North Bennet Street School: Providing an education in craftsmanship since 1885

[Alyson Kuhn] Until last week, I had never heard of North Bennet Street School (NBSS), which I now know is one of the oldest and most prestigious trade schools in the country. My lacuna is not so surprising: I’ve only been in Boston for one long weekend, and I graduated from the University of California when the state’s public education system was considered a model for the other 49. Enter Jeff Altepeter, Bookbinding Department head at NBSS, alumnus of the school’s two-year bookbinding program, and president of the New England Guild of Book Workers.

Jeff Altepeter in one of the Bookbinding Department’s three adjacent binderies

I initially contacted Altepeter about deFINEd Bindings, the Guild’s recent exhibition of 26 bindings of Pictorial Webster’s Dictionary. But when I found out about his day job, I asked umpteen different questions and took a super-linky tour of the school’s website. We’ll showcase the deFINEd Bindings show catalog later this week.

The school still occupies its original four-story (plus full basement) building.

NBSS offers eight full-time (Monday–Friday, 8 a.m.–3 p.m.) professional programs: Bookbinding, Cabinet and Furniture Making, Carpentry, Jewelry Making and Repair, Locksmithing, Piano Technology, Preservation Carpentry, Violin Making. The Bookbinding program got up and running in 1986, replacing the Clock and Watch Making program (which had just been discontinued in the digital onslaught). Altepeter says, “I was first drawn to the program because I was interested in book conservation, and I thought it was a good hands-on way to study the technical skill for that kind of career. I graduated in 1999.”

The main work in class is making blank models of binding structures, with a focus on materials and technique. The “official paper” for these projects, since the program began, has always been Mohawk Superfine.

Altepeter continues, “But along the way, I got much more interested in the bookbinding craft itself — creating new bindings, particularly with fine leather. So I personally did not pursue the conservation angle. My colleague Martha Kearsley is a part-time instructor, and she specializes in the repair and conservation part of the curriculum. She is also a graduate of the program.”

Adding the last ornamental detail on the spine, using a heated brass tool to stamp the fleuron

NBSS offers eight full-time professional programs: Bookbinding, Cabinet and Furniture Making, Carpentry, Jewelry Making and Repair, Locksmithing, Piano Technology, Preservation Carpentry, Violin Making. The school has had the same vocational focus — the teaching of craft — for over 125 years, but the composition of the student body has changed dramatically.

This 19th century copy press has been modified to increase the opening height.

Pauline Agassiz Shaw founded the North Bennet Street Industrial School in 1885 to provide vocational training to immigrants. I highly recommend this short  video about her, narrated by the school’s president, former architect Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez — a midlife graduate of the school’s Cabinet and Furniture Making Program. Here are two of my favorite bits from his Message on nbss.edu: Refering to the school’s founder, Gómez-Ibáñez says, “… she saw the school’s mission as teaching not merely how to make a living, but how to live.” Reflecting on his own experience as a student at NBSS, he says, “When you become involved in the creative work of making useful, beautiful objects and gain a personal understanding of what is meant by the intelligence of the hands, it transforms who you are and how you think.”

The bookbinding department is on the second floor of the building, with lots of natural light. (See a great slideshow of images of the school in the early 1900s here.)

I ask Altepeter about the number of students in the program and their educational backgrounds. “It’s a two-year program, and we take eight students per year, so we have 16 students on a continuing basis. We have a high percentage of college graduates and a very broad age range. Some students have an art school background. Some have worked doing book repair and conservation in university libraries while they were students. We have some students with a library school background. It varies, which is nice.”

In 2011, second-year student Henry Hébert received the commission to rebind this record book, which is still used today. Its earliest entries date back to the early 1880s.

To refurbish the record book, student Henry Hébert drew upon bookbinding literature and the experience of trade binders to make a new springback ledger binding, which enables the book to open completely flat. He comments, “This used to be a very common structure and has been around for quite a while. But since accountants just use computers now, younger binders don’t know how to do this technique. I called up some of the older bookbinders of my acquaintance, and they were able to explain it as they learned it in their apprenticeships.”

Henry Hébert’s completed commission. On his very technical but nicely illustrated blog, Hébert documents his projects in glorious detail; he took this photo as well as the shot of the original well-worn binding.

I ask Altepeter for his personal take on the future of books as objects. He enthuses, “We’ve seen an interesting reaction to the rise in e-books and online publishing. There’s a heightened awareness of our work, both from people who are interested in doing it and from those who are interested in buying. People seem to have recently stopped taking physical books for granted — which might be a short-term phenomenon — as digital technology has come up. I sense a bit of a backlash — a renewed interest and appreciation of the higher end, in owning books that are of higher quality, a little better thought out, in terms of design or craft or both.” He adds, “Even Penguin Classics are beautiful right now, and I think that reflects demand. People don’t want throwaway — if it’s disposable, then electronic is fine. We’re definitely seeing people interested in taking care of their existing books — repair and conservation have been the main source of demand for bookbinding skills. We’re also seeing a growth in demand and interest in hand-bound books. I like to joke that nobody is ever going to say, ‘Oh look, here’s the Kindle that grandpa read during the war.’”

The NBSS  shop/gallery in downtown Boston gives students, faculty and alumni a permanent venue for selling and exhibiting their work.

Just last month, the NBSS shop/gallery received some nice coverage on BostonChannel.com, in a “What’s New” report (even though the shop is not in fact new). And later this month, students will have an opportunity to sell their work at the three-day Craftboston spring show, a juried craft fair of major importance for working craftspeople and artists. Some of the books and related items (e.g., dangly earrings with tiny swinging books, which have sold like hotcakes in years past) will be in a “Craft Under $100” category.

Journals and casebound books for sale in the shop (all with pages of Mohawk Superfine)

North Bennet Street School is thriving: There are currently 158 students in the full-time programs, an all-time high. The school is seeking to relocate to a new space, ideally in Boston’s North End, to bring all of their programs together under one roof (there are currently two satellite facilities) and continue to grow. And when Jeff Altepeter isn’t teaching, he continues to bind books … and to study his craft. As we publish this, he has just returned from taking a three-day workshop in New York City all about … spring back ledger binding.

Jeff Altepeter’s 12711, bound in 2009 for the national Guild of Book Workers exhibition Marking Time. In his artist’s statement, he says, “This is how we ‘mark time’ at North Bennet Street School: making models of book structures as we explore traditional bookbinding materials and techniques.” The piece was purchased by the Denver Public Library. Photo: Jerry and Evan Mathiason, from the full-color exhibition catalog.

All other photos: Heather McGrath

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Comments (3)

  1. Posted by Pamela Gerard on 03.23.12 at 8:46 pm

    What an interesting article — and what a great school that looks like.
    I really enjoyed reading this and seeing the photos. The book binding classes look great.

  2. Posted by Akemi on 01.25.18 at 8:31 am

    interesting

  3. Posted by Akemi on 01.25.18 at 8:32 am

    wow, book covers are so original..wonder if they are still in operation..after working for a couple of years for writepaperforme service I’ve bought loads of interesting books some of which were and are in quite a bad shape..thought would love to give them a new look!!

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