Guild of Book Workers Newsletter
Number 96
October 1994

New Horizons Conference

From Gary Frost

The Designer Bookbinders conference was international, wide ranging in topics and worth its cost. The program was full, with simultaneous sessions and discussions or reports wedged between. Add to this an extensive exhibit and trade show. There were about 250 participants from 24 countries.

A presentation by Judith Hoffberg included the remark that by the millennium, or there about, human knowledge will be doubling every 73 days. This awesome rate of increase indicates that traditional book artists could continue to prosper and at the same time disappear overnight! Such a mix of confidence and uncertainty characterized the conference.

An interesting perspective came out of the aging of modern art binding and modern book conservation. We are now in a position to reflect on both as past eras. Trevor Jones matched the passing trends in design binding with matching fine art movements. He illustrated how design binding got hooked on art and how we have now moved to another trend, structure as art. This too will pass and we may now be searching for artistic virtualizations of the book, carefully following the momentum of social and technical change that surrounds us.

More disturbing was the perspective now cast on the history of modern book conservation. As Tony Cains points out, there was good reason to launder the mud and oil-soaked books in Florence. But why did aqueous treatment get built into the standard specification for conservation work thereafter? Was it, in the USA, our deep need for cleanliness? Will book washing really prove beneficial? Did it waste time and make library conservation not affordable? On the plus side Tony described all the innovations and insights, such as heat-set supports and conservation quality materials, that made the years in Florence a great and formative time for modern book workers.

The Chris Clarkson talk on the advent and progress of the codex form until the mediaeval period is now in a potent version summarizing his insights in the history of the book mechanism. Chris' talk lead perfectly to the John Szirmai paper, "Lessons from the Archaeology of Bookbinding." Szirmai summarized observational and statistical studies of actual bindings and provided useful interpretation of the study of others. His line of reason established the exemlary medium of 12th century monastic binding and the increasing deficiency of subsequent glued and hammer-shaped work. This talk was graced with wonderful slides of wonderful models. There was a standing ovation.

The conference exhibit provided an overview of trends in design binding. Increasing visual and sculptural complexity is a trend. Pictorial work, inside and out, featured airbrush, spirit dye and stencil technique. A magnificent binding by Angela James exemplified this inset-onlay, mask and reveal complexity. Her binding of the artists book "A Flora" featured a binding "covered with acrylic-sprayed white sheep and goatskin. Pencil and crayon drawings under transparent vellum. Gold lettering. Leather doublures acrylic-sprayed". The exhibit binding by Faith Shannon goes in another direction. Though she helped to instigate the pictorial/sculptural form, her exhibit binding "Book of Job" had a single slit knife cut in the vellum cover.

Another trend is the expression of structure as art. The difficulty here is that book structure does not lead to visual effect but to action. As a result there may be no familiar esthetic for a trend toward structure as art. Action is not decor. Action is dance and manipulation, watching not looking. Structure as art would require a different manner of exhibition. The new Air neuf group based in France did put its bindings out on a table, but then adjoined them with fourteen pairs of white cotton gloves. "They just don't get it!" Some sewn boards structures in the exhibit had to be de-cased, splayed opened and left out on the floor in hopes that someone would stumble over their meaning.

An additional exhibit also featuring fine craft work, art and energy was the trade fair. Magnificent wooden presses were displayed by Sally Martin of Bookbinding Equipment. Her beech lying press features elegant teflon screws. Shepherds Bookbinders Ltd. is offering a wooden plow trimmer that tracks to provide a vertical cut. This guillotine/plow would be just the thing for a small hand bindery. Many other fine producers offered exhibits, sixteen in all.

The entire program of such an event is only a part of the excitement. Nothing equals the thrill of meeting legendary crafts people and artists in a setting that is equally mythical. Under the little dinner table lamps in the dining hall of Christ Church College you can easily sit next to characters to famous that you thought they were dead. Or you can finish the day with a lime and lager at the Bear crowded on all sides by bookbinders. You remember the oddest moments, gobbling down a gooey Rum Ba-Ba cake on a chilly night cruise. Or the realization that Philip Smith peering from a bridge, shadowed beard and brows, is Gandalf.

It is a measure of the Designer Bookbinders that the organization can inspire an important international gathering. It is apparent that the conventions of design binding are expanding and any group that brings together a forum will be subjected to a conflict of views. Should the artist or book conservator have a more central role in the field of designer bookbinding? Should the group draw in designers of limited edition bindings? Should the group eliminate the word "designer" or "bookbinder" from its name? It is a brave organization that conducted the 1994 New Horizons conference.