Paris Relié, as seen by contemporary bookbinders

[Alyson Kuhn] I saw several exhibitions on my recent trip to Paris, including two hyper-crowded blockbusters. Happily, I also made it to a petit bijou, a three-week-only international bookbinding exhibition in the lovely town hall on Place St. Sulpice. Here’s the supreme serendipity: The theme of the exhibition was Paris itself. Every binder—138 of them—bound a previously published book about Paris: poetry, photography, drawings, history, fiction, nonfiction. Christian Frégé, the president of the ARA France (Les Amis de la Reliure d’Art, the national association of hand bookbinders), began his preface to the exhibition catalog with Ernest Hemingway’s quote: “Paris is a moveable feast.” For me, the exhibition was a banquet, one the catalog allows me to savor again and again—and to share with you.

Materials were diverse: a lot of leather, a few specialty papers, a couple of maps, some fabric, the occasional accent in wood or metal. Ingenuity was infinite, and execution—not that I am an authority—looked superb. (Yes, I pressed my nose to the glass.) Participating bookbinders from 11 countries chose (and acquired) the works they would bind. Several books were selected by multiple binders, and it was particularly fun to compare their creative visions. I was only familiar with one title in the entire exhibition.

Binding by Monique Dhermy. La Seine, Miroir de Paris, by Paul Jarry, illustrated by Gabriel Jouanno. A. Barry et ses Fils, Paris, 1946. No. 339/500. 7-1/4 x 9-3/4 in.

The Seine figured in more than a dozen bindings. Monique Dhermy (above) created an entire scene out of various leathers, with ripples debossed in the water. Several other binders’ representations of the river were more abstract, a sinuous band of color with contrasting islands (the Ile St. Louis and the Ile de la Cité).

Binding by Christine Fabre Bourgeois, with endpapers by Brigitte Chardonne. Petite histoire du ticket du métro parisien, by Grégoire Thonnat. Télémaque, Paris, 2010. 9-1/2 x 6-1/8 in.

Three of my favorite bindings in the show involved the metro or the bus system (whose praises I have sung previously). The book above presents an ephemera-rich history of the Parisian metro ticket. Christine Fabre Bourgeois’ binding is an artful recreation in calfskin of a modern Parisian metro ticket. The small holes represent stations on metro lines 3 and 6. Showing through each little hole are a couple of letters of the book’s title: “Petite histoire du” peeks above the foil-stamped TICKET, and “du métro parisien” below it. (On the author’s blog, you can see the trade edition cover and even browse a few spreads.)

Binding by Sylvie Frégé. Voyage en autobus, by Marcel Sauvage, with drawings by Max Jacob. No. 84/1000, inscribed by the author. Liber, Maison Individualistes, Paris, 1921. 9 x 10-1/4 in.

Binder Sylvie Frégé is the wife of Christian Frégé, the president of the ARA. Their daughter, Agnès Frégé, is a graphic designer. She designed the exhibition catalog with her colleagues at Studio Pakenko, graciously provided me with photos, and asked her mother, on my behalf, to clarify the making of the binding above. (Any illogic is absolutely attributable to my French.) My understanding is that Madame Frégé took about 40 metro tickets and made them into a collage; she then photocopied this onto brown paper, which she sliced into very narrow strips. And then she very carefully pasted them into the final staggered juxtaposition. Magically, or at least masterfully, the names of stops on eight different bus lines (situated to reflect the routes’ respective lengths) were foil stamped onto the front by Christine Lejeune-Bagot.

Binding by Michèle Gaudefroy. Zazie dans le métro, by Raymond Queneau. First edition, inscribed by the author. Gallimard, Paris, 1959. 4-3/4 x 7-1/8 in.

How mignonne is this binding? Michèle Gaudefroy gives author Raymond Queneau top billing, using the Q to frame Zazie’s hair and smiling face. The young heroine looks like a conversation balloon.  Zazie was promptly translated into English in 1959, and made into a French film in 1960, directed by Louis Malle. The big irony is that Zazie’s maiden visit to Paris coincided with a metro strike.

