Designer Bookbinders 2014

St Bride Exhibition

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.

Bec Britain - Breakfast at Tiffanys

Bec Britain – Breakfast at Tiffany’s

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.

Simeon Jones - Breakfast at Tiffany's

Simeon Jones – Breakfast at Tiffany’s

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.

Adelene Koh - Breakfast at Tiffany's

Adelene Koh – Breakfast at Tiffany’s

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.

Sarah Ruddick - Sweet Thames Run Softly

Sarah Ruddick – Sweet Thames Run Softly

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.

Patricia Grillo -Breakfast at Tiffany's

Patricia Grillo -Breakfast at Tiffany’s

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.

Chris Hicks - Breakfast at Tiffany's

Chris Hicks – Breakfast at Tiffany’s

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 - Breakfast at Tiffany's

Luke Hornus – Breakfast at Tiffany’s

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.

Ann Tout - Breakfast at Tiffany's

Ann Tout – Breakfast at Tiffany’s

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.

Nicky Oliver - Breakfast at Tiffany's

Nicky Oliver – Breakfast at Tiffany’s

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.

Hannah Brown - Breakfast at Tiffany's

Hannah Brown – Breakfast at Tiffany’s

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.

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers”, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. He also contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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