The CODEX Interviews

This series of three articles covering the 2011 CODEX book fair were originally published on the website for Connect the Dots, an arts & culture publication at UC Berkeley. This biennial book fair showcases the work of fine press printers and bookmakers. I spent the first day of the fair just walking around and taking everything in, which is why the interviews don't begin until day two.

Day 2: Conversations with Sam Winston, Russell Maret, and Susan K. Filter

The second day of the book fair was no less exciting, with collectors and enthusiasts alike bustling around the 138 tables that the Codex Foundation hosts. Near the entrance, I found English artist Sam Winston showing a few of his books. One of his more recent works, Orphan, was created by cutting out individual words from each draft of a short story and arranging them such that each word in the story forms a word cloud. The size and shape of these word clouds depends on the frequency of usage throughout the drafts. When asked about the connection between the content of the story and its presentation, Winston replied that “when mapping strategies to visualize books, collage is the easiest way to represent a set of information.” The final product then becomes a reflection on the entire drafting process. The word clouds also contain words cut out from other books, such as works from Primo Levi and James Joyce. In this way, Winston demonstrates the influence that previous works have on an artist. Additionally, there is a line in the story that reads “lost in a sea of text.” To achieve this effect, the word clouds are printed on semi-translucent paper, revealing overlapping clouds from other pages. The reader, like the speaker in the story, becomes lost in the collage of words.

Having never encountered an artist such as Sam Winston, I was not really sure where to begin…

CtD: What is it that you do and why do you do it?

SW: I’m interested in language and how we use language to construct meaning in our lives. And that means that the most obvious way to realize that is through the book, storytelling, and typography.

CtD: Describe the connection between a text and its presentation.

SW: I like to use the analogy of voice. Tone, pitch, and volume all affect how speech is communicated. Type and calligraphy do the same for printed word.

CtD: Does it concern you that your work reaches a more limited audience as a result of the difficulty of reproducing such unconventional texts by conventional means?

SW: It’s not ideal, but unless you have the weight of a mainstream publisher, you can’t make a living off it. It’s a shame really. I couldn’t afford my own work.

For more information on Sam Winston and his work, visit samwinston.com.

Across the aisle, I met type designer and printer Russell Maret, who later this year will be publishing a book of specimens of his new typefaces. During a nine-month stay in Rome, Maret drew the letters he saw around him. This new book features types based on these Roman letters.

From Russell Maret’s blog:

Composed of three sections, SPECIMENS opens with a multi-chromatic display of short texts set in a variety of styles. Following this, a selection of alphabets are displayed in lengthier texts appropriate to their forms: Baskerville’s Great Primer is displayed in a chapter from Candide; a new translation from Cicero’s Second Philippic is set in Cancellaresca Milanese Terzo; Saturn, which was inspired by the inscription on the Temple of Saturn, is displayed in a chapter from Vitruvius on the design of temples; Strand Serif in a selection of new prose pieces by Mark Strand; etc. Finally, the book concludes with a section of notes detailing the alphabetic and textual sources for each specimen.

Though Maret used to print books in any typeface he liked, he now only prints in types that he has designed himself. I was interested to see how a a type designer’s views on typography might differ from those of a writer/artist, such as Sam Winston.

CtD: How does a particular typeface lend to the understanding of a text?

RM: It has never been proven that a letterform enhances readability or understanding. I just love letters. When I read something, I think about what letter I’d want to see it in.

CtD: When you’re designing a typeface, what are you thinking about?

RM: Sometimes I’m designing a type for a certain text, as I did with the poet Mark Strand’s text. For a specific text, I’m thinking about how that text makes me feel. For others, it’s just like you would think about any plastic art.

As we talked, Maret looked around at the crowds and commented that there is no book fair like this in terms of scale, and so he loves coming here. For more on Russell Maret, visit his blog.

After looking at Maret’s books and letterforms, I headed over to the Codex tables to see what merchandise they were selling (posters, totes, etc.) This year, they published a series of essays on book arts called the Code(x) +1 Monograph Series. When I asked why the x was in parentheses, the woman behind the table directed me towards Peter Koch’s table: “Why don’t you talk to him? He started the whole thing.”

I walked over to the table and introduced myself. “Why does everyone want to interview me?” Koch said, laughing. “She’s the one you should be talking to,” indicating Susan K. Filter, his partner in crime. Koch told me that he started the book fair to create a marketplace for buying, selling, meeting, and sharing ideas. He walked away, and Filter spoke to me at length on the fair. “Part of the mission isn’t just the book fair. There’s the symposium.” At the symposium, figures from the international world of fine press and artisan books give talks. Echoing Maret, Filter informed me that the Codex book fair is the largest of its kind in the world. “This year, we wanted to make connections with Mexico and Central and South America, not to be so Euro-centric as it was the first year.” A quick glance through this year’s program will show that there are representatives from Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala.

After the fair and symposium, the Codex Foundation throws parties for the artists to talk to each other. “It’s a chance for them to meet each other and say, ‘I’ve heard about you for twenty years and now I’m meeting you,’” Filter explained.

