Due to its size this interview it will be posted in two parts.
Samuel Feinstein is a private practice bookbinder specializing in fine bindings, gold finishing, rounded spine clamshell boxes, and new bindings in period style. He trained at the North Bennet Street School in Boston under Jeff Altepeter and Martha Kearsley, graduating in 2012. He lives and works in Chicago, and his work can be seen at:http://www.samuelfeinsteinbookbinding.com/
According to our guest: ” What most appeals to me is the work itself. It keeps my hands and mind focused and draws me in, day after day. It takes me through the history and imaginations of what I work on, and allows me to express myself through my hands. As a binder, my intention is to create bindings that are pleasing to the senses and the mind, and it is the challenge of it that inspired me. As an instructor, I do what I can to further the practice of hand-tooling, especially using gold leaf, which is applied to both historical and contemporary works.“
Samuel’s portfolio boasts an impressive array of design and period bindings – diversity is key word. With a style balancing gracefully between modern and classic I doubt anyone will not find a binding from Samuel’s work that speaks to them.
I would like to deeply thank Samuel for taking the time and effort to give me this interview. Every artisan has an origin story, some more unique and unexpected than others. Yours is such a story – one I believe many people would also consider quite motivational. Would you kindly share with us a few words about it? Also, why was bookbinding your choice?
It’s a long story so I’ll try to keep it short. At the time of this writing it has been nearly ten years since I was involved in an accident while riding my bike on the way to class. I was studying Classics (ancient Greek and Latin) and English literature. I was bruised here and there, my right wrist was broken from the impact of the van, and I suffered a brain injury from hitting the pavement. The head injury keeps me in constant pain to this day. “Chronic, intractable, post-traumatic headaches with migrainous features” is the diagnosis I was given. For a little while I attempted to keep up with the work in my classes and some passions on the side, but ultimately the kind of cognition that I was trying to retain ended up just causing more pain. I’ve always been the kind of person who needs to be productive, and not being able to do what I was used to led me to a very low point. I had enjoyed visual arts since I was a kid, had done creative writing in my later teens, and was always interested in books as a vessel for information. Books and art were an integral influence on the kind of mind I developed, so I was searching for what I could possibly do with my life and interests. I stumbled across the North Bennet Street School’s website, saw that they had a program in bookbinding, and everything just clicked. I could still work with books, but using my hands instead of my head. Nothing else I came across spoke to me, and bookbinding became the one thing that I could really focus on, often times literally. I began teaching myself, and unsurprisingly, the results were rough at best. The first time I applied to the North Bennet Street School I was not accepted, so the next year was spent, in my good hours, making successively improving bindings, and researching the history of bookbinding through the collection at the Newberry Library in Chicago. The following year I was accepted and by then I knew that fine bindings were something that I would focus on in my free time at school. One thing the accident gave me which I would not have otherwise gotten was less productive hours in my day, which taught me to focus my time on learning the specialized aspect of bookbinding that most interested me, and I spent as much time as I could in my days learning that, not allowing myself to get distracted. I still have the headaches every second of every day (though you wouldn’t know it if you met me, I’m a rather cheery person), and it’s unlikely they’ll ever go away, but you do the best you can with what you have. People, both from Greece (where I live) and abroad, ask me from time to time how to begin bookbinding, if there is a place where they can learn the craft. Being able to attend courses at an established institution offering structured programs and thoroughly equipped workshops, under the guidance of experienced craftsmen, is significant: it allows one to explore and develop his/her skills and build a strong foundation upon which to further progress. Although there isn’t a bookbinding academy here anymore, the one that existed has been closed for many years, teaching institutions devoted entirely or partially to bookbinding can be found in many countries around the world. The North Bennet Street School, where you attended a two-year program, is one such institution. What can you tell us about NBSS? What are your memories from training at a well known center for handcrafts and what would you consider the most important stepping stone it provided?
