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  • Photo: Nikki Eaton

From Cover to Cover - Kate Holland

Fine bookbinder Kate Holland on her Man Booker Prize commission

Crafts Council Directory maker Kate Holland talks with us about her Man Booker commission, her creative process and the future of bookbinding. 

How did the commission come about?

Every year the Man Booker Prize commissions six fellows of Designer Bookbinders to bind a copy of each of the shortlisted titles  which are then presented to the authors at the awards dinner. I was given Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways, a tale of Indian illegal immigrants coming to the UK to work on a series of miserable jobs. In my design the workers are represented by the marigold petals being tossed across the Sheffield night skyline.

 Year of the Runaways, Kate Holland

How was the pairing of book with bookbinder made?

We were able to express an interest in the titles which appealed the most and I was very happy that I got The Year of the Runaways. It has been a very intense four weeks living and breathing this project but binding a book that I particularly enjoyed reading has made the whole experience a lot more manageable. 

So you read the book?

Absolutely! It’s imperative to read the text and soak up the atmosphere. Only that way can you try to convey the author’s nuances. As this commission was to such a tight deadline, I gave myself the luxury of reading the book from cover to cover in one sitting. It was wonderful to be so immersed in this new world. I’ll take notes when a passage strikes me or a turn of phrase appeals and I try to find a theme running through the book be it colours or insects or flowers.

Year of the Runaways, Kate Holland

How much research do you do for a project like this?

It takes around 100-150 hours to do a fine binding from start to finish and that’s not counting a lot of thinking time. I take endless photos on my phone of inspiring images when I’m out and about and keep a scrap book of pictures magazines as well as illustrations from children’s books. Through my research, I have become an expert in many random subjects from Russian Easter egg designs to Shakespearean costume. Anything and everything inspires me: urban and rural landscapes, music videos to contemporary art, classical and modern architecture to patterns within nature – no stone is left unturned. I’ve produced designs based on dewdrops on a spider’s web, a speaker in a ceiling, the contours in a rock formation, a crack in plaster. 

What materials do you work with?

Generally I use leather as a covering material because that’s what’s expected of a "fine binding” but increasingly I’m experimenting with paper covers. I like to spend some time playing around with dyes and textures to achieve the right look. I record all my trials as even though they might not work for this binding they can probably be used in the future. 

How close is the relationship between the content and the binding?

My job as a bookbinder is to interpret the text and any illustrations, taking into account all aspects of the book, from the historical period the book is set in, the typeface used and even the paper it is printed on. I enjoy the intellectual exercise of restricting my designs to the confines of the book form but I’ll admit that sometimes it can be frustrating to have to curb your imagination. 

Kate Holland in the Studio. Photo: Nikki Eaton

How did you become a bookbinder?

I originally studied Chinese language with a view to becoming a dealer in contemporary Chinese art but I ended up working as the manager of an antiquarian bookshop for six years. All this time I was handling and getting to know many beautiful books, recognising the quality of their bindings, appreciating the work of the private presses and learning how to look after and repair them. I found myself enjoying the practical, hands-on aspect to the repair and refurbishment work and enrolled on a course at City Lit. 

I was hooked from day one when I made my first book. It was like that feeling you had at primary school when you couldn’t wait to get home to show what you had made. After this I signed up for a part-time HND at the then London College of Printing which gave me a grounding in all the basics and then I set up as a self-employed bookbinder and have never looked back. I still try to attend as many as masterclasses and demonstrations as I can. You are constantly learning on the job and it’s so important to watch other binders and their working practice, especially as it is a rather solitary existence and you can easily get stuck in your own ways. 

The Doors of Perception, Kate Holland

What's next for you?

I’m working on a series of books based on Stanley Kubrick films. I have first editions of Lolita, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining that I’d like to market as a collection. I have a couple of book dealers who sell books for me but it’s always rather nerve-wracking doing speculative work as there are so many upfront costs, but luckily I’ve sold everything I’ve made so far.

I’ll also be teaching at BoundbyVeterans, a charity dedicated to educating wounded, sick and injured servicemen and women. As all craftspeople know, making something with your hands is incredibly satisfying and bookbinding has been found to be particularly therapeutic 

My next major plan is to build a Bookbinding Bus to take to literary and music festivals, schools and city centres to try and introduce bookbinding to as many people as possible. There is now not a single institution in the UK where you can study an accredited course in bookbinding and I am passionate about teaching bookbinding at grassroots level. I feel strongly that if we create a consumer demand then institutions will provide courses; we cannot afford to lose these skills.

See more of Kate's work on the Crafts Council Directory



All six Man Booker Prize bindings, created by Fellows of Designer Bookbinders, are currently on dispay at Foyle's on Charing Cross Road.