The art, history and the people behind the crafts

Getting lost in the pages of a good book is easy. Making this book is a whole different story.

Bookbinding, the act of folding, sewing and securing pages together, dates back 2,000 years to a time when palm leaves were tied with string. Today, skilled artisans and dedicated do-it-yourselfers keep this labor-intensive craft alive, especially in the Bay Area, which has one of the largest and most bookbinding scenes. dynamic in the world.

There’s the San Francisco Center for the Book on Potrero Hill, a hub for bookbinding classes and book exhibitions as an art form, and celebrating its 25th anniversary. there is the Museum of American Bookbinders, which opened in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood in 2015 to preserve and promote the art and history of hand-bound books. It is the only museum of its kind in North America.

Joining them is CODEX Foundation, which takes its name from the ancestor of the modern book. Since 2007, the organization has hosted one of the world’s largest biennial book fairs and symposia, bringing together fine press printers and book artists in Richmond. And there is Arion press, whose origins date back to 1919. Today he publishes limited edition hand-printed books which are on display at the British Library and the Getty Center and sought after by collectors around the world.

Chad Johnson, studio director and resident instructor at San Francisco Book Center, attributes the rich history of the San Francisco printing press as the foundation of today’s ever-evolving bookbinding culture.

“As we move into the digital age, there is almost a greater interest in analog means and the phenomenon of doing something with your hands,” Johnson says, as he tinkers with the crank. ‘a big cast iron funder. , a piece of equipment used to create the shoulder on the side of a book in the making.

Johnson, who has a Masters of Fine Arts in Book Arts and Printmaking, has been teaching here for 20 years. But over the past five or six years, he’s seen a growing interest in bookbinding, which he says grew out of the typographic printing craze. SFCB courses started to sell, and they became particularly popular during the pandemic – both in person and in online workshops – when people sought a calm, meditative escape from their screens.

“Let’s just say that (the binding) doesn’t fade the way you think it is,” he says.

Barely. Since the center’s inception, thousands of students have passed through the 7,000 square foot space, which has its own binding. They come to learn a particular type of sewing or bookbinding or for an intensive week on the whole bookbinding process.

Bookbinding classes, like this one on October 9 at the San Francisco Center for the Book, have grown in popularity during the pandemic. (Shae Hammond / Bay Area News Group)

“Most of our students are passionate people who love books and just want to learn how to do something,” Johnson said. “Others continue their education and become book artists, book restorers and formal bookbinders. “

They can do all of this in the Bay Area, which has several academic hubs for book art, including a full program at Mills College and library and book preservation departments at UC Berkeley and the University of Stanford.

Bookbinding is a subset of the book arts, a category that includes letterpress printing, papermaking, and other items that go into making a book. Artist books are unique works of art that take the form of a book, but interpret it in an artistic or even sculptural way.

Julie Chen, a book artist for 30 years, heads the Mills Book Art program. While the school’s undergraduate program focuses on the history, study, and creation of various types of bound books – folded paper sewn with linen thread, glued, shaped, covered and decorated – the program MFA focuses on the book as a medium of artistic expression.

For an idea of ​​the latter, look at Chen’s books, which are more like interactive structures. His “Chrysalis”, a faceted oloid held by magnets and housed in a box, deals with the transformative nature of grief. And “Half-Century,” which Chen created in 2018 and presents in a box with a magnetic closure, unfolds over 14 feet wide, revealing a timeline depicting important life events.

“Half-Century”, an artist’s book by Julie Chen, spans over 14 feet and deals with the passage of time. (Flying fish press)

“I am focusing on how to use the material book and the structure of the book to create an immersive experience for the reader,” says Chen. “In the theater, you watch the show. With this, the book is a self-performative object. But you, as the reader, also play a role.

East Bay book artist and Mill College instructor Julie Chen displays her pamphlet “Chrysalis”.

E. Bond, an artist and bookbinder from Alameda who teaches, manufactures unique, hand-sewn sculptural journals and books. She is also drawn to unconventional structures and the way they inform the sequence.

“Iteration,” his 2015 graduation thesis at Mills College is a series of seven vertical hanging scrolls on the survivalism of ancient California redwoods and their relationship to humans and time.

“What is older than a redwood?” says Bond, whose work appears in “500 Handmade Books: Inspirational Interpretations of Timeless Form” and “1,000 Artist’s Books: Exploring the Book as Art”. “I had to go back to the old form of pre-book. “

She also uses old bookbinding techniques. In a parchment, Bond uses dragon scale binding, a Chinese technique dating back to the Tang Dynasty. A book bound to the scale of a dragon is always a parchment, but it contains pages glued by their edges. This effect, which allows more stories to happen in the parchment, has a tree bark effect, says Bond. It helps the “reader” to experience trees and words in a non-linear fashion and perhaps to grasp how long these beings have been around.

“Binding allows me to control all the thinking,” she says. “Because of the freedom that the art of the book allows, I can take historical forms and think of ways they could evolve if we wanted to. ”

Learn more

You can find examples of binding and book art at several Bay Area libraries, including the sixth floor of the San Francisco Main Library at 100 Larkin St., in addition to the University Libraries at UC Berkeley. and Mills College. Here are other possibilities:

San Francisco Book Center: Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. weekends at 375 Rhode Island St. in San Francisco. Anyone can take classes at SFCB, which offers 300 workshops per year on topics ranging from accordion book structures ($ 185) and typographic greeting cards ($ 70) to Core 1-4 binding (850 $);

Museum of American Bookbinders: Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday at 355 Clementina St. in San Francisco. A new exhibition, “Standard | luxury | Design, Bindings of the Book Club of California, ”continues through February 26;

Arion Press, Grabhorn Institute: Public tours of the institute’s “living museum” and educational center at 1802 Hayes St. in San Francisco are still pending, but you can read more about the press and order books, hand-bound journals and other articles on

CODEX 2022: Discover the work of more than 450 artists and book sellers representing 30 countries at this biennial international fair and symposium scheduled for April 10-13 at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond. Tickets are $ 10 to $ 40;

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