Bookbinding students at Paris’ École Estienne were invited to participate in the exhibition. They were all assigned the same book: Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien, by Georges Perec, which I would paraphrase as “an attempt to plumb the depths, to get to the bottom, of a Parisian locale.” The author jotted down, in great detail, his observations as he sat at the Place St. Sulpice. The book is a collection of descriptions of the passing scene on the square—people, buses, cars—rather than the architecture or history of the church, the dramatic fountain or the town hall (which, as you may recall, is where the bookbinding exhibition itself was held). Below are two of my favorite student bindings.

Binding by Mathilde Ghesquière. Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien, by Georges Perec. Christian Bourgois, Paris, 2000. 4-3/4 x 7-7/8 in.

Mathilde Ghesquière deconstructed the book and reassembled it into a concertina. Her accordion spine holds codex-style signatures she has sewn into the valley folds.

Binding by Marie Roger. Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien, by Georges Perec, with engravings by Théo Lescault. Christian Bourgois, Paris, 1990. 4-7/8 x 8-1/4 in.

Marie Roger’s wrap-around nubuck cover is fully lined with Nepalese paper. She hand cut the white superposed pattern, which is not glued down, out of Tyvek. The white lines represent a street map of the St. Sulpice neighborhood, with the church itself at the bottom of the inside back cover.

A handful of professional binders chose art books (or portfolios) to showcase their craft. Daniel Chatain bound together a pair of limited-edition looseleaf volumes of etchings of historic Parisian street signs. (See one here.) He cut the cover illustrations from black leather, placed them on a white background, and inset them.

Binding by Daniel Chatain. Les Enseignes de Paris, François Boucher, with original etchings by Jean-Jules Dufour. Le Goupy, Paris, 1925 (two volumes, numbered 263 and 349 of 575, printed on handmade paper). 8-1/8 x 10-1/2 in.

Alice Metayer bound a volume of illustrations by Kiraz, of whose work I’d been unaware. Kiraz submitted (and never had a single one rejected) over 25,000 illustrations, some of them quite racy, for various newspapers—and, more recently, magazines. Metayer’s binding is not only fashionable, but also discreet. Instead of a plain brown wrapper, she uses imitation ostrich, with a fabric lining, and handbag hardware for good measure.

Binding by Alice Metayer. Les Parisiennes, by Kiraz, with illustrations by the author. Denoël, Paris, 1963. 7-1/4 x 7-1/4 in.

One design detail I want to highlight from the catalog is the little pictogram at the bottom of each page, showing the binding’s size relative to a sheet of A4 paper (8-1/4 x 11-11/16 in.). I found the diagrams hugely helpful, and I like how they look. Agnès Frégé says she got the idea from pre-press worksheets some printers use to graphically summarize production details.

Left: Binding by Laetitia Walsh-Conti (who lives in Switzerland), 6-5/8 x 8-1/4 in. Right: Binding by Marie Claude Watrin, 5-3/4 x 8-7/8 in.

The very last printed page in the catalog is like a curtain call, presenting a tiny version of every binding, in order of appearance. These miniatures give you a chance to appreciate  the “book as object” diversity of Patricia Ferreira Gonçalves’ photographs—with a single shot of each work.

Now that you have seen 10 beautiful bindings, take a look at the back cover of the catalog. Yes, it’s part of the Eiffel Tower, but what is it made of?

Back cover of the catalog

Agnes Frégé electronically “collaged” several bindings to create the Eiffel Tower sections.

Photos: catalog covers © 2013 StudioAlex; binding photos, Patricia Ferreira Gonçalves; catalog spreads, Agnès Frégé.

Limited quantities of the catalog are still available through ARA France (35 euros + 25 euros for international shipping and handling). If you’d like more details, e-mail [email protected]. The next ARA France exhibition, Paper Bookbinding, the creative fiber, will be held at The Carnegie Library in Reims (May 25–August 3).
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Comments (2)

  1. Posted by John Jameson on 03.28.13 at 10:19 am

    really very interesting….trying something similar here in UK

  2. Posted by India on 04.4.13 at 8:03 am

    Is the exhibit over or still going on?

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