Jin Hu or, as most people have come to know her, “Huhu Hu” is a bookbinder based in Quzhou, China. I have been watching her work continuously evolve and forming a distinct personality through the years, with impressive results. She has been self-taught to a great extent, something which I admire and speaks to me on a personal level, but also managed to learn a lot and improve next to renown binders. Last but not least her handcrafting extends beyond binding books into some quite interesting leather sculpting…
For all the reasons mentioned above I believe she is definitely an artisan to keep an eye on and so invited her for a talk about her work, the experience she’s gained so far and her next steps.
Jin Hu started as a self taught bookbinder, practicing on her own for several years with Kaija Rantakari (Paperiaarre)helping her through the internet. During that time (2007-2013) she tried and practiced several techniques through online videos and articles as well as books on bookbinding.
She learned various leather decoration techniques from Sol Rebora and then travelled abroad to attend seminars by Monique Lallier, Luigi Castiglioni, Susana Dominguez and Zigor Anguiano Calzada.
From 2015 to 2017 she has also taken part in 5 exhibitions:
-Nobel Museum Bookbinding Exhibition featuring the novel by MoYan.
-5thWorld EBRU day
-’Open.Set’–design binding exhibition by American Academy of Bookbinding
-‘International Copetition Heroic Works 2017’—by DB UK
-Xtra small Miniatuurboekjes in Museum Meermanno
Many aspiring bookbinders do not have the precious opportunity to attend courses and learn from established craftsmen and institutions. That is usually for two reasons: absence of skilled binders or craft-academies within travel distance or the very high cost of participating in seminars abroad. Thus, in many cases they have to learn the craft on their own, through trial and error.
Things have changed for the better in that aspect, with the rise of the internet and the abundance of educational material available through it. Still, it is nowhere near as efficient as the experience and knowledge provided first-hand by an experienced binder.
You’ve been trying to learn bookbinding on your own for several years. Being self taught can be extremely demanding but at the same time very rewarding and offering a unique sense of accomplishment, hardly found elsewhere.
Could you describe your personal experience on being self-taught: Did you go about a certain way in learning bookbinding, or was it more random? Did you set specific goals and then went on completing them or did you follow some other course? Which where the best and which the worst parts of being self-taught?
At the very beginning self-learning was more of a random process. I would look into everything I could find: books, online tutorials , videos, and then I practiced a lot. Being a novice I knew little about the elements and functions of a binding’s structure. As I gained enough knowledge I managed to form a more complete understanding of what there is to learn. I made a detailed list writing down all the skills I needed to have or structures I wanted to master, f.e. such as bradel binding, clamshell box, marbling, byzantine binding, etc. I then made a schedule which I followed strictly.
The best part of self-learning is that I am able to understand the process more comprehensively, my approach is not restricted in some fashion and that allows me to invent new methods. To give you an example: I have learnt at least 4 ways to cover the corners and I am now using one that I created by myself, which is easy to do and produces a very fine result.
The worst part would be how painstaking it is as there is much more time spent in making mistakes. When it comes to the higher level of bookbinding, such as a full leather fine binding or French binding, one can never accomplish a really fine result simply by self-learning. That’s why I travelled abroad to learn from master binders.
Your bindings are full of personality and already exhibit a distinct identity, something which many artists and artisans (myself included) strive to accomplish for a long time – if ever.
Is this a result of conscious effort? How do you approach the creation of a design binding? Do you as an artisan rely on good planning and preparation or is your creative process guided more by instinct and chance?
Thank you so much for your encouragement! Although I believe I still need practice to improve my bindings, as I am not satisfied with all of them.
I am very conscious regarding my approach and efforts when it comes to design bindings. For my early bindings I didn’t really make very detailed designs, sometimes I just drew a simple sketch. Back then I would refer to the process as ”randomness under certain control”. Recently however, I started to improve my design process: I do a very thorough planning before starting the binding, such as making sample boards or drawing the covers, editing the color combinations with a pc. This can take many hours up to days or even months.
Minimalism, harmony, and inventive use of colors and textures – these are often present in your work, gracefully representing the Asian Culture’s core aesthetics.
Given the very long history of Chinese art and its distinct style how would you describe your culture’s influence on your work? Has it affected you and if so which of its elements appeal to you the most? Is their presence on your bindings on purpose -an homage to your culture- or is it more of a subconscious source of inspiration?
I think that Chinese culture did not play a significant role in my bindings up till now. I designed the books according to some basic guidelines of graphic design. However I came to realize that Chinese Art has affected me in a more subconscious way.
I recently read a book series on Chinese Painting wrote by James Cahill, which totally changed my mind about Chinese art. Before reading these books I thought Chinese painting is similar with Ukiyoe art from Japan. Instead Chinese painting is a very abstract art, but one needs to learn its “language” to admire the paintings, otherwise you can only see mountains, hills ,rivers and rocks repeating themselves, you won’t be able to feel the emotions within the lines. That is one reason why Chinese painting is not as popular as Japanese painting, which is less abstract and more decorative. I realized this is an asset for me as a Chinese, so I am now making some trials in combining features found in Chinese painting with design binding.
China is a world on its own and so we don’t often get the chance to talk with a bookbinder situated there… Can you please tell us a few things regarding the Chinese bookbinding scene:
What is the bookbinding community there like?
There isn’t currently a bookbinding community in China, most Chinese people view bookbinding as “book cover graphic design” or similar to industrial made books…
Is the public familiar with bookbinding as a craft/art?
Not really, but people are slowly getting more and more familiar with western-style bindings. They can appreciate bookbinding as a craft but not art.
There are some craft schools which teach Chinese style binding, but if someone wants to be a well rounded bookbinder he/she has to go abroad as I did.
In recent years there are few studios which provide simple western binding courses but not in a very professional way – at least in my opinion. So I believe workshops for bookbinding or stores selling bookbinding materials and tools will be popular in China in the near future.
My main customers are book collectors of western-style bindings. Since they have some knowledge on bookbinding they are willing to order from me. Many people also find me through articles I write at an online column, where I try to introduce the aspects of bookbinding to the public.
Apart from bookbinding you make some amazing leather sculptures, for example scarabs and that extremely cute Minotaur. I must admit I’d hardly ever notice the black scarab isn’t real just by looking at the photo you’ve sent me – it’s so lifelike!
Has this been an old fascination or is it something you’ve discovered recently?
I know that some artists make bugs out of metal but I haven’t seen anyone making leather beetles so far, so it is basically an invention of my own. Each part of the bug is build separately and then put together. I’ve spent a great amount of time developing it and I still need to make many more leather bugs to improve the whole process.
The Minotaur is a collaboration with my husband and it is also a test product for our new leather sculpture brand named “HG Art”. While the leather bugs are made with thin vegetable-tanned leather which can be shaped easily the Minotaur was build with thick and hard leather which required very accurate shaping, just like when making clothes but in a more complicated way. We also designed the Minotaur with movable hands and legs.
And finally, what other ideas do you have in store when it comes to this kind of leathercrafting?
Apart from leather bugs we are now in the process of making an owl and a whale. We plan to design more sculptures this year, not only animals but imaginary species as well – such as those found in ancient Chinese fairy tales.
In short term, I plan to finish some fine bindings in 2018, which involve trying new design styles and new methods of decoration.
In long term, I wish I could exhibit more of my bindings internationally. Also, to make books which are more like art pieces and not just craft work. I am also planning to develop more methods on leather decoration and dyeing and, hopefully, teach these in workshops around the world.