Last year, Codex published a book called book art object, which featured the works of last year’s exhibitors. “It’s not to make money, but to get the word out. Artist books are usually just pictures, but there’s text in here.” They are currently working on Volume 2 of book art object, and Filter showed me their makeshift studio where they are photographing works from various exhibitors at this year’s show. “It’s a snapshot of the time,” she says. In the studio, I met the editor of book art object, David Jury, who described the book as “the best, biggest book on the subject because it’s the best, biggest show in the world.”

Filter discussed book arts as being a relatively new field and young people are becoming increasingly involved, mentioning the College Book Art Association and listing various universities that now offer programs in book design. Jury and Filter both explained to me that America is the best place for fine press and book art. There are universities buying books for their collections, and apparently, there is not as much money in Europe for such purchases. At the symposium, very serious book collectors show up, such as the collectors for the Library of Congress, Stanford University, and the British Library’s American collection.

As Filter and I left the studio, discussing the financial situation of this world of book art, we ran into Russell Maret. The two said rather matter-of-factly that many fine press printers make most of their money printing wedding invitations, then spend the rest of their time on their art. Peter Koch’s most recent book took a mere five years to create!

Day 3: Conversations with Jan Elsted, Robbin Ami Silverberg, and Irvin Ungar

Yesterday, when I was speaking with Susan Filter, she mentioned Crispin and Jan Elsted, describing their work at Barbarian Press as “typography to the nth degree.” Today, I sought out the Elsteds and got a chance to speak with Jan. The Elsteds’ Barbarian Press typically prints more substantial, classic texts. On their recent publication, Shakespeare’s Pericles, Jan commented, “We wanted to do something quite unusual in terms of illustration.” The text weaves in and out of images engraved by English illustrator Simon Brett. Some of these illustrations are quite lifelike, and others resemble Phoenician artwork to reflect the period of the play.

Both Crispin, the typographer and designer, and Jan, the printer, received degrees in English and went to the UK to study for their PhD’s. There, they fell in love with printing. Jan decided she wanted to print books instead of just type them. This allowed her and Crispin to “translate our intellectual life into something with our hands.”

Across the room, I met Robbin Ami Silverberg, a book artist and papermaker from New York. She designs and prints books on paper she makes herself. When I suggested that she is a combination of writer, artist, and craftsman, she corrected me, “I’m just an artist. An artist should be able to do everything for their work.” Silverberg was commissioned to create a series of books based on Hungarian literature dealing with identity issues and signifiers of identity. Each book tackled a different signifier, such as signature, skin, passport, or reflection. One of the most remarkable of these books to me was Affidavit. In this work, Silverberg toys with the idea that a signature is not necessarily a indication of identity. The book consists of a series of legal documents in which Silverberg declares herself a fraud, signs each document, and has each document notarized. The documents have words whited out and replaced, sometimes with a new word and sometimes with the same word. A notary is not allowed to sign a document that contains white-out sections, which further calls the validity of these documents into question. Though the signatures all come from legitimate New York notaries, they are still mere signatures and as such, cannot be trusted. The book also includes a compendium outlining Silverberg’s difficulties in attaining the numerous notarizations.

Silverberg’s body of work combines original writing and interpretations of other works. When I asked what attracts her to a certain text that inspires her to reinterpret it, she told me I was thinking about her process backwards. Using her recent work Solomon’s Wisdom: A Fable A Poem A Eulogy A Dream 10 Nests and Eight Holes* as an example, Silverberg said she gets the idea for a book first. In this case, she wanted to create a book about the sense of incompleteness at the end of one’s life. She couldn’t include the eulogy she wrote for her mother, since that would only be meaningful for herself. Instead, she needed to combine texts and create a “forum of ideas” in her book. The story of Solomon’s judgment over the two women who both claimed ownership of an infant became an apt metaphor. The idea of cutting a baby in half and having the sum of the parts not equal the whole paralleled the ideas of fragmentation that Silverberg was trying to achieve. The presentation of the book also reflects this fragmentation. Certain pages of the book are torn and stapled back together, but the text becomes illegible in the process. Though all the paper remains, it is in an altered state that renders it meaningless.

After browsing the book fair some more, colorfully illuminated Hebrew texts caught my eye. Led by bookseller, art dealer, curator, lecturer, and documentary filmmaker Irvin Ungar, Historicana buys and sells rare books, especially rare Judaica. Ungar’s most recent endeavor involves the artwork of Polish-Jewish artist Arthur Szyk. During the years 1934-1936, Szyk made paintings for a Haggadah (the text used during the Jewish celebration of Passover) in his hometown of Łódź. Created during Hitler’s rise to power, Szyk decided to depict the Egyptians in the Haggadah as Nazis to draw parallels between the two oppressors and show the timelessness of the story of Exodus. When he took his work to London in 1940, the swastikas painted on the Egyptians had to be removed from his paintings, since no publisher was willing to print the symbol. When it was published, 250 copies were made. At $500, it was the most expensive book of its time. After the Haggadah’s publication, Szyk came to America, where he became a leading anti-Nazi propaganda artist. His work has influenced artists such as Art Spiegelman, the creator of the critically-acclaimed graphic memoir Maus.

