There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree that struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly… survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – By Betty Smith
Full French leather binding. Decoration made with leather inlays and 22 Karat gold leaf. Handmarbled paper. Cloth bound case with gilt leather label.
I recently finished working on a commission for a design binding based on Betty Smith’s book, intended as a very special gift. I was not familiar with the story and the words at the post’s beginning were the first thing I laid my eyes on when I started my research. I could instantly see why this is a well loved book…
Whether or not I’ve succeeded in delivering a special gift remains to be seen, however as the post subtitle implies I’ve (re-)learned a valuable lesson; Simple ≠ Easy.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m neither complaining for the work it took neither saying it should have been easy. It is occasions like this one that put everything into perspective and make one appreciate “simple” bindings made by skilled colleagues and binders of the past even more…
I used to have two rules written on a piece of paper on the bindery wall:
Rule No 1 – It is always harder than you think
Rule No 2 – Don’t doubt rule No 1
When I moved to a new location I simply forgot to hang it again somewhere visible – big mistake!
But lets talk about the binding…
The book, bought from a book-dealer by the client, arrived quite smelly – probably from spending many years in a basement. Not that “old-book” aroma many people rave about, it was more on the stinky side! After almost two months like this, with a fan constantly airing it, the smell finally dissipated.
After the book had been sewn, rounded and backed, it was time to think about the decoration. The client gave me some pointers: he wanted a design binding (as opposed to a more classic look) and asked for something minimal and realistic.
The client also liked my binding for Wasteland, which I did a few years back…
As a rule of thumb I never repeat the same (design-) binding twice, that way all bindings remain original and I also get to try new things. However I usually try to find a way to incorporate a client’s preferences in the design and the aforementioned rule doesn’t really apply to something as simple as wind blowing away a tree’s leaves.
Before venturing on with design details I must make an honorable mention: early on there have been a couple of wonderful design concepts created for the binding by graphic designer Christina Pandjarou. However, as is often the case with interesting concepts, they didn’t work out for various reasons and I had to return to the drawing board, this time without Christina, who opted out due to scheduling conflicts.
Thank you so much C.P. – it was fun! 🙂
I did an extensive search on 1920’s New York to draw some inspiration. Not so much for reference, since the binding would feature a highly stylized and linear depiction of the city, but mostly to get a sense of NY back then – to get in the mood.
Boy, was I enamored! I’ve seen a lot of documentaries for those decades, and some for NY specifically, but by searching for images and finding some amazing shots -from the harbors and train stations, to the poor neighborhoods, to the grand and glorious scyscrapers that were beginning to emerge- I felt as if walking down those streets during a time when everything changed.
I wanted to capture the city’s vibe, as conveyed through photos of the era and Francie’s story: big, busy and loud, dangerous, ugly, wonderful, ever-changing, wealth and poverty side by side. Everything connected, a massive organism, lifeless but full of life, inanimate itself but always shifting and changing. A place dominated by contrast.
Ι chose a moody blue leather (there has been debate as to whether this is blue or green!) to create a gloomy backdrop. However various colors would be used for the city onlays to create that “busy” feeling of a megalopolis. I also wanted the line-work to mesh to make the buildings look intertwined; hard to tell where they begin or end. To that effect 4 lines form the entirety of the “city”, changing from scyscrapers ti appartment blocks and vice-versa.
And at the very center of all this, a Tree growing in defiance.
I decided to place the Tree on the spine for 3 reasons: it is in many ways the story’s protagonist beside Francie, it would serve as the book’s “title” (since I couldn’t find a way to incorporate one succesfully in the design) and last but not least for its symbolism, since when the binding is spread the Tree is surrounded by the towering and busy city, yet it manages to flourish – as do people…
To further underline the contrast between the City and the Tree I decided to do all the city elements using straight lines and sharp corners, while the Tree is the only thing that features curves and rounded shapes.
I sketched the concept and as soon as I got the client’s Ok I traced the design and started blind tooling to create the recesses for the inlays. Then I carefully sanded the grooves and went on to paste down the inlays.
By the way, I distinguish an “onlay” from an “inlay” in that the first “sits” on the leather surface, protruding even a tiny bit, while the second is flush with the rest of the leather surface or below, either by cutting a piece and replacing it with another or by creating recesses and placing the pieces in those. Don’t know if that is indeed how they are differentiated by academic standards or if a piece of leather placed in a recess is still considered technically an onlay. However for the purposes of this article I will refer to the technique I used as inlays.
When the city onlays were finished I felt the annoying presence of a judgmental observer next to me. It was Dino and –as always- he had something to say: “Say Dimitri, this turned out hellafine… It would be a shame to just blind tool the roots, damn shame if you ask me… ”. Now, I know what you think: Dino is a manipulative prick. And you’d be right to think so. But he had a point…
He suggested to use inlays for the roots and I agreed, proceeding to cut extremely thin strips of pared leather, 1mm thin or less. Once more I had to blind-tool the design, roughen the grooves with a needle and a piece of fine sandpaper and then lay the strips by gradually applying glue within the tooled impression.
“See? Told you the inlays would be nice! Know what would make it even nicer? Tiny, eye-squinting to cut and frustrating to handle, inlays for leaves as well – 4 colors to boot!”. Now this was too much trouble and I gave him the look, but he can be very persuasive…
My initial thought was to gold-tool all the leaves. I asked Eleni who was at the bindery for a conservation during the binding’s finishing her thoughts on the matter. “Why not both – gold and inlays!” she suggested.
Believe it or not, cutting the leaves turned out to be a many-hour task. I had to mark them with ink on the back of the pared leather and then carefully cut them with a scalpel. After the design was transferred on the book spine I blined-tooled each leaf to create a recess for the inlay to sit in and roughened the surface of each recess with a sharp needle to give glue a better grip. After gold-tooling some of the leaves I applied glue inside the recesses for the rest using a very fine brush and with its tip I would pick up each leaf and place it using a needle.
I was quite happy with the binding. Then Dino pointed out “Can you imagine it sitting like that on a shelf? Scorched slowly by the sunlight, exposed to friction and dust and dampness and who knows what else! A case is in order, definitely…”
He was getting on my nerves, but he was right. And since I was going to make a case it had to be on par with the binding.
I decided to use some of the left-over leather leaves so that the title label wouldn’t feel empty.
And that was it – the binding was on its way for a trip half way around the globe!
All this showed me that Dino suffers severely from feature creep. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it refers to for elements or details that are constantly added on a project making it increasingly more complex and difficult to finish. Perfectionism is often the cause of this, the mentality “I made X nice, can’t have Y be less good”.
This was initially intended to be a “simple” binding, and it is in some ways… Even a seemingly simple decoration may require a lot of effort though, and coupled with feature creep it can grow out of proportion.
In the end both I and Dino were happy though: I got to try some new things/ideas and Dino got, well… all the rest!