Lets start where a day starts: DAWN.
Two years have passed, since I was asked to give a talk in this hall, the art workers hall is a great favourite of mine and I love to sit in one of the back rows, look at the portraits and soak up the atmosphere of long traditions and pursuits within art and craft.
As there was no brief with the request, I had a lot of time to toy with different subjects and then dismissing them again, depending on the various interests that had a hold of me at a time.
In the end I decided for the very popular 'let's talk about me and my work' option.
Preparing this talk was a good opportunity to step back for once,- assessing where time and all the little steps I do from one binding to the next have taken me to. I will therefore start with the work I did for my degree and then move forward in chronological order, I will not comment on all bindings but rather pursue little detours at times, while progressing with the slide show and joining my bindings again verbally towards the end.
Eight years of training had to come to an end. I had served a two years apprenticeship and had then proceeded to study at The Art University Burg Giebichenstein in Halle, Germany, for six years. These years were spent under the stern eyes of professor Mechthild Lobisch in the department of conceptional book art, focusing on fine bindings. She was a terrific teacher, but all things have to come to an end and I had one year to work on the final project.
I had decided to launch into binding three books that each consisted of three volumes.
Having not before worked upon a project, that demanded finding a solution within serial thinking, this was quite a daunting prospect. The separate volumes would need to form a visual entity and yet allow the single volume to stand confidently and independently on it's own.
This is the first binding of the first series. It is 'Abend mit Goldrand' by Arno Schmidt.
The author is renown for his experimental use of word structures and the written textures he created when weaving fragments and excerpts of others into his own word-flow. He did not hesitate to move swiftly between languages, dialects and styles. This book is a little bigger than A4, a quarter binding in calf with cold gold tooling in gold leaf on the boards. It actually has a title but this picture was taken for a reason unknown to me now, before tooling.
And here the other two volumes join the first.
You can see what I have done. I had imagined a huge pattern projected on the outside of the series, the forms flowing from one board to the next. What looks very straight forward on the outside turns into mayhem on the inner boards. The forms that lap over the edge of a book, 'fold' around the edges. Where they are too long, they bounce off the text block again.
I think this is the first time, that I approached the ornament as such, said my how-do-you-dos and made friends. It is an on-going flirt since then and we still can be found holding hands at times.
This is the third volume of the second series. It is Arno Schmidts ' Abend mit Goldrand'.
The author lived close to my hometown in Bargfeld, a very small village set within a beautiful though bleak landscape dotted by heath, lined with forests and determined by a wide horizon. It is a half leather binding with bord-a-bord paper sides. And of course, as you can see, plenty of tooling in coloured foil on the boards.
I had discovered, that when I turn the tool from one impression to the next, a wavelike movement appears, depending on a couple of parameters, the form and direction of this visual wave could be controlled.
While I wrote this talk I did the maths again: there are 25 rows with 15 impressions each, that makes 375 per board, 1500 per volume.
and adds up to a total of 4500 impressions on all three bindings.
I remember, that it was a very hot summer. Standing next to a stove while waiting for the tool to heat up again ...
It certainly was a fine opportunity to do some character-building and I had plenty of time to do so.
Another hobby-horse of mine are colours. All papers on my bindings are dyed by hand, this allows me to aim for the exact shade I need within a design. When you look at the chemise and slipcases you will notice, that the yellows actually differ. This is not because of a poor photo quality but by intent. Each volume has it's own climate. Bright blue and pink breeze goes with a tangy yellow; grey green muted heavy light purple goes with a lazy yellow and the full dark grey dramatic orange is accompanied by a yellow, round and rich.
And here some more yellow. This is the first volume of my third series. It is 'Abend mit Goldrand' by the German author Arno Schmidt. The book was written in the seventies and describes the upheaval within a group caused by the arrival of three strangers. It is a dreamlike dramatic reshuffling of relationships and lasts for three days, each volume containing one day. It is a half binding in coarse Levante leather with huge corners and glossy pink paper on-lays.
They were my favourites at the time and still are. I thought them to be the boldest of the three that I had set out to bind. However I unfortunately perceive them to be as well the most unsatisfactory of the series you have seen by now.
