Autumn 1993

In search of the perfect binding

The craft of covers

Of all the variables in the design of a book, magazine, catalogue or brochure, the choice of binding is a strong contender for the title of most fundamental – as the constructional backbone of the object and as a potentially expressive element. The binding can combine disparate materials, create rigidity or flexibility, emphasise durability or fragility and demonstrate craft skills or celebrate technical innovations. The choice of binding style depends on budget, available technology, schedule, print run, format, number of pages and the client’s expectations. But restrictions don’t necessarily mitigate against creativity: they can prompt solutions which result in unique, covetable objects.

It is rare these days to find both a bindery and printing works under the same roof, so binding is generally subcontracted by printers to specialist finishers. Because finishing can be either fully automated or involve labour-intensive handiwork, costs vary widely.

Many bindings that appear new and different are in fact subtle variations on standard methods. The three most common styles of high-volume binding are wire-stitching, perfect binding and thread sewing. Wire-stitching drives metal staples though the saddle of the book, the latest technology being machinery that can collate pre-folded sections, stitch, and trim all three edges in a continuous process.

Perfect binding was invented to answer the need for high-volume multi-section work, primarily for magazines and catalogues. In this process, pre-folded sections are collated and gathered on top of one another (as distinct from the “nesting” process of wire-stitching), the spines milled off to form a straight edge, and a hinged pre-formed board glued on to form a tight bind. With the arrival of silk and matt art finishes and the need to machine varnish or seal the printed sheets to avoid set-off and marking in the finishing process, perfect binding had to come up with a solution to the problem of the glue not penetrating the varnish layer, resulting in weak books that tended to fall apart. The use of high-strength flexible polyurethane glue is now widespread (in spite of the higher cost of the resin) London bindery J. Muir & Co. has recently patented dovetail binding, a technical development which guarantees increased glue penetration without the use of expensive polyurethane glue.

The third main bookbinding method is thread sewing, where pre-folded sections are gathered together with cotton thread and pulled tight immediately prior to the application of the endpapers (in the case-binding process) or the hinged board cover for higher-volume work. This process ensures a long-lasting and durable product, but adds considerably to the finishing costs.

Less common bindings also using sewing machinery include open-cast sewing, which makes a crease near the folded edge of the front cover and sews so that the thread is revealed. Open-cast sewing can also produce a perforated band for tearing. With the singer sewing method, the pages are laid tent-style over a saddle and a continuous line is sewn down the crease.

Some designers have chosen to follow the “form follows function” dictum and expose the structure of their books. 8vo’s catalogue for “The Dutch PTT, Design in the Public Sector” exhibition, commissioned by London’s Design Museum, uses machine-sewn binding but omits the usual laminated cover to reveal greyboard printed with white ink and sporting a stick-on, die-cut photographic montage, and a green cloth spine. Paperwork, designed by Nancy Williams and produced by Phaidon’s Singapore-based printers, displays the “natural” qualities of paper products. A think brownpaper dustjacket reveals the point at which the spine and greyboard meet beneath it.

Co-operation between designers, printers and finishers can produce more adventurous solutions, as in a birthday celebration book designed by Irma Boom working in collaboration with John van der Poel of Drukkerij Rosbeek, a Dutch printer which specialises in complex jobs. The book was to combine photographer imagery of water with more personal words and pictures. As it was for a 50th birthday, 50 pages were specified, but the thin, absorbent paper required for the photographs would have made a very slim volume. The solution was to print the book on sheets four times its size – the water photographers on the outside of the sheet and the personal imagery on the inside. The sheets were then folded into quarters and glued into the spine to produce a series of gatefolds that open out both vertically and horizontally. This hand-folding technique was an expensive way of producing just 300 copies, but the client, in this case, was a millionaire.

French folding is a variation on a high-volume automated technique. By planning the pages to run in a concertina sequence and trimming one less edge, double pages are created. If the sheets are printed on both sides, show-through from the trapped inside pages can produce a second layer of ghost imagery. Jenn van Driel, again working with Drukkerij Rosbeek, produced a French-folded catalogue which used “back projections” of solid colour, strong geometric shapes and faint type to create a double layer of representation.

There are endless methods for binding short-run publications, inspired by both traditional hand-bookbinding techniques and non-western traditions. SSZ Limited of Bermondsey is a top-of-the-range exponent of traditional leather hand-binding. The company was established in the nineteenth century and today produces one-offs and small runs, mainly for antiquarian booksellers and collectors. At the more adventurous end of the spectrum is Book Works, a letterpress printer, hand-bindery and art book publisher. The craft-trained partners can handle complete print and binding jobs and are not worried if a client arrives with only an example or suggestion. They collaborate regularly with companies such as Pentagram and Cartlidge Levene. As well as practising European techniques, they are exponents of the traditional Japanese method of binding whereby raffia is knotted through and around an edge section of the cover.

Found objects and unconventional materials have all been hi-jacked by designers to hold pages together. And some have even invented new fastenings themselves. Bookbinders such as the London-based Studio Bindery produce portfolios, cases and ring binders to designers’ specifications, often combining unusual materials such as grass and flower papers with traditional techniques. Such methods allowed for flexibility in the ordering of pages, with the option of updating the contents or tailoring them to different audience. Hand-collating also enables designers to specify a broad range of materials that cannot be handled by binding machinery, such as Perspex, cellophane or aluminium foil.

Williams and Phoa’s own brochure, printed by CTD and assembled by office staff as required, is made up of two pieces of folded pressboard held together by double-headed interscrews that are flagged on the cover by blind embossed circles. The pages simply lie between the covers. The effect is of a large-format photograph album, with the functional elements exposed to become decoration. Variations on this theme of “undo-ability” are systems held together by elastic bands, pieces of stick, plastic poppers, rivets and ribbon – anything that can close up around a punched-out hole. Most of these can be put together without the help of machinery or specialist finishers.

Having searched through stationery suppliers’ catalogues for suitable projects, London-based design consultancy The Partners invented their own fastening system. Designed by Peter Carrow for a brochure for Butlers Wharf, the extruded brushed-aluminium rod fastening has since been patented. The presentation of text and photography was kept deliberately simple so that the spine, with its screenprinted lettering, would be the most eye-catching element. Importantly for a property brochure, different combinations of pages can be included for different audiences. Once snapped together, the fastening is permanent. At £4 per unit, The Partners are considering launching this new product on the retail market

The binding of printed objects offers countless opportunities. Inspiration and ideas come from traditional book publication, artists’ books and research into high-tech materials. The solutions are so open and varied, many of them are often overlooked.

First published in Eye no. 10 vol. 3, 1993

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