coptic bound Buoy Book
photo credit Jason Shields

In January of 2021 I had the privilege of working with Tijen Roshko and her masters students of interior design at the University of Manitoba’s School of Architecture. I was asked to share my journey as a bookbinder / book artist and to talk about my experience working with interior design students. I would like to thank Tijen Roshko, her team and all the students. It was an incredible experience for which I am grateful.

photo credit Jason Shields

As a bookbinding artist, I find my work falls somewhere between the traditional definition of art and craft. My work, though functional in its form, is defined by its tactile and sculptural presence. I work with each piece as a sculpture – investing time and consideration into my materials and process. To me, books represent archives – not only of the personal, but keeping record of a specific point in time and place. This thinking is reflected in my material choices. Gatherin what is around me – often discarded or unused resources – feels like an act of preservation in a fast changing environment where so much goes to waste. I collect objects/resources that feel precious, unique and overlooked. To me, transforming foraged material into sculptural books signifies both the value of that object and, in the gesture of a functional form – its’ unfinished story. The treatment of these materials has become an integral process in my work. When I began working with foraged wood as book covers, it was essential that I learn the skills necessary in woodworking to handle and understand the behaviour of those woods. Becoming interested in natural dyes with natural forms, I learned to eco-dye paper and fabric from locally sourced plants. In the last year I’ve devoted my time to learning the ancient tradition of fish skin leather tanning, a process in which I am involved from the very beginning – fishing for, eating, and ultimately processing the fish by tanning its skin to make use of each part of this precious resource. The resulting leathers become swaths of book cloth for sculptural works which capture the scale patterns and unique identifiers of Manitoba fish. I am currently using this work to explore the impacts of the changing ecosystems on our freshwater fish. For me, if a material is being used in book form, it is being integrated into the story, the gesture of holding knowledge, history, and communicating significance. Intentionally choosing my materials, I create space for conversation around their intrinsic value.

The freedom that I feel to experiment and play within my craft is borne of the sureness of a sound binding. In bookbinding, nothing works without structural integrity. I like what mid-century theorist David Bye said, that a satisfying craft practice involves both the “workmanship of certainty” and the “workmanship of risk”. The element of risk leans heavily on the element of certainty, but neither can exist without the other. At the beginning of my practice I devoted my time entirely to understanding the workings of a book. I would take used books, pull them apart, and try to build them back together. At the Minnesota Center for Book Arts in Minneapolis, they emphasize the importance of this genre of foundational knowledge – this is where I first studied historical bindings and developed a deeper understanding of archival methods and materials in book making. There are certain contemporary bindings that I love and use frequently as well (notably, Benjamin Elbel’s Tue-Mouche and Dos Raporté). Each unique binding technique offers a distinct architecture which in some ways determines the direction a piece may take. Throughout the years I spent practicing and mastering historical bindings, I began to gain a sense of where I could experiment and change up the elements at play. One binding in particular, once mastered, lends itself easily to adaptation and experimentation. This is the two needle coptic method of binding a book.

For the two intensive days of bookbinding with Tijen Roshko’s students of interior design, we focused on two needle coptic binding. Coptic binding is a brilliant method that dates back to the 4th century where the technique of interlacing threads in carpet making was adapted; a chain stitch was used to bind sections of papyrus and later parchment together between wooden covers. The result is a book that is flexible with our sacrificing strength. The variations possible with this method are myriad – hence the name of our course, Coptic Variations. Students went through a rigorous training on the exact process of binding a book, following which they were asked to create their own work using this binding method while innovating with the material choices available to them in their surroundings. In planning the course with Tijen, I enjoyed noting the points where my practice relates to and overlaps with that of interior design. There are certain elements that come to mind immediately; the “interiority and exteriority” of both, as Tijen put it, the consideration of design and longevity, the idea of books and interiors as parallel spaces for holding experience. It was in working with the students however, that we discovered the nuance of these parallels.

The books that each student created became a clear indication of how each designer carries their own story and perspective, which take shape in material and design choices. Those choices are traces of the archival element I mentioned earlier – they are the result of our environment and cumulative experiences. I noted the story behind the work made by Ali Zamani, who incorporated Persian calligraphy as a decoration on the cover of his book, using the excerpt of a classical poem that references bookbinding while reflecting on seasons of life.

Work by Ali Zamani

In other works, the integration of prior knowledge was evident – Cory Harrison drew on his pre-existing understanding of electronics.

Work by Corey Harrison

Likewise the work by Sumandy Young was clearly informed by a textile skillset.

Work by Sumandy Young

Another element of my work in bookmaking is consideration of scale, which is entirely determined by human use, and almost exclusively in relation to how an object will feel in a person’s hands. My books are made with exact movements in mind, how much it will weigh, the texture, scent, how it sits in your palm – all factor into the overall design. In conversation with Tijen and the students, we discussed how when you are designing a space, so much of the decision making revolves around use, relationship to the body, and an anticipation of experience. I liked what Sean Hewlett said about the concept of adaptive re-use, and how he applied that to his thinking around the book project. It falls back again to the idea of structural integrity – when you have a good foundation, you have the ability to adapt your work as time and use demands.

earlier work by Sean Hewlett
book made by Sean Hewlett reflecting his earlier work as an artist

I continued to think about Tijen’s recollection of our first conversation about bookmaking; one in which we discussed that my books are only complete when someone is writing in them, drawing, and filling the pages. The work is made for that interaction – I can bring my story to the table, but it only finds meaning in that moment when it’s put to use. As Tijen noted, this is precisely the point in which interior design finds its legs as well. I most like this piece of overlap between bookmaking and interior design, because ultimately both practices are intended to create space for others. At their best, they reflect what is and encourage the user to determine what could be. They are grounded in individual experience, but put in motion the capacity for endless human encounters, countless stories to be told.

photo credit Jason Shields