Some Thoughts (not mine) on Art Bookbinding

There is a longstanding debate among binders: is bookbinding an art or a craft? I have my own opinions on the subject. However, I’ve been collecting quotations about art bookbinding/reliure d’art/designer binding from people who have more experience, as scholars, critics, and practitioners, than I. Here are some thoughts on the subject of art binding to contemplate over the holidays.


“I pity those who call themselves cultured and with fine art taste who cannot take from their shelves some few specimens of first-class modern extra binding … giving to their possessors every time they handle them finer feelings and sweeter ecstasy of pleasure than many more costly objects of art they possess.”

-William Matthews Modern Bookbinding Practically Considered. New York: The Grolier Club, 1889. (pp. 94-95)


“There are two schools of fine hand binding: the traditional ‘trade’ craftsman who produces about 90 per cent of the industry’s total output, and the creative individual, or small unit, who produce one-off bindings for collectors and museums, often through exhibitions. There has always been brilliant individual craftsmen (and this included many who worked in anonymity for the larger firms), but it was not until the 1960s that there was a recognisable movement towards innovative binding.” (Roy Harley Lewis, Fine Bookbinding in the Twentieth Century, 1984. p7)


“The book has always reflected hidden meaning, religious or mystical truth. It has always been a prime vector for the mutation, evolution, and shaping of culture. It has always been an object capable of developing a warm, and important relationship with the reflective owner. The feel of the book, and the pleasure to be had in its sequential revelation of its secrets has always been felt, by some, as a joy. For many, many people, books are their most cherished possessions. It should come as no surprise, then, that a group of artists has arisen that see the book form as an inspiration, or a challenge, or simply as their natural medium.”

-Adam Smith (CBBAG Show Chair) in the Forward (p.7) to the exhibition catalogue The Art of the Book by the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild and the Book Arts Society of Canada, 1988.


“A bookbinding is an ambiguous thing. It is physically attached to the book and thus relates to its meaning and typography: but it is also an image. Even more radically, is it a structure that rapidly becomes an object in its own right. Because of this, binding played a legitimate role in a period of artistic revolution, from 1870 to 1933, during which art expanded both its territory and its range of expression. A new freedom and inventiveness allowed bookbinding to move closer to the arts with which it was linked: poetry, typography, painting, sculpture, architecture, and furniture design.”

-Yves Peyré in his introduction to Art Deco Bookbindings: The Work of Pierre Legrain and Rose Adler (Princeton University Press, 2004).


“The ‘talking’ binding, where the decorator was directly inspired by the text or illustrations, did not exclude some considerable successes, but more often than not it distanced the bookbinder from the real basis of his craft, and thereby from the authentic creation. My principal goal has been to lighten bookbinding of its descriptive message, and to envisage it solely on its powerful materiality. The effort of research goes essentially into the materials, the multiple working techniques, and their interaction.”

-T.J Cobden-Sanderson quoting Jean de Gonet (Does anyone have a citation for this?)


Merry Christmas and a peaceful New Year!






7 thoughts on “Some Thoughts (not mine) on Art Bookbinding

  1. derekl1963

    Something else that occurred to me that lends further support to my thesis – consider that we have two different words, “artist” and “artisan”.


  2. The question is not mine. It’s been out there for a long time. Jeff Peachy brought it to my attention earlier this year and thought it might be fun to debate the point. I think my opinion on the topic can be found in a blog post I wrote in March. Sometime around then.


  3. It surprises me that you pose the question as “art OR craft” when binding is not an either/or matter, but clearly, like many other skills learned through repetition and extention, capable of being both, and only bounded by the susceptibilities, desires, and skills of the practitioner.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pierre Rastoul

    Art or craft ? Obviously, this is a useless debate — which doesn’t only concern bookbinding. It’s all in your mind — or in the eye of the beholder. There is “art” pottery, and “craft” pottery; and it’s also the same debate in other art/crafts. Basically, it’s a matter of creativity or, on the other hand, technique. “Craft” binders rely on technical virtuosity to compensate for a lack of creativity (or for poor visual design); “art” binders tend to see technique as being somewhat secondary, even when they do master the techniques. And the more “creative” binders are generally the ones who innovate in the technical field, daring to try out techniques never seen before. In my humble opinion, the only GOOD bookbinders master both : creativity AND technique.


  5. derekl1963

    I’m thinking the debate is mostly pointless – because people confuse “Art” with “an art”. The two are very decidely not the same. Bookbinding is very decidedly ” an art”, even when it’s a straightforward binding (which can come from the hand of a fine binder as much as a trade binder) that doesn’t reach the level of “Art”.



    Damn. You can’t comment unless you have a web site. 

    Sent from myMail for iOS

    Wednesday, December 23, 2015, 12:00 PM -0500 from : >American Bound posted: “There is a longstanding debate among binders: is bookbinding an art or a craft? I have my own opinions on the subject. However, I’ve been collecting quotations about art bookbinding/reliure d’art/designer binding from people who have more experience, as s” >



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