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!






Donald Glaister Eye Candy

Van der Marck catalog cover

Oak Knoll are my crack dealers. They brought Jan van der Marck’s The Art of Contemporary Bookbinding to the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair for me and, of course, I bought it. This is not your average vanity exhibition catalog. Jan van der Marck (1929-2010) was an art historian, both a university professor and probably the most frequently fired museum curator in modern history.

What really sets this exhibit catalog apart from most in my collection is not just the breadth of van der Marck’s taste, which is significant, but his introduction, his essay on each binder, and his brief commentary on each binding. As an art historian, his point of reference is significantly different from that of a librarian, a binder, or a collector who is not an art historian (most of us).

Donald Glaister was one of van der Marck favorite binders. He selected eight examples from his collection for this exhibition. Below are images of all eight, complete with van der Marck’s commentary. Continue reading “Donald Glaister Eye Candy”

Boston Antiquarian Book Fairs

I’m just home from a disappointing weekend in Boston. I’m going to say something dreadfully unpopular: the standards of contemporary hand-binding, especially fine art binding, are depressingly low. I wanted to weep. I’m not sure who I felt sadder for: my professional colleagues, who can evaluate with ease the condition and the quality of craftsmanship in all other types of books, or for the binders who are far better than the legions of run-of-the-mill binders in New England. The general lack of discernment of dealers on the one hand, and the praise piled on the good binders on the other, gives no one an incentive to seek out master binders near and far. Exceptions on both sides, of course, and I’m talking about what I saw at both fairs over the weekend. I am aware that awesome binding is happening in the vicinity.

All of you can start shouting at me while I go scan pictures of Donald Glaister bindings from the exhibit catalog I bought in Boston. Stay tuned for some serious eye candy.