A classic seventeenth-century Spanish fan-and-wheel binding inspired my binding of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey (New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1929). The volume that was my muse is in the Scheide Library at Princeton University (Ms. 50). It’s a carta de hidalguia, granted by Carlos II of Spain in 1672 to Joseph Garcia de Zerbantes of Salamanca. My binding uses the convention of the Spanish fan-and-wheel binding as its starting point. I placed the wheel across the spine, rather than center front and center back, then broke that wheel to symbolize the broken bridge of the novel.
inspiration for the design
Carta de hidalguia, 1672 (Scheide Library, Princeton University)
The Wayward Bus
For a collector of autographed first editions of American twentieth-century literature, I created a binding for John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus (New York: The Viking Press, 1947) showing the muddy road to nowhere from the bus driver’s point of view. I used borderless onlay, gold-tooled onlays, gold tooling, and Mylar appliqué to realize this design. I put a bit of extra effort into the box as well—ideas hatched out of respect for the collector and an understanding of what he was looking for.
Celebrating the Milberg Collection at Princeton
For two volumes celebrating the Irish theatre collection that Leonard and Ellen Milberg donated to Princeton’s Library (top), I used modern geometric tools to create the illusion of eighteenth-century Irish bindings. One volume of the set is the catalogue of The Leonard L. Milberg Irish Theatre Collection, compiled by J. Howard Woolmer and published in Princeton by Princeton University Library in 2006. The other is Volume LXVIII of the Princeton University Library Chronicle, featuring articles about this collection.
Sometimes I use optical illusions to change the shape of the book itself—making the rectangle of the book covers seem round, as for Volume LXXII of the Princeton University Library Chronicle, celebrating the Irish Prose Collection that the Milbergs gave to Princeton University. I drew arcs at each corner of the book and designed within the rounded shape that remained.
Lives of the Painters
The hands shown in the top photo are derived from Sandro Botticelli’s painting of the Madonna of the Pomegranate. They hold a book bound in sixteenth-century style on volume one of the Limited Editions Club’s 1966 edition of Lives of the Most Eminent Painters by Giorgio Vasari (Verona: Limited Editions Club).
For volume two, the dress tooling that crosses over the spine had to start out almost excessively thick and consistent because the working of the book will thin them over time.
Books are made to be handled; and a well-built book can improve with age and use. My decorative bindings are meant to be read.
I bound the three-volume London (1851) first edition of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick for a bookseller. I felt that part of the value was in preserving the format of three small unpretentious books, especially since Herman Melville was very much aware of how books were categorized by size: he used book sizes (folio, octavo, duodecimo) to classify the whales in the novel.
As inspiration for the three bindings, I found: a mid-nineteenth-century map of the South Pacific where Ahab sought Moby-Dick; an astrological map for the night when the whaler left Nantucket; and a favorite wave from one of Winslow Homer’s whaling pictures. The three volumes ended up in their own little sea chest.
Fire was the concept behind my binding of the little volume Spontaneous Combustion, A Literary Curiosity by John Rathbone Oliver (Chicago: Argus Book Shop, 1937), which analyzes instances of this physical phenomenon in literature. I couldn’t resist the perverse pleasure of burning a book. I needed fire on the covers, but I wanted the flames to seem to be biting into the leather, so I did them as pressed-in onlays before covering the book. The result is the appearance of flames embedded in the covering leather. My pastedown is decorated with a painting of a match on the corner of an endsheet that I actually burned.
Too Many Cooks
For my binding of Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1938), I set my food ingredients out on a countertop and painted them. Then I translated the painted image into leather onlays, using the original painting as the box lining.
study for binding
Books by John Berendt
I have known the author John Berendt since the 1960s when we were both working at Esquire magazine. When his novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was published in 1994, John asked me if I would bind a copy for him; but somehow the project never went any further. When he published City of Falling Angels in 2005, I suggested to him that I do both books as an unmatched set.
I referred to the architecture of the Mercer House in Savannah, where the murder occurred, for the cover of Midnight. John had asked that the statue from the graveyard that was used for the dust jacket also appear, and she seemed ideal as a spine decoration.
For the Venice book, I found an interior photo of the Palazzo Corner Spinelli that appealed to me. For a single angel to straddle the spine, I suggested one in a sixteenth-century drawing by Luca Cambiaso that I had just bought at auction. When I showed it to John, he exclaimed, “That’s my angel!”
The Time Machine
For H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (New York: Random House, 1931), I did an elaborately gold-tooled binding using one of the chapter heading graphics designed by W.A. Dwiggins as my inspiration. When I bound a second copy for myself, I used more color than gold to realize another design by Dwiggins.
Tricks of the Trade: Confessions of a Bookbinder
Two custom bindings for my own book, incorporating elements of my studio and the tools of my trade.