A technique that grew out of necessity beginning in the 15th century, replaced by modern-day machinery, is now a form of art – bookbinding.
“Practically as soon as people began to write there had to be a way to put it together,” Florian Bieschke, owner of Atelier Bindery located in Woodruff, said. “What’s happened now is that there’s no real need for a hand bookbinder. The hope for binding now is in what’s called the designer craftsperson.”
Bieschke went on to describe a designer craftsperson as “a whole other breed” – “someone who envisions the complete book and does all of the operations.”
And there is quite an extensive list of bookbinding operations, especially when it comes to restoration of antique books.
“A typical leather binding from the ground up – 30 hours. Something like this – less,” Bieschke said, holding a relatively small-sized book to conceptualize the length of the process. “How much less, you don’t know. If there’s a lot of repair you can spend that much time into repairing before you can even rebind.”
But because of this precise, in-depth process, the result is a piece of art like no other.
“A designer craftsperson is pretty much the apex of the craft, plus now there’s an introduction of an art and design element that was lacking in the past. Each book is unique. There is no other. That’s it.”
And over his life Bieschke has witnessed master designer craftsperson work.
“Their books resemble paintings. It’s hard to conceive that it was actually done by human hands. It is all handwork – there is no machinery.”
With the amount of time invested in a single bookbinding – whether it’s a restoration or creating a bound blank page book – Bieschke found the help of an apprentice.
After seeing an advertisement for bookbinding workshops Bieschke had placed last December, Emily Umentum paid a visit to Atelier Bindery.
“I came in and showed Florian my previous work, and he mentioned that he was looking for somebody to help out with some shop stuff and that he could teach me in exchange,” Umentum said.
“And that’s exactly how I’ve found all of my apprentices,” Bieschke said.
At Atelier Bindery, Bieschke and Umentum not only repair antique books but also give presentations describing the technique and hold workshops to teach the skill – keeping the art alive.
Bieschke and Umentum have given presentations at the Minocqua Public Library as well as Nicolet College and will be teaching a five-day workshop at Dillman’s Bay Resort and Creative Arts Foundation next year May 19-24.
“The preservation of the craft is valuable in and of itself because it is such a rare thing. Very few people know how to do this. Increasingly few,” Umentum said. “Not to sound dramatic, but it is kind of a dying art form.”
A life of bookbinding
Bieschke has a considerable amount of bookbinding experience.
After more than two decades of teaching experience in the visual and book arts at the undergraduate level, earning a Masters of Art in studio art, and completing a three-year apprenticeship at Studio 22 Graphic Studio and Gallery in Chicago, Ill., Bieschke furthered his career by teaching typography, printmaking, graphic design, painting and traditional English bookbinding at a variety of institutions, including Indiana University, Indiana State College, Purdue North Central University, The South Bend Art Center and the Indianapolis Art League Museum.
After his teaching experience but prior to opening Atelier Bindery, Bieschke owned a bindery in Indiana for seven years – the Binder’s Press, which specialized in repair, restoration and rebinding.
Now Atelier Bindery is an extension of the Binder’s Press, with the primary goal being the preservation of English hand bookbinding but with a secondary goal as well.
“This bindery has a dual function,” Bieschke said. “We do all bindery operations as far as repair, restoration, rebinding. But the other emphasis is teaching. We want to keep the craft alive.”
Upholding the art of bindery
Bieschke opened Atelier Bindery in fall 2011 for the specific purpose of promoting and preserving the craft of hand bookbinding and restoration.
“I think it’s true that in today’s day and age, something that is so meticulously handcrafted is rare,” Umentum said. “It’s definitely a precision craft.”
And “meticulously handcrafted” is a description for bookbinding not to be taken lightly. It’s a process that has been changing and adapting since its emergence in the 1400s.
“When you look at the evolution of the craft, the very first practitioners were crude, but they had to be. They didn’t have all of this. They didn’t have fine tannages and leathers; they didn’t have fine tools and they didn’t have machinery,” Bieschke said.
The equipment used at Atelier Bindery could be considered modern, compared to what the first bookbinders had, but also vintage.
“All of this equipment was derelict in a junkyard, so that delayed getting things started because they had to be restored,” Bieschke said.
Most of the tools are vintage cast iron that, through the restoration process, were refinished by hand – hand-restored equipment to hand restore books through bindery.
“What we can do are some edgy, highly traditional things like this,” Bieschke said, holding a repaired leather-bound book complete with designs reminiscent of the late 19th century. “That’s a full leather binding with blind tooling. [A book dating from] 1857 completely disassembled, resewn, rebound, recovered, but in the style of the original.”
“That book was falling apart when we got it,” Umentum said, describing its original condition.
But by using hand tools instead of a machine that produces thousands upon thousands of identical, uniform books, there is a unique quality to hand-decorated book covers.
“You’re never going to get anything like that with a machine which stamps all at one go. Because each tool goes at a slightly different angle, you can tell when you turn it that it has a sheen to it,” Umentum said. “There’s no other way to get that effect.”
By searching locally for books to restore, Atelier Bindery has finished pieces available for purchase on its website, atelierbindery.com.
“What we’ve been doing is buying and collecting books on our own for speculation. They’re basically history, children’s books, naturalist books and usually illustrated,” Bieschke said.
However, there is an exception when it comes to restoring antique books.
“Sometimes you shouldn’t touch a book. You come up with the right treatment for it,” Bieschke said.
And he had an exception in his workshop at the time to demonstrate his point: a set of aged reference books describing the process of violin building.
“These books are of a comparatively rare subject matter and they belong to another craftsman that teaches people to build violins,” Bieschke said. “They’re rare and valuable on their own and shouldn’t be touched even though they’re deteriorating. That’s just the nature of the beast.”
His solution? Build a separate telescoping box fitted and designed specifically for each book.
“Originally these were in a slipcase, sliding in and out,” he said. “Well, that’s the worst thing for leather that’s already starting to chip.”
Instead, the telescoping boxes provide “360 degrees of protection and the book still lives on the shelf.”
Another available option for restoring antique books is to preserve and incorporate its original front and back covers with the new material.
“In the case of this Robert Louis Stevenson book, that’s the original covering from the 1913 binding, which never had cover boards. It was just the burlap wrapper, so it’s amazing the book even survived,” Bieschke said. “We even saved the advertisement for fountain pens off the back cover and all the ads that were in the back of the original book.”
Renaissance bindery work
Because they do every step of bookbinding themselves, Bieschke has a particular way of describing both he and Umentum.
“We are what we call Renaissance people here. We do it all,” he said.
And looking back on his bookbinding experience, he credits his educators’ teaching style.
“In a way I’ve been blessed by all of my teachers. [They] were very traditionally oriented and extremely disciplined and would not settle for less,” Bieschke said. “They knew what they were talking about.”
Now he’s passing down what he’s learned to Umentum and she’s adding her own personal touch to her creations.
“I like doing what Florian thinks is pretty crazy. I don’t know if I’d call them “steam punk” – but kind of steam punk books where they’ll have buckles,” Umentum said. “I’m going to be doing a series that has functioning pocket watches as part of the covers, but with the same structural integrity and form of these books.”
For Bieschke, there’s no single aspect of bookbinding that trumps all.
“There isn’t a favorite part. My real joy comes from when something works – when it actually comes together and you don’t have to live with ‘less than’ or ‘good enough.’ It’s as good as I can do it.
“If I can walk away and not have wasted the material and wasted my time and done any harm, it’s a good day. That’s success.”
For more information about workshop schedules and openings or to tour Atelier Bindery, call 715-358-5470.
Sarah Hirsch may be reached at email@example.com