I think that only volume one and the frontboard of volume three works well and I wish I had done the other boards differently.
Here all three sequences at one glance.
With hindsight I think, that I have actually addressed the ornament as a such. The place it takes, what it can be and the place it is given in relation to a binding.
You might by now have noticed, although I have given my best to distract the attention, that I had not only set out to bind three series of three books but actually had bound the same title three times over. Arno Schmidts 'Abend mit Goldrand', the English translation would be : 'Evening Edged in Gold'.
Why was that?
Well, that was, because the main subject I had submitted for the degree project had been:
I had been a fervent player of the Asian board game GO at that time and had thought this to be as good a starting point as any other.
Reading the book by the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, 'Culture's Origin within Play' proved to be a turning point of my understanding of the matter. Johan Huizinga describes four distinct points that are characteristic for a game and want to be considered when setting out to understand the 'nature' of 'game'.
I will outline them briefly for you:
First there is 'The Space'. The game has a very specific space, it's field of action. This can be territorial ( as with a game of football for example) or it can be imaginary (as when a child plays 'little house in the prairie'). The boundaries are drawn with a distinct line, and thus create a space full of potential, where rules can be created and pursued, quite independently from the going-ons in the 'real' world.
Secondly the game is determined by its special sense of 'time'. It has a starting point and an end and takes place in between. It thus differs from our normal time, that we perceive to be linear. The time of a game is like the time described by an hourglass, it can be turned and turned over again - it will always be the same and is yet different every single time.
Now the space, the rules and the time of a game have been established, what is furthermore needed to make something into a game is quite simple: the joy and thrill of participation. If a child is sent every Wednesday to play football, it is quite possible for it to stand on the pitch, run up and down for 45 minutes, to even score goals without actually playing the game. If the spirit is not there, it just remains a mere task.
The fourth and last aspect is the relationship between play and reality. If someone gets hurt or offended during the course of a game one is very likely to hear the pacifying words : 'Come on.... It's only a game!' This phrase points us into the final direction, it positions the game opposite to the severity of the 'real world'. It is of no consequence.
It does not feed us, it gives no shelter. When confronted with the decision to play or not to play, one could quite easily always decide against it. It is no
necessity. This might sound a little negative, but it is in fact it's most outstanding quality: no dependence whatsoever towards the real world, total
The aim of the game lies with in itself, one plays to play.
After having read this, I felt very elated, I understood, that indeed I had been playing within my bindings all the time, there was no further need to seek for a connection. The binding was the 'space of action', time started over and over again with each new book I bound and the lack of relevance towards reality, well, I had already resigned to the fact, that I would not save the world or stop war in Afghanistan with my bindings and actually did not aim at that at all in the first place anyway.
I bind books because I like to and seek to find beauty within them, for I am enthralled.
I had decided to bind Arno Schmidt's books, because I loved their size. Normally the games name would be 'let's-bind-a-book' but to stress the newly embraced perception of a game; I called it: 'let's bind Arno Schmidt, Abend mit Goldrand.'
That is why I bound the same book three times over.
When I start with a new binding, I go quite a long way without taking any major aesthetic decisions. I pull the book, fold the sections, collate, sew, bind. I take care to choose the leather out of a small stock I keep under my workbench and has been bought well before the time of binding. The decisions of corners or no corners, bands or no bands are taken by the fancy of the moment only and what I want to work with next. I focus on the forwarding, the swell of the spine, the round of the curve, the bevelling of the boards and finally : the drawing on of the leather.
Having come thus far, I now open the book and start reading.
I read and take pointers by the author, they are brief notes only. Is it calm or troubled? Are there major conflicts, what is he or she addressing? Old against new? What,
above all, is the atmosphere?
Bearing these informations and impressions in my mind I go back into my own room, the binding.
I start to toy with ideas, rarely do I find, that initial thoughts can be translated into a design directly; ideas are ideas, they are still within the world of words, however they need to arrive and find their way into the space of the binding.
Normally the book stands propped up in front of me, and I eye it up for a while.
