Vessel: A Guild of Book Workers Exhibition


Books are vessels, commissioned to give our words and ideas safe passage beyond the boundaries of our own lives. As bookbinders, we are custodians of this cargo, tasked with the mission of designing a functional, elegant, and appropriate craft. In looking at the wide range of books submitted for this exhibition, I held these thoughts close to the surface. Work ranged widely from artists’ books to fine press editions to sculptural works to blank binding models. We looked at content with a variety of themes and executed using a number of techniques.

Many, but not all, of the entries directly incorporated a vessel theme. Among them were books related to voyages, to the sea, and to the concept of containment and preservation. Other entries bore very little connection to the theme apart from the metaphorical. In my initial selection process, I gave special weight to those books that incorporated a larger vessel theme, but for all of the entries, I looked for a high level of craftsmanship and, where appropriate, a carefully designed relationship between the structure of the book and its contents. In other words, particularly where a theme of vessel was absent, I looked for books that served as elegant, practical, and functional vessels in themselves.

As all of us know who continually submit our work for exhibitions, prizes, grants, and other moments of critique, excellent and deserving work is often sidelined during the selection process. Making decisions based on a set of two photographs was a di cult challenge, and one that surely resulted in eliminations of books which would have been included had we been able to handle them and look at them from more than two angles.

I came to this panel as a book artist and letterpress printer. My area of expertise lies in designing cohesive content and structure and in edition binding for complex mate- rial. I cannot help but look at all books through the lens of my own work and interest. I relied on the expert in uence of Tim Ely and Deborah Howe to deepen and inform my own selection process. The conversations we had about the many excellent submis- sions broadened my own perspective on the book. I am grateful to everyone who sub- mitted their work for this exhibition, and honored to be asked to serve as a juror.


The Vessel
A few months back, I told a friend that I was part of the jury for a show which was wrapped in an idea of the book as a vessel, or various takes on that. He sank into a thousand-yard stare and after seconds of contemplation told me about Vessels. He related a bit of history about how “trading ships came to be known as vessels’’ for they carried aboard them, these ships of commerce, a ceramic object called a vessel. This device was sealed to prevent tampering and on landing was presented, broken open, to reveal a list of the holdings of the voyage and hopefully the trade material onboard would correspond to the contents of the vessel. The vessel was a “book object” we conjectured. I have not seen a proper vessel and I don’t know what the interior object looked like.... Possibly a scroll or, as was intimated in the story, the interior of the vessel carried the marks of inventory. I am still looking.

So, with this in mind I began to look at the entries for the VESSEL exhibition. When jurying shows, I look for a variety of conditions, same as when I look at any art form— basics such as assembly, integration of ideas, literal interpretation: is it covert or overt? I also look for other fundamentals: harmony or dissonance of color, the relevance of scale to the size of the book and then just a general sense of how it all works. Is it well made? Of course, this is di cult to assess when looking at a digital image and not the actual object, but in such times we live.

In the mid seventies I observed in a journal of DESIGNER BOOKBINDERS (DB Review, Number 11, Spring 1978) an idea that “a successful binding visually, should have a continuous working design when standing up.” When viewed this way, the lower board, spine and front board together would suggest a landscape. This could be done to create a seemingly necessary continuity across all cover surfaces of the book. Unity was a popular inclination. It appeared that there was an attempt at the mimicry of ideas used in painting going on.1 This would be an alignment that could make the bookbinder’s visual struggle more in keeping with current directions in the more popular arts.

What intrigues me about this idea is that, first off, I don’t think it’s ALWAYS a very good one. But the idea became an embedded cliché and now, without question, has become a way (often THE way) that binders design the overall grid of their templates. Since we don’t present our pets always standing on their hind legs nor do we normally display our books standing and open, it seems that this overused expression is now exhausted. The USE of this idea was also a near sure-fire way to make certain that a book submitted to a contest was considered for inclusion. To not use the idea of the book as landscape motif was an easy way to meet rejection. As a solution to a design issue, it then forced forward challenges that I believe are never well solved with regards to type and titling on the spine of the book. As stated, this motif creates a continuous image across the entire book. When it is interrupted with a title, this bit of text derails the landscape. I notice that these identifying features of the binding are usually diminished or omitted all together. I often see that the titles are forced to integrate into the book ‘‘landscape,’’ usually with dismal results. Also critical to mention is that titling, though a worthy objective, is a challenge to do well. It is di cult to place a title or author’s name on an abstract ground of leather and other bits and not have it stick out like a bandaged thumb. I point this out as it always is a red ag for me.2 My own sense when looking at, say, an Edgar Mansfield binding, is that a bookbinding can be fully expressive when closed and resting on its lower board and need not stand. A fully articulated design can be viewed in its parts and still project a firm gestalt. The binding will be found to work in whatever dimensional context it is presented.

For the most part, the quality of materials entered was engaging and it’s exciting to BE engaged by concepts that are so different from my own. I am impressed by ideas that present a willingness to take risks and make some racket. The liberation of the book form for the sake of looking to new possibilities IS really rousing and demands that any of us, jury or viewer, take a breath. I suggest that wherever each of us stands in the spectrum of experience, we hold to the idea that everyone contributes. All visual experiments are creative e orts to find new truths and forms which ultimately evolve the conditions of this incarnation of the book.

1 This visual across-the-board style seems to have shown up earlier but I cannot find a mention of it as a rule of thumb or “way to go.” Its prevalence in the design of designs is overwhelming to me.
2 This observation is not universal by any means. A more firmly held tradition for spine titling such as that used in Europe would demonstrate some other solutions to this problem. Usually just playing it straight (but with a bit of novelty) does the trick. As the actual work requires tools and skill, it is typically an afterthought in American work.


When reviewing the submissions for Vessel, I focused on craft, imagination, origi- nality, and thematic implications. Selecting a group of books that best exemplified these key elements from such a wide range of works was a challenge.

In considering the theme of the exhibit, I decided that it was not a given that the book is a vessel unto itself, therefore I looked for connections that were metaphorical rather than literal. I tried to base decisions on execution, innovation, and concept. There were books that stood out immediately as embodiments of these elements, where the jurors were in unanimous agreement. For books where the theme was less apparent, impressive originality and craftsmanship were necessities.

I commend all who made the effort to enter a piece. It is no easy task to create and execute the work, take photos that will best represent the item, and then put oneself on the line for critique and review. When a juror needs to make well informed decisions about three-dimensional objects, working from images is not ideal; visual observations can be hindered by poor image quality, and a lack of informational views can thwart even the most open-minded juror.

Being a member of the Guild of Book Workers offers an opportunity to learn and be a part of our craft as it expands and transforms, with new and di erent approaches being incorporated into the field. Active participation, such as entering shows, can help us by o ering a support network where we are inspired to improve our e orts both in craft and design. Having been a member of the Guild since 1989, it was an honor and a pleasure to be asked to be a juror for this year’s exhibit. I have observed changes in the nature of the organization resulting in new and di erent types of work that challenge my own views of what a book is and how to represent it. Being a juror with Sarah Bryant and Tim Ely was delightful in many ways, as we all brought our unique perspectives and strengths to the conversation. I came away with new insights, a deeper appreciation for the Guild, and an awareness of how new sensitivities can enhance the book experience.