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Re: Book Art Criticism: New Thoughts

Q&A from an off-list message:

>if you think my questions may be of any value to the
>discussion feel free to pass this message on -- minus my identity.

>The blank book you made for Mr. Phillips -- was it
>made for him to be used for his manuscript translation
>or was that what he decided to use it for after you created it?

        It was commissioned by Tom Phillips for the translation.

>How did this chronology affect your design process?
>To what extent did the two of you collaborate on the project?

        Tom gave me no rules except for the size of book he likes to write
in. I decided to translate the binding style of Dante's Florence into a
contemporary British craft bookbinding idiom. First I studied 13th and 14th
century Florentine bindings in the British Library. The most interesting had
an overall pattern of blind-tooled Florentine lilies--the symbol of
Florence. It is similar to a fleur-de-lys, based on the Golden Section.

I went to T.N. Lawrence and Sons in Bleeding Heart Yard and bought enough
vintage Whatman handmade paper to make the book. I gave Tom a sample to
write on and he liked it, so I sewed the paper on four double raised cords.
Meanwhile I asked Tom to draw a Florentine lily for me, which he did. I sent
the drawing to a toolmaker and had three tools engraved- one outline, one
relief and one intaglio.

While the tools were being made I went to the National Leathersellers'
Centre in Northampton (England) and learned how to tan leather. I tanned a
half dozen Nigerian goatskins using Sumac (the traditional tannin for
"morocco" leather) for use in the binding, and dyed them. While there I also
made two alum-tawed ratskins for my binding of Patti Smith's _Babel_.

I sewed linen "double-p" endbands, a stitch I learned from Nicholas
Pickwoad. This made an "outdent" at the head and tail of the spine that I
worked the leather over, to add to the medieval feeling of the book.

When tooling, I made a pattern using the three tools, and different amounts
of darkening of the leather. This was controlled by first making a pattern
in candleblack on tracing paper, and transferring it to the book by tooling
with cold tools through the paper onto dry leather. This made a very faint
pattern. I then dampened the leather and redid all the impressions with cold
tools. Next I heated the tools slightly and redid the impressions twice in
the damp leather. The impressions I wanted darker I continued to re-tool
with hotter tools. The darkest ones have 10 impressions.

I chose a pattern of three horizontal and three vertical impressions of the
intaglio tool to make the darkest. This is because of the importance of the
Trinity in Medieval Florence and because Dante's Divine Comedy is a trilogy.

This is, of course, not a copy of a Medieval binding. Those used just one
tool and did an overall even pattern. This is an interpretation--a
translation. I thought it important for Tom to have a translation of the
binding to do a translation of the text in. By using 20th century British
handmade paper and many contemporary British techniques in the binding, and
by tanning the leather using early chemistry in a modern British tanning
facility, I was attempting to use materials, techniques, and design that
supported the metaphor of the book's purpose.

A photo of it is online at:

The original is in The Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and
Visual Poetry in Miami Beach.

That was 1979. In 1986 I bound a copy of the 3-volume illustrated limited
edition that Tom produced of Dante's Inferno, using the same tools, but it's
very different. A photo of one volume is at


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