Always a jolly evening at the annual prize-giving for the Designer Bookbinders Competition, held again this year at the ever engaging St. Bride Foundation – a feast for the eyes, old friends and new abounding, happy winners of prizes. I had a particular interest this year in having been roped in at the last minute (the President was indisposed) to select the recipients of the four ABA Highly Commended Certificates. No difficulty in choosing them: I was genuinely surprised that some of them at least hadn’t already been selected to win some of the top awards.
Let’s start with them (click to enlarge the images): Bec Britain’s bejewelled, witty, sensuous and stylish take on this year’s set book, Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Simeon Jones’ abstract and sinuous (but also bejewelled) interpretation of the same book – I really liked this one; Adelene Koh’s Big Tomato in the Big Apple, again for the set book (think about it – re-read the book if you have to) – delicious; and Sarah Ruddick’s eye-catching, dappled, rippled and shadowed approach to her open choice book (Sweet Thames Run Softly). Highly Commended? – indeed they are – rather more than that actually – clever and wonderful pieces of work.
Wonderful and clever as they are, not one of them has any conventional lettering (you know: author, title, that sort of thing). This was why some years ago I initiated my own prize – the Ash Rare Books Lettering Award. Year after year the books in this otherwise always enjoyable annual exhibition either had no lettering at all, lettering that was purely perfunctory, lettering that was wholly ill-chosen – completely wrong in size or style (or both) for the design, or – in the case of traditional hand-lettering – simply rather poorly executed.
I understand all the reasons for this, my bookbinder friends have explained it all again and again. Traditional hand-lettering is damnably difficult and, apart from anything else, designer bookbinders simply can’t afford to carry a range of lettering tools to suit all books and all styles on all occasions. This is of course where the professional binderies score – they have the craftsmen, they have the volume of work, they have the years of practice and routine to perfect the technique, and they have the tools.
Even so – a binding without lettering always seems to me be a bit of a lost soul. A mute and incomplete design. Books are all about letters and text after all.
Every year I live in hope of giving the award to something superbly hand-lettered in the traditional way – taste and technique in tandem. But if there is something in the competition along those lines it has generally already been scooped up to receive either the Finishing or the Gold Tooling Prize (and there is a very distinct bias on these occasion for spreading the awards around). Conventional lettering ruled out, I then tend to look for something which really attempts to integrate the lettering into the design – something quirky perhaps, something off-beat possibly, but above all something well-executed which doesn’t duck the lettering issue. Something which confronts the possibilities and makes virtues out of difficulties.
Here’s this year’s winner – another Breakfast at Tiffany’s – but one which announces itself. One that ticks the boxes above. I love the way the rickety-rackety lettering echoes and shadows the rickety-rackety stairs and railings. I love the way it complements the cat. I love the way it balances the design, blends with the design, is the design. I like it more and more the longer I look at it. Very well done to Patricia Grillo – a very deserving winner.
Lots of other prizes of course. I won’t list them all, but these are the ones which took my eye as well as those of the official judges. The Shepherd’s Falkiner Fine Papers Prize went to Chris Hicks for his witty set book, with tiny lettering across the belt, and complete with its own matching handbag.
Luke Hornus took the Arthur Johnson Award (judged by Bernard Middleton) for his beautifully executed and thoughtful black-and-white pictorial, the splashes of red particularly effective.
The Prize for Finishing given by the St. Bride Foundation went to Ann Tout for her stylishly rendered dancing girls, again on Breakfast at Tiffany’s – a fabulous piece of work.
The Folio Society donates two top prizes for the set book (as well as the sheets of books to be bound). Second prize went to Nicky Oliver – stripes of glitter and a tiny champagne glass, while the first prize went to Hannah Brown for her high heels and shiny shoes – a highly popular choice to judge from the acclaim – acclaim repeated all over again with even greater intensity when the same book was awarded the Mansfield Medal for the Best Book in the Competition. Well done to her.
There are good pictures of all the winning books on the Designer Bookbinders’ website – and do try to catch the exhibition – it’s on until the 5th December.