ACT I – EXPOSITION
Shakespeare and I have had a difficult (bookbinding) relationship so far. (link σε Ανδρόνικο). I’ll have you know – I’m not the easiest person, but Shakespeare is to blame as well! However fate deemed it unfitting for such a tension to exist and offered me a chance to set things straight.
The book owner began correspondence with me 3 years ago. This has been by far my longest project and though it owed its constantly expanding nature to various factors (my own shortcomings, time it took discussing with the owner to reach a design and then finalise it, waiting for the needed leather to be made -since it was the last batch of Valencia to be produced- and then shipped, relocating the bindery) I must heartfully thank A.M. for his patience and good spirit throughout the entire process.
We try to create bindings that are beautiful and long-lasting. One relies heavily on inspiration, the other on knowledge, and both require a set of very particular skills… Being creative while tackling all sorts of life’s ups and downs is no easy feat and being able to work with people who are kind, understanding, patient and willing to learn new things makes a world of difference to the artisan!
The book was unique, one of those cases it feels a real joy and privilege to have as an object of work. It was printed by the famous Roycroft Press and it shows; the paper and typography were a tactile and visual treat.
It also featured handpainted details, a wonderful watermark (see photo) and an interesting Ex Libris, indicating Benno Lewinson (a New York City attorney and a trustee of City College) as one of the book’s owners.
The first page has a handwritten dedication from Lewinson to Rev Dr. K. Kohler, a beloved friend, revealing the book to be a gift for Kohler’s 60th birthday. What’s even more impressive though is that the first page is inscribed by Elbert Hubbard, the founder of the Rooycroft artisan community and Press! Interesting fact: Hubbard died with his wife onboard the RMS Lusitania, which was sunk by a German U-boat in 1915.
ACT II – RISING ACTION
Hamlet’s design has been the most complex decoration I’ve ever tackled. The owner has a deep affection for the play, and for the particular edition as well, and wanted a binding that would accompany him for a lifetime. I felt I had to take this one step further, in order to do the owner, Shakespeare and the edition justice.
We discussed extensively for almost a year about his preferences and my ideas/suggestions. After a lot of back and forth this design got the green light.
The whole design is a play -pun intended- of symbolisms on the story of Hamlet, its themes and Shakespeare’s writing in general.
Letters (and therefore words) symbolize Shakespeare’s writing. The use of genuine gold leaf (22K) for the decoration is a reference to the value of his works which has remained -like gold- untarnished by the passing of time.
Power, and all that happens because of the desire for it, is one of the main axis of the play. The crown, an ultimate icon of power and an object/state of desire within the play, is comprised by letters. But the crown and the desire to acquire it are accompanied by corruption. The struggle for power brings forth dark deeds and the consequences are often severe and affect many. Gradually the crown looses its shape and fractures, breaks apart to disorderly pieces. The pieces/letters traverse the cover, implying the unfolding of events due to the disruption of harmony caused by the quest for power. As they traverse the spine they form the play’s title.
They then scatter and spread, surrounding the skull, implying death usually found in the wake of power struggles. One of the letter strands enters the skull and transforms into its sutures to further highlight this but to also hint at how the desire for power becomes part of our thoughts, embedded and irremovable, leading to our very end. At the same time it symbolizes something entirely different on a meta level; though we may die, Shakespeare’s plays are immortal. The themes that unfold through them are an integral part of what humanity is, or rather, what can be found deep within us…
The crown is in many ways the central piece, the source and base for everything else. Three things played an integral role in how it came to be.
With these in mind I set out to create the crown and, consequently, all the rest.
I relied on two historical examples of crowns to create the overall form, one of which is actually from Denmark – the country the play takes place.
The design was supposed to have a controlled randomness when it comes to the arrangement of letters, which was rather hard to achieve.
I followed three guidelines: use all letters of the alphabet, avoid as much as possible to place many of the same letter close to each other, alternate between font sizes.
ACT IV – FALLING ACTION
I never imagined how straining the entire tooling process would be, from start to finish.
The decoration includes some 340 letters. These had to be ink-stamped on paper, then transferred on tracing paper along with various alterations, impressed through the tracing paper without using heat, blind tooled and finally gold tooled which in many cases had to be repeated 2 or 3 times.
Here’s a gif showing the tracing process. Each step consisted of ink-stamping all font sizes of a specific letter of the alphabet.
The number mentioned earlier applies only to the main decoration and does not take into account:
– The process until the current arrangement of the design was reached.
– The small scale tests needed to see how the design looks.
– Switching type on the typeholder.
– Placing and taking out of the fire the typeholder (dozens of times for each letter).
– Applying glaire to each letter impression with a very fine brush prior to gilding.
– And last but not least the blind tooling adorning the margins of the covers.
ACT V – DENOUEMENT
Overall I think this has somewhat remedied my bookbinding relationship with Shakespeare. But it was more than just a work project; it was a crafting journey extending well beyond the confines of the binding’s progression. It became entwined with milestones and rough times: I began working on this binding in my first bindery and its completion was reached in the new one, two years after I moved in. During this time important changes and hardships have occurred so in my mind this project became a bit like a bookmark in the book of life. It was always there, always challenging me, never ending.
And now that part of my life has covered and decorated the book as much as the leather and gold it has on it, and has been shipped to the other side of the world… How can one not love being a bookbinder?!
Till next time!