The alphabet is one of humanity’s greatest inventions – the idea that a sequence of squiggles can convey a thought in a way easily and instantly apprehensible by everyone. Form those squiggles on the sand and they will last more than the brief sound of our voices. Carve them onto stone and they will outlast entire civilizations.
This marvel of ingenuity can be found, in one form or another, within most civilizations. A great variety of alphabets has been used from ancient times until today, their function and form a synopsis of the culture that created them. Immensely useful, infinitely versatile and long lasting, it is perhaps the ultimate tool of the human race. So, it’s no wonder that at some point its users so past its practical values and realized there is a beauty to be found here.
I’m referring to Calligraphy, which views letters as an art medium. And then there are alphabets, the Arabic and Chinese to name two of the most widespread, the very nature of which gives emphasis on the visual aspect of the written word. In such cases writing is more similar to drawing and it has often been considered a form of meditation.
With all these in mind I consider the use of an alphabet decoratively, either as an element or the very basis of the decoration, a great choice – if applied skillfully. You really can’t go wrong with something that carries so much meaning and offers endless possibilities artisticaly.
Alphabets incorporated in a design always captivated me and combining them with the art & craft of bookbinding can be ideal: letters are -usually- the heart of a book, its quintessence found inside it. Bringing them out on the cover in a way that recognizes and displays their beauty seems like an interesting full circle.
Here are a few examples of this combination.
The Four Gospels – bound by Deborah Evetts.
Utilizing only letters this binding achieves its narrative purpose to the fullest through their stark contrast in color and size.
Robust, austere and awe-inspiring, all in perfect accord with the book’s content.
Bound by Paul Bonet.
Little needs to be said about Paul Bonet, one of the most celebrated artisans this craft has known. Bonet’s designs defined bookbinding, mostly through the ingenious use of curves and lines to create optical illusions, the sense of a 3rd dimension on the cover.
The bindings featured here may not be examples of his trademark style but a testament nevertheless to great skill and the ability to create striking designs using letters as the decoration’s main element.
The Somme – bound by Pamela Richmond
The letters, small, numerous and insignificant -as are the dead viewed through the war’s impersonal prism- parade across the cover. Few by few however they compose names, and names are anything but insignificant – they speak of a person, his world and his story…
I believe Pamela Richmond has thus managed through her design to paint an excellent depiction of the brutality of WWI and at the same time honor the individuals who died by the thousands – and yet are far more than “a mere statistic”, as Stalin once said.
(A big thank you to the people who helped me identify the binder behind this wonderful binding! It has been one of my personal favorites since I got into this craft)
Shakespeare – bound by Juan A. Fernandez Argenta
To my great joy, Argenta’s designs focus largely on the decorative use of letters. Structurally inventive and endlessly creative, this bookbinder from Spain seems to me like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, only instead of children he lures letters: they dance playfully on his covers or arrange themselves in robust lines and structures, adopting colors and shapes in a way that looks effortless and natural – as if they were always so.
You can see more of his work here.
Lastly I would like to humbly (after the work of such skilled and renowned binders) add one of my bindings to this list: Cicero’s Orations.
The great orator from Rome molded and transformed the latin language, which had profound effects on the Roman civilization and, in some ways, the entire human culture. What you see on the cover is not simply text but the human thought caught during a turning point in its history.
The absence of pause between words, punctuation marks and the use of capitals resemble how latin were written or inscribed on a surface. The text’s irregular shape hints at an inscription carved on stone.
You can read more about the binding’s creation here.