A traditional trade apprenticeship is seven years. The North Bennet program is two years. Granted, the first year or so of an apprenticeship could consist of sweeping up after everyone else, but my point is that you do not have enough time to learn everything that interests you, and you also need to focus on what you believe to be the best path to employment after you graduate, bearing in mind that certain kinds of work will likely be unsalable because you haven’t had the time to achieve continuity of skill. However, unless you are able to secure an apprenticeship, it’s likely that programs like the North Bennet Street School as straightforward as it gets with foundational bookbinding education. As far as I know, the US does not have any bookbinding programs like the North Bennet Street School. There are book arts programs that cover many aspect of bookmaking; there are book arts centers, schools, and institutions where workshops bookbinding are offered, as well as private lessons with established binders, but none of these are multiple year programs, bench-oriented, and focused on craft the way North Bennet is. You start off learning paper grain and folding sections, and you end up having made a great number of structures, variations on those structures, many kinds of repair and conservation techniques and treatments, fine bindings, historical structures, and develop a broad range of traditional bookbinding skills which can be applied in whichever way you decide to utilize your hand skills. Graduates from the school have found work in conservation labs as technicians and conservators, in private practice doing repair and conservation work, fine bookbinding, edition work, make artist books, and some teach in addition to doing these. I attended the program from 2010 to 2012. Some of my most nostalgic memories are the moments where the room, noises, and people all drift away and I’m left there with the only things in existence: me, my tool, and the book that I’m tooling. It was a rather often occurrence. As a stepping stone, here in the US, the North Bennet Street School has a reputation for training highly skilled bookbinders, and I used that as much as I possibly could, networking within the bookbinding field, getting to know as many people as I could. I spent a fair amount of time in the school’s library poring through exhibition catalogs, articles, and so on so that when I was introduced to someone new, there was a fairly good chance that I had heard of them before. I would go to as many events as possible, doing as much as I could to become familiar with people who might eventually become clients. As well, North Bennet offers a small business class for students in the final year of their program. This was extremely beneficial for me, since I began my private practice after graduating, and it’s very important to have a good idea of the business side of things when you want to make bookbinding your career.
Short courses and seminars is another way to gain new skills or hone existing ones.You’ve attended many seminars offered by distinguished bookbinders and craftspeople. Can you note a few things from those seminars that made a significant contribution to your progress as an artisan?
For me, most of the short courses or seminars that I have taken that directly correlate with the work that I do now were taken after having some experience doing them, which I either taught myself or learned during my time at NBSS. By the time I took a class with Monique Lallier, I was already familiar with all of the steps of doing a fine binding, so I was able to note how her process was different than others I had seen or done, and I was able to focus on the two things I most needed help with then: headcaps and corners, and wanted to learn edge-to-edge doublures. Even though I only took one class with her, I still think about the way she looks at a binding when she is examining it, and do my less experienced version of it when I am examining my own bindings. While at NBSS, we learned knife making and sharpening from Jeff Peachey, who comes by to teach each year. The discipline he teaches in keeping your tools in proper shape is something I implement and will always be grateful for. There’s nothing like a well maintained tool to do just exactly what you need it to, and learning the significance of this helps instill a discipline and practice that carries on into every aspect of bookbinding. On to your work – your bindings are frequently a harmonious blend between classic and modern elements. Binders often try such a combination but a balanced result is difficult to attain. Where do you draw inspiration for your designs and how do you proceed with creating them?
With my fine bindings, I draw from within the book. I see a book’s binding as a part of the book as a whole: the author, illustrator, illustrator, printer, paper-maker, time period, place of publication (for older books) and so on have already made an impact on the book, so my goal is to make a binding that is harmonious with the rest; something that emulates some of the ideas, feelings, imagery, etc. of what is in the book. Instead of making an artistic statement with my designs, I prefer to speak through craft. It’s not controversial to say that the history of bookbinding flows through my veins as I design. That history has made its impact on each and every book created, even if the book is a revolt against the history of the book. As such my designs tend to be more representational—I am less interested in making an artistic statement and more interested in creating something that will be aesthetically pleasing.
With just a few exceptions, I always have the design completely finished before beginning any work. I take my time with each project in the design phase. I’ll read the book, take in the illustrations, jot down some thoughts, scribble out some design ideas, and so on while working on other books. My design phase tends to take a while, but after that is done, the binding work itself is mere execution. I’ll still evaluate the binding at each stage, making sure the physical object works as well as the idea in my head, but it’s rare for me to change course once after I begin. Then I’ll make a clamshell box for it, make sure I’ve got a write up of technical aspects as well as design, and ship it off to the client. I don’t think there is anything unique about my process.
Producing high quality bindings includes numerous stages and a lot of planning ahead. What part of the process would you consider most important and why?
It’s hard to pinpoint one as the most important, since each step for me is woven together. The obvious option is the design. As I said above, the design is complete before I start any work at all. This means I’ve already spent a while with the book, gave ideas time to gestate, and have a good idea of what direction to go with the book.
The budget does play a role in a binding’s design. Working within the construct (not limitations) of the budget for each project, the different ways of interpreting a book, or expressing an idea are explored to create a unique binding that does for you what you want it to and does for the client what they want it to. At this point, I make up boards and plan out everything: leather choice, endpapers, leather hinge or paper pastedown, edge decoration, sewing structure, headbands, secondary board attachment if needed, decorative techniques, what finishing tools will be needed, etc. Once the binding is started I’ll evaluate it at each stage of forwarding, and will carry the binding to completion.
