[Chandra Greer] Campbell Raw Press is a design studio run by Maggie Campbell and her husband Matt Raw out of their Brooklyn home. Maggie creates beautiful hand-bound books as well as letterpress cards and invitations. She’s the mother of a darling little girl who inspires her every day. And she inspires us with her meticulous talent, positive energy and ability to juggle a million things while always keeping her family at the top of the list.
In a time when even mass-produced physical books are in decline, what is the role of the hand-bound book? How do people use your books?
I think the decline of mass-produced books actually enhances the importance and value of one-of-a-kind books and handmade objects like the ones I make. Having somewhere special to record things becomes even more important when it’s the exception, not the rule. I like that what I’m creating isn’t disposable.
When you’re binding a book do you ever think about what it will someday contain?
Absolutely. Besides loving the materials I use, that’s the motivation behind what I do. You might say I’m putting my history degree to good, practical use since I create work that’s designed to be kept for generations.
I think a lot about the future history involved in everything I make. Wedding albums and baby books will be in families for generations to enjoy. Journals are tangible records of our daily lives and often the best starting point for understanding what the world was like at a particular moment and how someone interacted with that world.
I envision albums telling stories to future generations, cards stored away in boxes of someone’s most treasured correspondence and journals tucked in among personal libraries.
Tell us how you came to love the hand-bound book.
I only recently realized that a few key things led me to where I am today. In the mid-’90s I took bookbinding workshops in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with Joan Soppe, a meticulous book artist my folks represented in their gallery. In addition to workshops with Joan, I grew up with Harry Duncan’s handset letterpress-printed books on my parents’ shelves; my mom created intaglio frontispieces for a few of his editions. Everyone with any interest in letterpress, typography and books should know a little something about Harry — he was a pioneer. Between Joan and Harry — and I’m sure there were others — I’d say the stage was pretty well set for me to be a lover of hand-bound books.
What inspires you?
Well, I spend most of my time with a two year old so everything around me is like new again. Memories are often a source of imagery for me, lots about being a little kid, my mom and dad, and my Grandmother Maggie, in particular.
Materials are a huge inspiration, whether paper, ceramics, fabric or anything else. Vintage illustration, especially 18th to 19th-century botanicals, maps and lettering always seem to pop up in my notes.
I try to keep the big picture in mind as much as possible and I find that — despite the fact that we are in sometimes almost nature-free New York City — stars, plants and natural rhythms play a substantial role in how I think about designs and ideas.
What strikes me is how deeply you’re immersed in the creative world. Your mom’s a printer, your dad makes furniture, and they both run a gallery. Your husband’s a user-experience expert and designer. Do you ever wish there was a dentist in the mix, just to shake things up a bit?
Well, my brilliant, world-changing sister Willa is studying midwifery at Yale, so we do have a little break from the routine! It is tricky, I suppose, when you have a bunch of us in the same room. We’re all used to each other, though — this is the way it’s always been, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. And there’s no question my parents’ energy is where my creative drive comes from.
You left the corporate world to start Campbell Raw Press. How did you come to what must have been a difficult decision? Are there ever days when you wish you could just “punch out?”
It was difficult at the time because it was such a huge change to go from Midtown Manhattan office life to working for myself full time. But in a lot of ways it was a very easy decision to make.
In 2006 I started making and selling books “on the side,” and by 2008 they had taken over every moment outside of my day job. One day I just decided the time had come, and in August of that year Campbell Raw Press became my full time gig. I’ve been gung ho ever since and, while it involves an incredible amount of work, I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.
It’s one instance where making an impulsive decision yielded great results. I’m not built for an office life, and there’s not a question in my mind that I’m doing the right thing. Also, it should definitely be noted that I get to do what I do and what I love because I have Matt’s support all along the way. That’s no small thing.
Creating and producing out of your home and you have a toddler: How’s that going?
How did you know that was the most frequent topic of conversation around here? Space, space, space, that’s all we ever talk about, it seems. It’s going all right, and we manage to do a lot with very little, but it’s cramped quarters and our business has grown so much in the last year that something’s gotta give — and it’s going to give verrrrry soon.
You’re doing so many things: creating books and invitations, maintaining a wholesale line, oh, and raising a child. How do you manage and prioritize?
I often feel like I’m perilously close to the brink, but when I manage to get the most done it’s because I make comprehensive lists that are broken down into the smallest components … so if I find myself with two minutes here or 15 minutes there, I can dig into something without having to feel like I have to completely finish a project in that amount of time. That means if I can print labels for envelopes while Charlotte’s playing with blocks, I do it. If I can draw for 30 minutes of a naptime, I’m golden. If I can respond to e-mails for two minutes at points throughout the day, I keep myself from being the world’s most delinquent correspondent. I’m not going to lie; it’s hard. But I work well this way and my type-A self wouldn’t have it any other way.
If you could just focus on one aspect of the business, would you?
Nah, I’d get frustrated. I’ve gotta have a million things going on or I feel like I’m not working at full capacity; it’s in my genes. I’m lucky to like almost all of it, honestly. I can shift from binding to printing to packaging to bookkeeping to responding to e-mails pretty easily and though it’s hectic, it’s generally a manageable level of busyness and keeps me satisfied.
You and your husband do a lot of craft fairs. What are the rewards and challenges of lugging heavy books all over New York City?
Funny you should ask. In December we had a busy month of fairs, which we try to do only around the holidays, and I asked myself many times what their value is.
For me the answer is talking to people in person about my work. I work alone and sell the majority of my work online and through wholesale avenues to stores. But I love talking with people, and I can’t wait for my work to be a little less isolated. Craft fairs mean people get to see and feel my books in person — which is kind of key when it’s all about the incredibly tactile materials! And I can answer questions and fill them in on some of the reasons I make the things I make. It’s a little ways away, but eventually there’s a studio/storefront in our future, and for now craft fairs fill a tiny bit of that need for me to be my chatty self.
Where would you like to be in five years?
I have a to-do list that’s about 17 years long right now: kids’ books, letterpress-printed books, card and invitation designs, broadsides … it’s neverending.
I hope to have a circle of peers with whom to share work frustrations and joys, strong collaborators and a studio space that allows me to do my very best work. Most importantly, though, I’d like to be working side by side with Matt every day, doing work we love, and to have a healthy and happy family.
On the wire is series of monthly conversations with up-and-coming stationery designers that, while tiny in size, are titanic in talent. Our interviews are hosted by Chandra Greer, the owner of Greer (@GREERChicago), an independent stationery shop and website with a longstanding commitment to seeking out and supporting independent designers.
Chandra has no doubt that with Maggie’s combination of hard work, talent and grace she’ll achieve all her goals and more. Find Campbell Raw Press at their website or here, at Felt & Wire Shop.