Guild of Book Workers Newsletter
Number 103
December 1995

ARNO WERNER - 1899-1995:

by Carol J. Blinn, Warwick Press

Writing an obituary is certainly one way of coming to terms with death. I had always known that if our lives proceeded without either of us cut down by unforseen circumstances that Arno would die before me. But over the twenty-two year friendship we nourished and sustained, our lives meshed to the point where I began to picture us both dying in some blaze of glory at the same time. The fact that Arno had forty-seven years more on his body than I did made no difference.

He's dead and nothing I can do can bring him back. Yet I am convinced that the way we live our lives, the way we do our work, and how we think and move in this world, enters into the fabric of other people's lives. Arno was luckier than most. His work and talents touched a wider audience than most of us will ever hope to. His bindings, seen even from a distance on unfamiliar library shelves, stand out just as boldly as W. A. Dwiggin's spines and say, "Here is my book. Arno Werner bound this." It is a great legacy and yet, coming from Arno, it seems only natural.

Arno's great gifts were many, but I think he succeeded in work and living primarily for two reasons -- he was not a greedy man, and he was not threatened by sharing his knowledge and techniques.

I met Arno after the biggest chunk of his working life was over. In the fall of 1973 he was 74 years old. In stamina and persistence, he could still work me under the table. He took me and countless others on to teach us by example and repetition just what the work of hand bookbinding was all about. Here was a man as gracious and generous as my friend who taught me letterpress printing. Harold McGrath and Arno both didn't waste time with theories. They didn't contemplate their navels, but went straight to work and solved problems.

My visits with Arno mirrored the visits of the many other men and women who drove to Pittsfield, Mass. and later to Hadlyme, Conn. to work alongside him. First, there would be the greeting at the door, "Carol, is it really you?". I would lug in a project to be bound, along with bags of groceries and homemade bread and cookies. Work apron on, we'd go into the shop, look at some of the books he was working on, then settle down to my project at hand. When all the choices were made regarding board thickness, cloth or leather or decorated paper, with the measurements taken, we set about our chosen tasks. I loved those hours in his shop.

My whole life revolves around producing multiples of printed pieces and editions of books. Here in Arno's shop we glued, sewed, constructed, and pressed these sheets into hundreds of books over the years. We worked like crazy and stopped for mid-morning cups of tea and maybe a cookie or two. Often, Arno drank cold leftover coffee from breakfast. The scuzzy liquid was always in a cartooned glass with a bent straw sticking out. He sucked at this at intervals during the day. Back in the bindery we worked until I slipped out to make lunch.

In his later years (after 80), he stretched out on his sofa to rest his eyes, watch a soap opera, take a snooze, and relax. His irreverent comments about television and soap operas in particular, were refreshing and hilarious. In mid-afternoon while working at the bench I might look up to find Arno outside puttering in the garden, or visiting the bees. He often told me that when he dreamed of coming to America, his idea of wealth and contentment revolved around raising vegetables, fruit, and bees. He met his goal ten times over and became a very wealthy man. The richness of the soil he built up in Pittsfield yielded up great bounties of gooseberries, strawberries, asparagus, and multitudes of other produce. He raised the best rhubarb I have ever eaten. And his honey was to die for. Arno's sauerkraut combined with mashed potatoes kept me alive many winter nights.

After we stopped work for the day, I would make dinner and in our early years together, Arno would either smoke a cigar or pull out a bottle of cognac from the cupboard. He used to ply me with a big goblet of sweet vermouth and add a healthy dash of cognac to it. The cognac, he said, was to make it stronger.

These were truly halcyon days for us. Many of the other apprentices who studied and worked with Arno can relate similar tales. Because of his great capacity to attend to the business at hand, he produced an extraordinary body of work -- from thousands of tray-cases and editions of books, to stationery items, to one-of-a-kind bindings and boxes. Anyone studying with him was exposed to the best workmanlike habits.

The people who were privileged to work with Arno are too numerous to mention. Let me just say that collectively they benefited in untold ways from their time with, and exposure to, Arno, and Arno's wish has come true. He spoke often of his hope that Americans would begin to find their own 'voice' and style in hand bookbinding. Because of Arno's work, teaching and influence, a whole generation of bookbinders has rediscovered the wonders of bookbinding. We are in the middle of a new wave of exciting resurgence. It is no surprise that one can see Arno's influence wherever we turn. And we are truly Americans in our bold, experimental approaches, with reliance on sound structures and books that are bookish. Arno taught us that.

From a personal perspective, Arno's ever-present influence in my life and working life knows no bounds. So I can truly say, "Death, where is thy sting?" I give you a toast, "To Arno, to life, to books!"

Copyright 1995 Carol J. Blinn