On a trip to Venice after finishing my university studies, I found a little manual on bookbinding. Its detailed explanations echoed a wish I already cherished at school to learn how to bind the exquisite books I had seen on display in Paris. My husband constructed a simple press and a sewing frame, and with the help of a small Italian dictionary I put together two books without knowing very well what I had been doing.
These two ugly little books became my laissez-passer for Micheline de Bellefroid to spontaneously include me in her flock of students at La Cambre in Brussels on a loose time frame (by then I had my first child). She taught bookbinding on the most refined level, with a demanding emphasis on technique combined with a broad fine arts training in the fertile atmosphere of this prestigious school which continues to be based on Bauhaus principles with its diverse workshops. A long period of training followed as little by little, also guided by Jacqueline Liekens and, later on, by Françoise Bausart, I learned the intricacies of the craft.
Many years later I heard one of the leading Dutch graphic designers express her contempt for ‘crafts’ and it both surprised and angered me. How could she discard her own trade in such a way? Aren’t the graphic arts also based on a well-developed skill? It is the combination of art and craft that transforms a good workman into a master.
My training in the intricacies of good design, and in the benefits of using refined materials and excellent tools, have influenced me as much as the artistic guidance of my parents, and watching my mother paint or my father become a typographer after his carreer. I would never have been able to make the collages for Rajasthan if I had not learned to use a scalpel for thinning the edges of leather for my books even if I’m now mainly using my large, industrial board cutter as a writing table instead of what it is meant for. My respect for good material may also explain why I enjoy so much my visits to tool manufacturers on my current journey in the world of iron and steel for Living Iron.
Memorable moments galore from my bookbinding years, from seeing a book take shape from a pile of folded sheets of paper to marbling paper and using embroideries made by my sister Sylvia [ 2 images above: we had marbled the paper for the endpapers of a book on volcanoes by Haroun Tazieff, which then inspired the freedom of her stitches,] to completing my first leather bindings in the classical French technique of passé-carton.
When truly elaborate, like the miniature edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales [below], such a binding includes three pieces; in this case a full leather binding with leather hinges and hand painted silk end-papers is shielded from the bleaching effect of daylight by a matching ‘jaquette’, lined with soft suede, around which a case edged with the same leather is tightly fitted. All three elements are tooled with gold. The total size is 111 x 78 x 19 mm.
Book lovers know the indescribable feeling of holding in one’s hand the compact weight of a well-bound book. One of the things I’ve enjoyed most during my following years of teaching bookbinding in my studio was to see my students take their first completed binding out of the press and experience this reward.
A good bookbinding goes through a long sequence of stages demanding patience, attention to tens of millimetres, and strong nerves when so much needs to be controlled and haste – or the weather – are playing their part. The time involved is probably only appreciated by fellow artisans and a handful of collectors. A few commissions stand out in my memory: the special visitors’ book of Het Loo palace museum, the album of the Dutch Cavalry Escort of Honour, and the restoration of an original edition of Paul Gauguin’s Tahiti journal Noa Noa.
At some point, however, spending so much concentrated time on my own was not satisfying anymore, and when my daughter brought me the leaflet of an art school with an interesting programme not too far from where we live, a new chapter began in my life, which made me move from ‘dressing’ books to producing them.