When Ungar found Szyk’s artwork, he went to work digitizing the paintings so that he could reprint the Szyk Haggadah. In order to accurately represent the complex coloration, Ungar used inkjet printing, making this book the largest work to ever be printed on inkjet printers on this scale. Though you may think the inkjet printer is for home use only, careful study of the paintings in Ungar’s edition will prove otherwise. The images appear as though they were painted directly onto the pages of the book. Trade editions of the Szyk Haggadah can be pre-ordered on Amazon, and an art edition can be viewed in UC Berkeley’s special collection. To see this edition, contact Berkeley’s Judaica Librarian Paul Hamburg. For more information on Szyk’s work, visit Ungar’s new website, szyk.com.

Day 4: Conversations with Suzanne Moore, Denise Lapointe, Bridget O’Malley, John Gerard, Marc Lamb, and John DeMerritt

My last day at the Codex Book Fair was certainly my busiest. After meeting so many artists who work with printing presses, I was interested to meet Suzanne Moore, a calligrapher. Moore enjoys calligraphy because of how “the image and the word are the same thing.” In many of her books, each page features a colorfully painted backdrop with the calligraphic text overlaid on semi-transparent paper. These backdrops often have words painted on them of varying legibility, depending on the feeling she is trying to achieve with the text.

Moore typically reproduces the work of writers she admires. After having written out the works of another author, Moore says, “I feel enriched. I feel like I know the author. I know the content by having cycled it through my body.” At the fair, she displayed books containing the poems of Emily Dickinson and Gregory Orr.

Aside from the countless artists at the show, there are a number of craftsmen who support the entire book art community. Among these are the papermakers, the leather tanners/dressers, and the bookbinders. At neighboring tables, I met Denise Lapointe, of Papeterie St. Armand, and Bridget O’Malley, of Cave Paper. Lapointe described the basic process of how paper is made at St. Armand:

  1. Beat rags made of t-shirts.
  2. Use a machine to mash the rags in water for hours.
  3. At this point, the fibers are free and floating. Use a canvas screen to drain the fibers and deposit them on a flat surface.
  4. Alternate layers of fiber and felt.
  5. Press the layers together with 60 tons of pressure.
  6. Air dry for textured paper; dry under pressure for flat paper.

At Cave Paper, flax is used instead of cotton. Natural pigments such as indigo and persimmon are added to the paper to create vibrant colors. These colorful papers are often used to make book covers. There were a number of printers at the fair who have used Cave Paper products in their books, such as Peter Koch’s The Lost Journals of Sacajawea. During the interview, many exhibitors approached O’Malley, speaking of her products with the highest praise. I asked her how she managed to get noticed in the book world as a papermaker. She said the majority of her publicity is word-of-mouth. “Printers go to conferences and people say, ‘Oh my God, where did you get that paper?’ Professors tell their students about what paper they should be using… People appreciate our consistency. The paper is the same thickness sheet to sheet.” Though flax fiber can often be finicky to work with, it has the advantage of not requiring chemical treating to lower acid content, as tree pulp does.

At the next table stood German papermaker and printer John Gerard, of Gerard Paperworks. Gerard describes his work as “using paper as an image to make environments for text.” For example, he printed a book by Patrick F. Durgin called Relay. In this book on Chicago, the coloration of the paper mimics the postcards of the city, with dark sections of paper resembling skyscrapers. Since the subway and L lines are color-coded, photographs of these trains were printed on paper of corresponding color. The multi-colored paper is created by mixing different colored pulp while it is still wet.

In another more conceptual text, Gerard represents the collapse of the archival libraries at Köln. The sheets of the book are held together with paper lashes. Each page has Latin text printed on it in black ink with a large letter printed in the lower corner in red ink. On the page in which the letter K should appear, the corner is simply left blank. If the pages are spread out, it can be seen that the lashes are shaped like the letter K. The absence of this letter in the alphabetical listing reflects the loss of the archives, as K stands for Köln.

At the next table (all these craftsmen were located in the same corner of the ballroom), I met Marc Lamb of Harmatan & Oakridge Leathers 2008 Ltd. He tans and dresses goathide and calfhide leather for use in bookbinding. Lamb led me around the entire show, pointing out the exhibitors who had used his leather. He provided all the leather for Historicana’s Szyk Haggadah, as well as Barbarian Press’ Pericles. Lamb also pointed out more modern applications of leather binding, such as sanding and custom tooling, as well as more traditional bindings, such as gilded tooling.

And holding the exhibitors together was John DeMerritt Bookbinding (pun intended). Many of his clients were at Codex this year, including Historicana (yes, he bound the Szyk Haggadah, which means Irvin Ungar wins the honorable mention for Most Connections). DeMerritt described the synergy of working with so many fine press publishers with an apt analogy: “We’re like the gigging bass players of the book world.”

After four days of Codex, I was overwhelmed by the number of amazing artists and craftsmen that I met. Yet at the same time, I spoke with only a small fraction of the exhibitors at the fair. Though this is the only fair of its kind, I highly recommend that you, my lovely readers, seek out other book arts events. Take a class. Go to an exhibition. This is a form of art unlike any other, yet stunning in its own right.