornaments. A vibrant electric blue emanates from the eye, capturing the light in every move of the cover.
This is the desired image of ourselves, beauty itself. The disparity between the two faces is huge, yet they exist on opposing sides of the same book and if one would flip the covers open in a 180 degree angle (ideally don’t though!) they could gaze onto each other…
The eye, lips and nose of the Goddess side were traced over an astonishing face, that of Queen Nefertiti, as seen through the famous bust.
The title, running down on the bindings spine between the two covers, underlines how the surgeon is the intermediator between us and our desired image of ourselves.
The letters of the title are each tooled in two colors: gold and a silvery black, inspired by the gold-black stripes on King Tut’s sarcophagus.
For the headbands I went with a red leather core held in place by golden silk threads, the idea being to resemble exposed veins.
It’s a happy coincidence that this is the first binding I’ve put some sort of personal insignia on – something that’s been long overdue. The symbol you see represents a monogram of K and D, my initials.
Make sure to check the bindings in motion at the full video presentations I’ve uploaded at the corresponding Instagram post. While I’m happy with the photos a binding is always a 3-dimensional object and the way it feels and interacts with the light is often lost in still pictures.
The mighty Queen and the wise Sculptor
The story of Nefertiti and Thutmosis (“calligraphy” on papyrus by Marianna Koutsipetsidis) originally came to me as a nice extra touch. However, in the end it became what really brought everything together: the idea behind the design, the source of its inspiration, the style of the bookcase, the book’s content and my thoughts during the whole binding process.
I’m a storyteller at heart and, to me at least, this short story is the most important part of this project and why it’s possibly my most “artistic” work yet. Binding the book and making a case for it, no matter how special, is simply a transformation process through my skills, it’s still taking X and using it to make Y. The short story represents the transition from transformation to emergence, creating something entirely new, that also grants meaning to my design. It’s the core, the life-giving heart of it all.
I always considered myself a craftsman and not really an artist when it comes to bookbinding – the artistic side of me usually being just a sprinkle on the cake. That’s why this project, for the reason mentioned above, felt like a birth of sorts, as if entering a new realm where strange and exciting things happen.
Who knows, if I manage to stay here long enough I might even find Thutmosis somewhere, patiently revealing a face hidden in stone…
Before signing off I’d like to express my gratitude for G.V., the person who commissioned this project. By giving me freedom, patience, helpful pointers, trust and last but not least a decent budget, she made it stress-free and allowed me to immerse myself in it, to explore, experiment and finally produce something that speaks of the creative in me as much as, I believe, speaks of the book’s content.
Last but not least, for those interested I used my Stylus set, Dot set and Versatile Typeholder to make this binding.