(Note by the interviewer – Please observe the outline in the photo above. Every number indicates a detail that has to be tooled individually with a separate tool. The overall result requires many hundreds of actions that require extreme precision – and all for a very small area of the binding…)
Techniton Politeia – Interview with Samuel Feinstein Part 2
Welcome to Part 2 of our interview with Samuel Feinstein. You can readPart 1 here.
Which would you say are the projects/bindings that have intrigued you the most and why? This applies to commissions you’ve received but can also be extended to the work of other fellow binders that caught your interest.
I’ll share two of my favorite commissioned pieces and a quick binding that I did on the side: Into This World, a poem by Natalie Goldberg, illustrated by Clare Dunne and printed by Sialia Rieke, is a binding that was able to be somewhat emotional. I wanted to capture the femininity of the poem & illustrations in the design, as well as the strength of spirit necessary it takes to become one with the world, dying with grace: “let us die/ gracefully/ into this world”. I also wanted to convey the sovereignty of nature over our lives, and that it will be here when we are gone, beautiful as ever. The waxing and waning moon is at once an expression of nature itself interacting (drawing the waves up) within the world, a physical representation of the constant change in the world, as well as a metaphor for the progression of the human life. It is also meant to strike a chord with the overall tone of femininity. The death explored in this poem is not about the pain that often comes before death, but rather a celebration of the transformation of the body and the spirit in its continuation of being a part of this world, in a different form: “…let us […] not hold on/not even to the/ moon/ tipped as it will/ be tonight/ and beckoning/ wildly in the sea”.
My binding on Paul Needham’s “Twelve Centuries of Bookbindings” was a fun and somewhat technical binding because it allowed me to make a statement about the history of bookbinding. Often the history of bookbinding is more correctly the history of book decoration and -even more correctly- it is most often the history of gold-tooled bookbindings. The time period covered in those twelve centuries was 400-1600, so there’s not too much time in there for gold tooled bindings, however, they constituted more plates than blind tooled bindings. So with the binding I let the gold do what it normally does—draw attention away from blind tooling in a very stark way. I don’t really have any opportunity to address politics in my work. With the kind of work that I do, it just doesn’t come up. And with the political realm being as divisive as it is, I imagine it could put people off. I’ll do my best to make this paragraph as non-controversial as I can. I chose to do a binding on a book written by Bernie Sanders. He’s not a new politician, and none of the policies that he supports and is pushing for are new ideas. This book follows his campaign trail and puts forth the ideals he ran on: income equality, health care for all, higher education as a human right, racial justice, environmental justice, criminal justice reform, immigration reform, getting money out of politics, truth, love, compassion, and solidarity, among many others–and their implementation. All of these are pressing issues in society and need to be addressed in a moral manner, not limiting the rights of people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (the stated goal of the country I live in). I chose to do a utilitarian binding on this: no gold, nothing flashy, a simple arts-and-crafts design tooled in blind, with an off-cut piece of leather, done quickly but with elegance. The endpapers are plain, they don’t need to be fancy. “A Future to Believe In” was Bernie’s campaign message, and “The Struggle Continues” is the progressive answer to any election, any vote, or any compromise, win or lose–the struggle continues.
There are a number of bookbinders, current and past, who I look up to, but none moreso than the Spanish bookbinder Emilio Brugalla. His work ranges from historical to contemporary, always tooled magnificently and the ability to work in any style fairly seamlessly reflects what I attempt to do in my work. He said, “El corazón del libro nunca deja de latir.” I’m not a spiritual person by any stretch of the imagination, but there is something living and beautiful within a book that the right binding can be resonate with that causes an intangible sense of wonder, and truly the heart of the book never stops beating.
Your bindings are excellently tooled, a fact I’ve seen mentioned within the bookbinding community. You also offer finishing services and teach courses on tooling and gold-finishing. Given your focus on the specific aspect of the craft, what would you consider the hardest part in mastering tooling and why?
The only claim I make is that I am a competent finisher. Because I am not a master, my speculation is that the hardest part in mastering finishing is achieving a level of mastery with all styles of finishing and sustain that for quite some time. This also includes 1. Having the range of tools and type needed for this, and, more difficult, 2. Having the work coming through your shop to sustain your finishing practice week by week. Since I spend a decent amount of time forwarding, that’s time away from the finishing stove, and teaching, while still finishing, is more instruction than actual finishing. I hope one day to become a master, but it’ll take a lot more time.
