This tome, bound by designer Julian Thomas, is comprised of crimson goatskin with inlays of green and yellow goatskin and calfskin.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

A bookbinding bonanza

4 min read

Houghton exhibit shows sweeping artistry used to create spellbinding text covers

Visitors to Houghton Library’s fall exhibition should feel free to judge a book by its cover.

“InsideOUT: Contemporary Bindings of Private Press Books”showcases artistic and innovative approaches to the traditional craft of bookbinding, reminding viewers that books are not just text. They can be aesthetic objects that share information about their creators and readers.

Book covers can be visual invitations to read. The books in “InsideOUT” evoke wonder as well as curiosity. Fifty-nine bookbinders from the United States and Britain were invited to bind one of 28 titles from nine private presses. The resulting works are grouped by title, allowing viewers to compare the contrasts in approach. A brightly hued, embroidered pictorial representation may sit next to an abstract work in neutral tones, each reflecting the binder’s aesthetic. The titles interpreted range from the ancient Greek “Antigone” to 2009’s “The Bicycle Diaries.”

“It’s an artistic interpretation of a book, similar to a musician playing a piece composed by someone else,” said Jim Reid-Cunningham, deputy director of the Boston Athenaeum. Reid-Cunningham co-curated the exhibit with Lester Capon; both contributed a volume to the show. Capon’s favorite entry? Sue Doggett’s “Thomas Jefferson’s Paris Walks.”

“It’s sumptuous, it’s creative, you could almost dive into it,” said Capon, a fellow with Designer Bookbinders, an elite, U.K.-based guild, which brought the exhibition to Houghton.

“The InsideOUT exhibition, in addition to sharing spectacular design and craft, is an example of a wonderful collaboration. It’s exciting to bring thought-provoking materials to the Harvard community,” said Tom Hyry, Florence Fearrington Librarian for Houghton Library. Hyry recently joined Houghton. Sarah Thomas, vice president for the Harvard Library, welcomed him to Harvard at the exhibition’s opening reception.

For centuries, bookbinding techniques were handed down by way of an apprentice system. While masters still coach novices — a father-and-son duo contributed to “InsideOUT” — today’s binders come to the craft at all ages and from all walks of life, bringing their varied experiences and perspectives to their work.

Contemporary bookbinders find inspiration and materials well beyond the traditional leather, which is evident throughout the exhibition. One volume features Tyvek (an industrial plastic used to wrap scaffolding and make FedEx envelopes) studded with mother of pearl; another takes cues from garments, sporting beaded velvet. Metal, wood, plastic, glass, silk, lace, and leather in many hues come together via inlays, onlays, stamping, tooling, and sewing.

Detail extends to every visual plane, from the endpapers to the edging, and can only fully be appreciated in person. “Often, photographs make a book look like a painting, when it is really a sculpture,” said Reid-Cunningham. “It’s a kinetic object.”

While each piece is unique, the works have craft in common. Completing a project can take the better part of a month, and the skills necessary take years to learn.

The InsideOUT exhibit will run at Houghton Library until Dec. 13.