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On The Radar
The Art of Book Binding

After studying art at New York’s Pratt Institute, Paul Vogel spent several years in Europe where he came across the still-very-much-alive practice of book binding. To extend his stay in Britain, he took a job working alongside a binder, learning the skills he’d later use to launch his own bindery in Manhattan in 1980. Two of his earliest clients were Harper Collins and the Forbes family and he’s been filling elaborate custom orders for individuals, book dealers and publishers ever since.

“Paul is a most extraordinary bookbinder, perhaps the best in America,” says book dealer Kinsey Marable. “I only use Paul, from binding a client’s high-school scrapbook to building leather boxes to individually house and conserve an entire Pulitzer Prize collection.”

Vogel says he’s constantly posed with fresh challenges, and he enjoys the satisfaction of coming up with creative solutions; maybe it's incorporating objects into a book one day and creating elaborate leather inlay cover designs the next. “It’s one of the few instances of work where you have a beginning, middle, and you’re actually holding the finished product at the end. And it all happens in our studio,” he says.  And unlike other careers in art, “It’s not theoretical; these books will be used and handled for generations.”

Charlotte spent a short “apprenticeship” with Vogel in his East Hampton, New York studio, Vogel Bindery, to absorb the art of custom book binding. Here’s some of what she learned.

“Someone could walk into our bindery from the 1500s and feel very much at home,” says Vogel. His equipment is more than 100 years old and he still uses tools made of bone, steel and cast iron.

While it takes an average of 40 steps (and 10 weeks) to put together a book, it can take many more, especially when Vogel creates a scene using leather inlay. He’s boiled the process down for us here:

When rebinding a book, Vogel removes the old cover so he’s left with the “text block” (or pages), cuts cover boards to the appropriate size, adds end sheets, cuts leather for the covers, then rounds the book by putting it into a vice-like machine and hammers it to gently coerce the pages to create a lip around the front and back of the book, this is what the cover boards lock into. Then he puts raised bands on the spine and creates the cover design.

Cover as Canvas
“Because I have an art background, I think it’s a great advantage. If you can just extrapolate a book cover as a canvas it kind of frees you up to incorporate new technologies,” says Vogel.

Movie Scripts to Family Scrapbooks
Vogel binds all sorts of books for clients. In some cases he creates new books with blank pages; such as the guest book he made for the Reagan White House. He also makes custom covers for photo albums and scrapbooks, as he does for Ralph Lauren and his family. The Lauren’s provide their own tan cow hide and request very simple, “blind embossing” (rather than tooling with gold or silver lettering). They use the books as running scrapbooks, adding pages to the ringed binders until they are filled.

Paul has been binding Charlotte's collection of vintage Vogue and Harper's Bazaar magazines in red and brown Morrocan leather, respectively.  Her collection of Elsie de Wolfe photos and Jackie Kennedy Onassis' letters and notes have their own leather boxes where Paul has duplicated their signatures and embossed them on the outside.  Other personal household projects, also executed for clients, include household inventory books, entertaining and gift records, visitors' books, scrapbooks, table seating charts and placecard holders.  "If you are going to be organized, how wonderful to have Paul help you do it - and beautifully, too!" Charlotte proclaimed.  "Paul has some things of mine now - it seems he always does.  Each delivery seems like Christmas."

For Robin Williams, Vogel bound scripts for 15 different movies the actor appeared in. Williams traditionally distributes the leather-bound scripts to 250 members of the different casts and crews as thank yous. “He works with a multitude of colors,” says book dealer Marable, “both leather as well as linen. My personal choice is a red-leather spine and chocolate-brown linen covered boards.”

Unusual Requests
Of course not all jobs are so straight forward, and this is where it gets interesting for Vogel. He was commissioned by a client to create a guest book for her villa in Berlin, but the catch: The book would sit on a table that Napoleon had given Josephine. Vogel sculpted the villa’s classical doorway out of wood to create sculptural element to the cover then bound it in leather. The resulting 20-by-30-inch book is a fitting accessory to its luxe surroundings.

“It is very challenging in many instances and it’s very rewarding once you come up with a suitable solution” says Vogel. “Most often we’ll spend more time coming up with a way of how to do it. Then the actual busy work of getting it done, that’s the easy part.”

A recent client has commissioned Vogel to put together a limited-edition book which includes illustrations by famed 1940s artist Arthur Szyk. The art was then photographed by the Vatican photographer on specially made paper from Germany and printed with state-of-the-art ink-jet printing. The leather bindings were all custom-tanned for the project with a color blended in England. The endpapers were made in New York with gold-leaf sprinkled on them. The resulting books, once bound and housed in a handmade box by Vogel, will sell for $9,000 to $15,000.

Art with Staying Power
Vogel’s custom books and book bindings should last hundreds of years because all of the ingredients he works with are of top-archival quality. For example, his thread is Irish linen, the paper is acid-free cotton rag paper, the adhesives, marble papers and inks are all Ph-neutral and the leathers are vegetable-tanned. He avoids chemicals and acids which can erode over time.

He also often restores antique books. “I’ll be handed a book that’s hundreds of years old and I’ll restore it and it will be put back on the shelf and its life extended hundreds of years,” he says, proudly. “When you think about other things, like shoes or clothes, it’s usually just around for the life of the client, then it gets tossed out or stored away, but these objects are still going to be kept in use, for the most part, for generations.”

Where to see art books:
Vogel suggests visiting the Grollier Club, a club for book dealers, collectors and bibliophiles, which shows exhibits of art books, (47 E. 60th St., 212-838-6690).  Also the The Morgan Library & Museum, (225 Madison Ave. at 36th St., 212-685-0008,, which he says “has the best book exhibits in New York and probably the U.S.”

Written with Carrie Culpepper.  Photography by Charlotte Moss & Carrie Culpepper.  Graphics and layout by Matthew Kowles.