For those starting out, finishing is not an easily won skill. It is among the most difficult aspects of creating a fine binding. Instruction is one aspect of learning finishing, the other is understanding how each impression needs to feel to be successful — that second part I am either not skilled enough with words to describe, or it is a conversation that needs to happen between the leather and the tool in your hand, incapable of being expressed by words. You will make mistakes. You will “waste” gold, or, more correctly, it will take more gold than you feel comfortable using to develop your hand skills. You will likely ruin a binding or two so that you have to re-do it, even if you have been fastidiously practicing on plaquettes. These are all part of the learning process and should not be interpreted as failures, but as necessary steps to being able to tool a binding well.
Is there a specific philosophy behind the way you run your bookbinding classes? How do you approach tool-finishing as a teaching subject?
I take a very systematic approach to teaching finishing. Make sure that you align yourself squarely to the edge of your bench. Make sure you tool your lines perpendicular to your bench’s edge, and rotate the book you are tooling on rather than pivoting your body. Heat the tool, cool it, polish it, tool. These are a few of the things that I repeat over and over during the course of my workshops. My intro classes start with straight lines. I’ll demonstrate the process, have the students try their hand at is, and then demonstrate again, have the students practice, and demonstrate again so that the students can see the process again and focus on a new aspect of the process or notice something that they were doing wrong. It’s rigorous and intense. The workshops that I teach are often five-day workshops, though I’ll teach two-day workshops as well. We use high quality materials, as these give the best results with unpracticed hands, and it’s easier to know what the issues are when the materials are reliable. Within every class there is a range of previous finishing experience, and not everyone learns at the same rate, so I address this by giving each student as much one-on-one time as I can. This allows those with more experience to move forward and be challenged and those with no experience learn enough to go off on their own. As I mention above, finishing is among the most difficult aspects of fine bookbinding and, for me, the more people that are doing it, and doing it well, the better. I’m in the process of making the first of what I hope will be a number of instructional videos on finishing, since access to that kind of information is somewhat limited. The first will be the core of what my five-day class is, blind tooling and gold tooling with synthetic glaire and gold leaf. If that goes well, I will move on to cover some of the other aspects of finishing that could benefit from instruction: titling, tooling with egg-glaire, tooled-edge onlays, to name a few.
As artisans we have to deal with misconceptions about our craft on a regular basis. People for example are often used to seeing intricate decorations on bindings, most notably in films and series, which makes it difficult to explain the level of skill and experience required to produce such a result. What can you tell us on the subject of misinformation regarding bookbinding? How -if at all- has it affected you so far and what can a craftsman do to tackle it effectively?
As bookbinders, one of our most important roles is to teach others about bookbinding, whether they be clients, prospective clients, someone you happen to bump into and start a conversation with. In the past, one way to address this was to print out a list of each and every step to let people know what the steps were and how many of them there are (I’m referring to the “The bookbinders case unfolded” broadside that lists all of the steps in bookbinding, dated between 1669 and 1695). I’ve had instances where the desired date of completion was ten days or so, and that answer is always, “It would be especially rare that you would find any hand bookbinder with that short of a promised turn around. Most binders you will find will have projects they are already working on, and a more realistic baseline for turnaround starts around six weeks to three months.” Now, that’s not true across the board, depending on work flow, the speed that a binder works at, or if it’s a job you can slip in between other jobs. It’s always best to over budget time and get a binding to someone earlier than you estimated than to miss a deadline. People will always have misconceptions about things they’re ignorant of, just like in every other facet of life. If they simply do not know that a fine binding will take a few months at the earliest, it is good to let them know how long a binding takes, keeping in mind the projects that need to be completed before starting a new one. There’s no positive result from being elitist, condescending, or dismissive, regardless of how much time goes into building up our hand skills. An authentic and genuine conversation, along with showing examples of work, goes a long way.
Last but not least: can you share a small piece of bookbinding wisdom that you’ve unlocked through personal experience? The bit of wisdom I’ll share here is a branch off of something that I heard often as a student: do the kind of work that you want to do. If you take in a bible repair project, then people will know you do that as part of your work. This applies to everything: repair, restoration, conservation, editions, fine bindings, design bindings, and so on. What I have learned is this: If someone doesn’t know that you exist, they cannot commission a binding from you. It’s a simple enough thought, but for me it has been the thing that keeps work coming to my bench. As a previously very shy person, it was a small hurdle to overcome, but it’s part of the process of being a bookbinder. Put in the hours you need to produce salable work and then make sure the people who seek out that work know you and your work.