Some years ago I watched a documentary on the construction of the Florence Cathedral, highlighting of course its magnificent dome and the life of its maker, Fillipo Brunelleshi. I encourage anyone with an interest in history, architecture and engineering, or good documentaries in general, to watch it!
The story behind the massive dome and its brilliant maker were most interesting and stayed with me for years so it was not without some excitement when V.G. tasked me to make a binding for a book on the architecture and physics of the dome.
One of the notable features of the dome is its octagonal shape, upon which I based the decoration.
I wanted the design to hint at red chalk, which was often used historically to draw/plan all sorts of things. In order to achieve that I used ink tooling, a technique I came up with inspired by Hannah Brown’s carbon tooling. The resulting effect is quite interesting: a dual-color impression, randomly shifting from one color to another.
Last but not least I tried to match the leather with the color of the roof tiles.
The second binding is more straightforward with a mix of blind and foil tooling on a lovely teal leather.
The Dwarves of the Dark Mountains never cared much for gold or precious stones, although they had plenty of both. Instead, they had a mind for wandering. Their gaze was always turned towards the horizon, and what lies beyond, and so they roamed the land and sailed the great sea and discovered wonders the likes of which have inspired bards for centuries.
However they were always distrustful and secretive and so to this day no one knows where their eight kingdoms lie.
To be able to travel from one to another they created eight magnificent books, one for each of their kings: the Aethra Codices. Their covers were richly adorned and upon them the Dark Mountain Dwarves inscribed runes that would allow those who possess the correct gemstones to find their way to one of their kingdoms.
This is one of those books, an Aethra Codex. I leave it, and its mysteries, upon your hands…
Proudly presenting the Aethra Codex: a Fantasy Puzzle Binding.
I’m a passionate fan of tabletop role playing games and the basic idea behind this journal was people could use it as an in-game artifact. It could inspire a story and/or be part of it. Players would no longer have to imagine such a volume; it would be real, something taken out of a fantasy world, the mysteries of which they could now discover and hold in their hands.
I’ve wanted to do such a project for a very long time as it combines many of the things I love and enjoy: RPGs, bookbinding, coming up with puzzles and riddles, mechanical challenges and problem solving in crafting, metalworking and, most of all, stories…
I truly hope I’ll be making more like this in the future. This was only proof of concept, the ideas are there…
The Aethra Codex (“Aethra” meaning bright star, splendor, or clear sky in Latin) has 3 different challenges/puzzles and each has to be solved in order to progress to the next one.
The players have to find a way to translate the runes, which are Futhark with a few minor changes I made to accommodate tooling of the design.
However after the runes are translated to English the resulting text is gibberish. The players have to decrypt it using a Caesar Cipher, a form of substitution encryption based on a specific number.
Once the text is decrypted they are left with two poems. The first one (back cover) says:
You who seek wisdom of old Follow the light of many a star To reach the realms and lands afar Where hidden perils lie untold.
The second one (spine) says:
White is the coldness of the North Green the East with forests vast Blue the West where ships sail forth Red the rays by the South sun cast And black the night between them all.
When those are interpreted through a more symbolic lens the first one reveals where the gemstones are hidden: within the corner pieces.
The second one gives the proper placement of the gemstones on the 8 sockets of the front cover’s star in the same manner. Watch the gif above to see a gemstone revealed and placed on the star!
This set-up is not meant to be binding for the DMs. Instead of being placed in the corner pieces the gemstones may be found at different in-game locations, in which case the poems have mostly literal meaning.
The challenge can also be extended in various ways f.e. the runes can be an ancient or forgotten Dwarven alphabet, in which case the players can’t translate them from the get go. The phrase “Follow the light of many a star” might refer to a constellation or something beyond the codex. A new challenge, conceived by the storyteller, may be revealed when the gemstones are placed on the star. The possibilities are endless.
