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Designer Binders

Inside the international bookbinding exhibition at New York’s Grolier Club By Richard Goodman

Frenchman Alain Taral won first prize for his binding of pear wood covered by Karelian birch veneer, with a decoration of “fusion” marquetry, made of many different precious wood veneers. Courtesy of the Grolier Club.
Jenni Grey of the UK received second prize for her binding with its machine-embroidered, gray Dypion-style fabric and airbrushed endpapers. Sterling silver wire fixings and etched acrylic create shadows on the endpapers. Courtesy of the Grolier Club.
Per-Anders HŁbner of Sweden offered this simplified binding with blue goatskin spine, tooled in white. Layered watercolor-painted paper boards. Courtesy of the Grolier Club.
George Kirkpatrick of the UK displayed a binding of calf, various goatskins with palladium tooling, silver rhodium plated to prevent tarnish, and gilded brass. Courtesy of the Grolier Club.
American Scott Kellar’s aqua buffalo leather binding with onlays of goatskin and gilt leather. Red silk endbands. Sprinkled salmon edges. Courtesy of the Grolier Club.

The opening of Bound for Success: Designer Bookbinders International Bookbinding Exhibition at New York’s Grolier Club was on a windy, rainy night, the rain slashing sideways vehemently, so that umbrellas were of little use. The rain was most appropriate for this exhibition, which was a contest organized by Designer Bookbinders in conjunction with Oxford’s Bodleian Library around the theme of water. Several of the speakers at the exhibit’s opening on the evening of May 18 could not resist remarking upon this fact, trying, it seemed, to make something positive out of what in all respects was simply a lousy, wet evening. Despite the weather, the club’s ground floor exhibition room was pretty much packed with people eager to see 117 bindings that were chosen among the 240 entries from 21 countries. Alain Taral of France won first prize. Second went to Jenni Grey of Great Britain.

The contestants were given a specially commissioned book, Water, an anthology of poems in several European languages along with illustrations, and told to bind it. To wander by the glass-encased entries was to experience several disparate reactions. The first is: none of the entries are remotely the same. They are all interestingly, creatively different. Yes, of course, many use leather, and they all must conform—more or less—to a certain shape, but within those rather simple categories lies great variety. Some, like the Czech Republic’s Eliska Cabalová-Hlavácová’s entry, are both ingenious and beautiful. Her binding is made of vellum with sea shell-shaped boards that extend beyond the book’s boundaries. Some, like Estonia’s Rene Haljasmäe’s entry, with its plethora of old metal spinners (lures used for fishing) attached to the covers, seem more clever than beautiful. Mary Norwood’s entry, with its covers festooned with domestic water pipes, falls under this category as well.

A second reaction is one that anyone will have in an exhibition based on a contest: you don’t necessarily agree with the judges’ decisions. So, there are personal favorites, like American Scott Kellar’s entry, with its avatar-like abstract figures swimming across the covers, like light shimmers in a pool. Or Dominique Dumont’s binding of glazed goatskin with its very real-looking raindrops made of resin dotting the covers. Or John Burton’s lovely winter scene of dark trees and a brook cutting through snow.

Which is to say, it all comes back to the old saying: there’s something here for everyone, and the judges’ decisions are really of importance only to the winners. Those who don’t appreciate abstract renditions of water or wetness—and there are many of these abstractions—can turn to the likes of Spain’s Miguel Perez Fernandez, with his covers of rocks being dramatically sprayed by uplifting surf. Or they can turn to America’s Marvel Maring and his austere blue aquarium covers, with coral and staring fish. Those who like to figure out puzzles can look to the United Kingdom’s Christopher Shaw and his entry of wavy gold lines on a dark background and wonder what this has to do with water. Wit is provided by an entry like that of George Kirkpatrick of the United Kingdom, whose front cover is a rendition of dried mud cracks, indicating the absence of water.

The winner, Alain Taral, who received a prize of £7,500 (about $10,000) for his binding made of pear wood covered by Karelian birch veneer, was there. He spoke briefly, in French, expressing his gratitude and pride and his pleasure at being at the Grolier Club. Taral lives in a small village above Hyères, which is about halfway between Marseille and Nice. He had worked originally in management for the French navy but then retired and began working with veneer. A bookbinder came to him at one point and asked him to produce a cover for a book he was binding. This intrigued Taral, and he decided to learn how to do it himself. He went to school to learn, and now, he does, in fact, make his living as a bookbinder.

The exhibition, curated by Lester Capon, is on its third and last American leg. It opened at the Boston Public Library last fall, then journeyed to the auctioneers Bonhams & Butterfields in San Francisco before it migrated back east to the Grolier Club, where it will remain until July 31. An appealing, hardbound catalog featuring marbling by the late Ann Muir is available.

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Richard GoodmanRichard Goodman is the author of The Soul of Creative Writing and French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France. A founding member of the New York Writers Workshop, Goodman teaches creative nonfiction at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. He’s written for the New York Times, the Harvard Review, Commonweal, Saveur, the Michigan Quarterly Review and many other publications. His essay, “In Search of the Exact Word,” was included in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. He lives in New York City. Read more at