Slowly subjects suggest themselves and now it is good to have the random framework to work from.
Now the time has come to take over the initiative and gain control. A bright leather can be made to work with a light and breezy design or just as easily be heightened with extreme colours into a harsh and loud world.
You can do everything with anything.
This binding 'Water' is a good example what happens when I don't follow my own rules. I had run low in my leather supplies and had to order some especially for this book. As the title was so suggestive I could not, try as I might, think of anything else than blue. Only with a considerable effort I could bring myself into the grey/ blue area and ordered accordingly. The hide arrived, I cut and pared and drew on the leather. And then I sat down in front of it. What happened? I could think of nothing else than water, water, water... nothing else. I got very angry with myself for having manoeuvred myself into such a mentally dead-end situation and finally resolved the matter by taking the leather off again. It was the time of the SOB conference in York, I went and bought the first leather that laughed at me at the suppliers fair. And It was red.
So there we go. I like it.
About a year ago I started to work with gold leaf and immediately fell in love with it.
Because of the bevelled boards, the light catches and reflects, I find this mesmerising. The downside is, that this cannot be captured in the least in a photo.
And what I find as well, is that the gold seems to hover above the surface, again, this is not really visible on a photo. But I love it.
I declare a design finished, when I can sit in front of the binding and look at it for an hour without loosing interest. Do I get bored after 50 minutes, then it is not yet good enough.
So you can imagine I do a lot of sitting around in my studio, first finding into the book and then out of it again. But it is time needed for the process. It is not the craft side that takes so long to accomplish, but the art bit.
In applied arts we share that we work within a craft and focus on everyday objects.
One concern is to get the function right: a pot is a pot, a chair can be sat upon and of course a book can be read. A three dimensional object is pursued and the maker is dwelling on it's proportions, volume, the swell of a curve: it's aesthetic and functional qualities.
It is about getting it 'right' every single time different and anew.
As with all applied arts we have a duality of aspects: it is free and applied at once. The binding is bound to serve the object book with it's already manifold characteristics, such as content, typography and size; through this restraint the binding gains at the same time it's freedom within artistic expression. No further cause is served than the singular aim to find perfection within creation.
This is my last binding completed. I like working with close colour combinations, here three greys are side by side and in the binding before, The Woman Destroyed there were actually three shades of gold next to each other. It is not necessary to pick up on that, but it adds a little buzz, some vibration.
When a binding, a 'game' is over,
then I am exceptionally happy.
I know I have given everything that was possible at that moment. At the beginning we saw Mesut Oezil score a goal for Germany in this years world cup. Sepp Herberger, a German coach once said: After the game is before the game.
It goes on. There is always the next to come.
Two games later Germany was kicked out amongst the finalists.
And where am I heading?
This is a piece of paper I keep on the wall above my work bench. I did a little blending in on a repair job I had done for a friend and used this sheet to take off excess colour, look at the strength and what not. The job done I was about to throw this piece of paper away when I actually looked at it. I love it. I wish I could work like this on a binding, not with paint and brush, but introducing the lightness of step, the movement, the defined yet undefined forms and shapes, the odd colour combinations.
This is another goal.
It is very strong image and works on various levels. For one the picture is visually very forceful: a beautiful woman is boldly overlaid by a cross. Both, woman and cross,
are perceived as two separate entities and yet complement each other, forming a new content. Next to this aesthetic, perception, we know, that this picture was taken by Bert Stern in the last
photo-shoot with Marylin Monroe. The pictures were sent to her and she crossed those out, that were not authorised for publication. Shortly after she died and her wishes were
This picture was printed directly after her death on the front cover of the Vogue magazine.
This is drama.
What has this to do with binding books?
It is the relationship that I am after. The relationship between the carrier and the ornament. A sensuous body, the book, comments upon it's ornament and the ornament equally refers back to the binding.
Well, this is it.
I love skies, but I have now spoken long enough and will call it a day.
This was the talk given in the Art Workers Guild Hall on the 5th October 2010 within the Designer Bookbinders lecture series.
I took my bows and was glad I had braved my nerves.