In conclusion the puzzles/challenges I incorporated in the binding are mostly meant as an inspiration for the DMs. The texts do not mention specific names and are written in an abstract/generic enough manner that encourages creativity and can easily be adapted and utilized in any story!
Making the Aethra Codex has been an undertaking of epic proportions. Everything about it had to be conceived, designed and made by myself. I had to do a lot of tests and experiments, create new tools and tackle various structural challenges.
The biggest of those was making the corner pieces which had to be sturdy, small, securely attached to the binding and with the necessary space inside them to hide the gemstones. Ticking all those boxes was far from easy.
Each corner piece is made of 4 different parts and solidly riveted on the binding. They were, as was the star, hand carved out of wax and then bronze cast.
The design was mostly inspired by Astrolabes, those most mystical-looking and yet historical instruments, that sailors used to navigate the seas!
It’s also easy to overlook how beneath all the runes, brass details and gemstones, the Aethra Codex is a high quality binding. It has been given all the attention I devote to any of my fine bindings and has many of their characteristics such as sewn-in boards, handsewn silk headbands, leather joints and composite boards to name a few.
As a bonus touch I polished the entire surface with a polishing iron to make it look used and worn, resulting in a wonderful sheen that’s not visible in the photos.
After 10 years or so I’ve been working as a bookbinder I realized at some point my work is almost exclusively comprised of design bindings. Equal parts chance and choice have led to this: I just happened to have more clients asking for simple design bindings initially, I focused more on them since I liked it and in turn they attracted more work of the same kind.
So, what’s wrong with that? Nothing really, I love doing design work! However constantly trying to come up with creative ideas and ways to implement those can be draining… Classic decorations require a fraction of the inspiration and there’s endless reference material at hand to rely on concerning the design. As such they involve a lot less stress and it’s easier to be satisfied by the end-result, at least from the creator’s point of view.
It’s actually funny because most of my colleagues here in Greece are burdened with non-design work and often yearn for more artistic commissions! Nonetheless it seems there can be too much of a good thing and I found myself on the opposite side, longing for the day a client with a taste for more classic work would appear.
Enter V.G., a bibliophile with a wide range of interests, who got in touch and delivered salvation to my bookbinding soul! V.G. wants a series of books bound in classic manner and these two are the first I’ve completed.
Strange Tales features one of my old time favorite marbled papers, byArzanartin Venice. What really sets it apart though is its decoration, which was achieved with two stamping inks of different color. I first saw a similar technique used byHannah Brown(have you readher interviews?), who was most helpful in sharing some information and advice, though she uses carbon leaf instead.
Here’s what I did: 1) Cold press the handtool for the first impression. 2) Blind tool (hot). 3) Then cover the tool’s face with ink from the inkpad and stamp the tooled impressions (cold). I did this 2-3 times (with the first color) depending on how well the ink was transferred and the tone I wanted to achieve. 4) Blind tool again – this helps the ink set. 5) Repeat step 3 with a different ink. 6) Blind tool a final time.
As you can see this requires a great deal more time compared to foil. The result is interesting though as the decoration has a gradient look, shifting from blue to purple.
If you want to try this make sure to do tests first, as some ink colors end up looking quite dark depending on the leather you’re using, or don’t mix well together.
El Tarot is a peculiar book, filled with strange artwork. Its oddness is reflected by its unusual shape which is – you guessed it – that of a Tarot card. I’ve never bound a book as tall and narrow and I assumed it would bug me but I actually found it very enjoyable to work with! There’s something oddly satisfying handling a door-shaped book, can’t put my finger on it.
Given that I went for a simple decoration I thought to add some spark and luxury through genuine gold leaf. I’m very happy with how it turned out, it reminds me of some old volumes I’ve seen in libraries and I believe it’s my first binding to achieve this look-feel so well.
Since the binding is so classic but the book is quite quirky I wanted to include a quirky element in the binding as well. The endbands were the perfect candidate, being too narrow for a traditional handsewn style. I played around a bit and the result is this curiosity, both covered in leather and handsewn with silk thread. Fitting!