A few weeks ago we visited the Brickbottom artist building in Somerville, Massachusetts for their annual Open Studio event. Just an hour drive from Pawtucket, if you don’t rely too much on yahoo maps that is, Brickbottom is hidden along the McGrath O’Brien Highway tucked between train tracks, auto body shops and the Greater Boston recycling depository. A little oasis at the edge of Somerville.
The complex includes a former bakery with three large buildings and an indoor courtyard. It was one of the first artists buildings I discovered back in the day.
Fifteen years ago when I first started binding books solo in my Boston loft using the name “Handmade Books By Jason Thompson”, just a few years before switching to Rag & Bone Bindery, I bought decorative paper from Rugg Road Paper Company located in one of the lofts at Brickbottom. The store has since switched hands and location and I hadn’t been back to Brickbottom in half a dozen years or so, but strangely the building still smelled exactly the same as it did all those years ago! A pleasant odor which reminded me of creative possibility and opportunity. I guess that’s how I was feeling in those days. A nice experience ala Proust’s Madelines. I asked a couple artists about this unusual smell (pleasant, like paint and wet paper) and they noted that it’s always smelled like that no matter who occupies the different lofts.
While scoping out the art and lofts at this years open studio, I interviewed three residents: bookbinder Jeffrey Altepeter, paper artist Bevery Sky and illustrator Pier Gustafson. Here are their interviews in three different posts starting with Jeffrey.
Jeffrey, thanks for opening up your beautiful bindery at the Brickbottom Open Studio event and talking about your work. Tell us about your introduction to bookbinding. I grew up in my father’s picture framing shop, an experience much like a traditional apprenticeship. We did some frame restoration and worked quite a lot with art conservators, so I was always fascinated by that sort of work. I studied fine art in school, but discovered I’m not a very good painter. My plan was to become an art conservator, but one of the first conservators that I spoke with about training was a book conservator. That planted a seed.
You attended the bookbinding program at North Bennet Street School, what was this experience like? Not being much for science I thought that the bookbinding program at North Bennet Street School would be a good alternative to a conservation program. I didn’t want to take chemistry classes! So it seemed like a back door into the field. And I thought the focus on hands-on bench work (versus academic study) was great for somebody who learns better by doing rather than by reading.
The program at NBSS is based on the study of bookbinding through the making of models of a wide variety of historical and modern structures. Part of the idea is that by understanding how various books were made you will be better able to repair them. But the program is a complete foundation in the field of bookbinding, with a much wider view than book repair only. I was exposed to so many other aspects of the field (like gold tooling on leather bindings, edition binding, etc.). Along the way, realizing I’m a better craftsman than scientist, and abandoned the goal of conservation. I would describe myself now as a bookbinder (not a book conservator by any stretch). I do a wide range of books, boxes and portfolios; leather binding is my specialty. I love making fine/design bindings.
The discovery of fine binding led me to the program at the American Academy of Bookbinding in Telluride, CO. I studied French style leather binding there with Tini Miura. That program is a series of intensive workshops combined with “homework” or independent study. It ends with a portfolio review by a group of master bookbinders. I was in the first graduating class from that school.
And you worked for Harvard repairing books? After graduating from North Bennet Street School I worked for Harcourt Bindery in Boston making boxes and repairing books. The volume and speed of the work there really helped me develop my skills and confidence. After leaving Harcourt I did book repair at Tozzer Library at Harvard. I had a lot of freedom at Tozzer and was able to experiment with many different repair techniques (since I didn’t work in the main conservation lab at Harvard I didn’t have to do things in quite the same way). I worked part time at Harvard while building up my own business on the side. Having such a wide range of books to work on allowed me a chance to develop my skills… and get tired of fixing books! Although I do far less book repair now, I have to say that my experience with that work has been invaluable. Knowing how and why books break down really helps you design better books. I think every bookbinder and book artist would be well served by spending time mending books.
I loved hearing about your newly forged nipping press. Please tell our readers the story of how you found this item and about the casting and forging. I got most of my heavy equipment from Paul Brubaker at Bindery Tools. He buys, sells, refurbishes, and manufactures hand bookbinding equipment. My job backer and one of my book presses are items that he makes. Paul made molds of some 19th century originals and now casts these new versions. They are fantastic pieces of equipment.
Tell us about the large book press which you saved from the Harvard dumpster. The standing press lived for many, many years in the basement of Widener Library at Harvard. They have a large number of mid-sized table top book presses and I think this standing press was just taking up space when they developed the new conservation lab. I hired Death Wish Piano Movers to bring it over to my studio. I love having the large platen press when I need to make large boxes!
How do you find your clients? Word of mouth and my website (which is horribly out of date!).
What differences do you find between your bookbinding and box making work? Well, not much. They use the same materials and same hand skills. I hated boxes when I first started bookbinding, but now that I’ve developed good systems for producing them they are some of my favorite projects!
Do you find a literary connection between bookbinding and books? Do you find yourself reading more due to your proximity to books or are the books in your life more objects because you work with them everyday? When I was a kid I used to get teased because I would sit and read during recess. I still love to read but spend most of my time reading ABOUT books. Bookbinders have historically been considered a rather illiterate bunch! I don’t actually think that there is a disconnect between the literary and object aspects of books, though. In fact, in our electonic age I think the connection people feel to books has become even more special and intimate. For certain types of reading it is almost hard to seperate oneself from the book as an object.
What have been some of your favorite bookbinding projects. Leather bindings are my favorite projects, and I love finishing (tooling). One of my recent projects has been a facsimile edition of the Latin edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle. It is a full size version (about 13.5 x 20 inches) bound in a style typical for the time period (1493)– Sewn on double rased cords laced into wooden boards, covered with Alum tawed skin, blind tooled, and brass corners, bosses, and clasps.
What advice would you offer new bookbinders? Explore as many aspects of the field as you can. Get a good foundation in the fundamentals (that sounds redundant). I wrote a short article about the study of bookbinding in North America published in the online bookbinding journal, The Bonefolder that might be helpful if you are trying to figure out where and what to learn.
But, in general, I think it is important to respect the traditions of bookbinding. Break the rules AFTER you learn them!
Thanks Jeffrey. See you at the next Brickbottom open studio event.