Write about something you liked" said Margaret Johnson when she asked me to do a small report on the bookbinding conference in Oxford.
The way this conference was organized, no one person could attend all the presentations. For most of them you needed a ticket, issued to you in accordance with choices you had sent in a year or so ago. I had completely forgotten that I had made these choices, and was amazed to find myself sitting in some of these "classes". Had I really picked them? Or had the organizers switched me to them? Yet two which I wouldn't have chosen this year turned out to be the ones I will report on now.
Looking back on the conference, I would say that the most recurrent preoccupation was with the health of the book's spine. James Brockman has been experimenting with concave spines; a number of binders showed flexible spines with exposed sewing that goes directly through the signatures and covering material; and at a plenary session the eminent binder, conservator and scientific historian of bindings, Dr. Szirmai, drummed into us mercilessly with a multitude of charts and graphs what dreadful harm we inflict on books by rounding and backing and hammering and glueing them up.
I certainly take the welfare of books very seriously and try to use, and teach the use of, good materials and good methods. But as a design binder, I find that my greatest interest and pleasure is in the loveliness and elegance of a binding. Amusingness and inventiveness too, provided these further those primary attributes. I have on occasion seen in exhibitions books so stout and tough and durable that they would no doubt last a thousand years--but so UGLY that I wondered who'd WANT them to last that long...
So what I liked best were the most visually delightful presentations.
The first was by Friedhelm Pohlmann, a German, German-trained binder now living in Australia. Of all the presenters I was able to see, he was the only one to do a practical, hands-on demonstration. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a demonstration is worth a thousand pictures: I quickly realized that Mr. Pohlmann was a Hugo Peller trainee (like myself), and resigned myself to learn nothing new. Instead it was exhilarating to see somebody so skillful and nimble-fingered at work. It is easy imperceptibly to warp something one learned long ago. When Mr. Pohlmann applied graphite to his edge, I thought this couldn't work, he put on so little. Instead the edge became darker and darker and soon covered to perfection. Over the years I had obviously applied more and more graphite, with resulting grubby, gritty build-ups that needed cleaning off and sometimes interfered with the burnishing.
The graphite was only part of the edge decoration. By separating the signatures before sewing, he ended up with a most elegant edge in stripes of part white gold, part yellow gold, part red, and graphite in between. An on another graphite edge he experimented with gold applied through a stencil, to the unanimous "oh's" and "ah's" of admiration from his audience.
Whereas recurrent nodding could be observed during the far too many slide shows, nobody could have nodded during Mr. Pohlmann's performance. The conference would have been much better (i.e., more enjoyable and more instructive) had there been more hands-on presentations like this one.
My second most enjoyed presentation was that of Paul Johnson. I had never heard of him, and what had made me (or a pre-conference mix-up?) send me to a specialist in pop-up pictures I can't imagine. But there I was, and soon thrilled to be there. Within some twenty minutes, the floor of the large room in which we all sat around the walls had sprouted a mad psychedelic profusion of quaking paper cubes and paper chains, paper houses and birds and galleons and abstract shapes of every possible type, and on and on went the dancer-like Mr. Johnson slamming open thin books that shot up more and more bright, crazy, beautiful images, while talking and telling us about this work. Nothing narcissistic about this, either: his weekdays are spent in schools, teaching teachers and children how to stimulate mental and emotional freedom and expression.
Some of the books had been made by children: elaborate stories, or autobiographies, or letters, enlivened by pop-ups and drawings. Seeing Mr. Johnson's face glow with enthusiasm for his subject and his charges gave us all, I am sure, as much pleasure and happiness as beholding the mixture of coral reef and Hawaiian Island that his room had been transformed into.