If you were to open the books that make up Claudia Cohen's life, you would find first the doublure, the page (decorative or not) on the...

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If you were to open the books that make up Claudia Cohen’s life, you would find first the doublure, the page (decorative or not) on the inside of the cover. Then you’d find a flyleaf (the first loose sheet), followed by the front matter, which tells the place and date of publication, followed by many signatures (groups of pages), with perhaps a few loose pages or illustrations tipped in (glued) or tabbed in (hinged) and ending with a colophon (the page that tells about the typography and lists the makers of the book).

You would find, in short, many terms that you had never heard before, unless you happen to be familiar with the world of handmade books. Claudia Cohen is a hand bookbinder. She is not an artist, she is quick to tell you. She is a bookbinder. She makes one-of-a-kind or small editions of items that are ubiquitous in our society and are almost all mass-produced. She acknowledges that she is “an oddity” in a culture in which there is a pervasive cultural frenzy to do things faster and more uniformly, and most books are thought of as disposable objects.

Happily, there are still those who appreciate her intricate craftsmanship.

“A beautiful hand-bound book is part skill and part art,” says Mark Wessel, co-owner of Wessel and Lieberman Booksellers, where Cohen’s work is on display. “It’s fine for Claudia to say she’s not an artist. But it can’t be lost that the reason for her success is her sense of design and aesthetic. She may be a bookbinder first, but there’s a lot of artistry involved.”

So what is it that makes a successful book?

“Her books open beautifully and they lie flat,” says Wessel. “They’re beautifully designed. People are looking for a sense of order and beauty, even if they’re not aware that they are. When you look at Claudia’s books, it’s like a language, you pick up the understanding as you go along.”

Now showing

Books of art

A selection of Claudia Cohen’s hand-bound books are on display at Wessel and Lieberman Booksellers, 208 First Ave. S., Pioneer Square. 206-682-3545 or www.wlbooks.com. Through Oct. 15.

Wessel spends his working life amid stacks and shelves of new, used, rare and out-of-print books, but his eyes light up when he holds a handmade one.

“We enjoy finely made books, so over the years we’ve come across many books that were bound by Claudia. Claudia is at the top of her class.”

The lightness of binding

Cohen moved to Seattle in late 2003 from Northampton, Mass., where she had a bookbinding studio for 22 years. She arrived at bookbinding through a rather tortuous path. When she was 16, she was out of school and “looking for something to do.” She landed an apprenticeship with printmaker and sculptor Leonard Baskin, a friend of the family. From Baskin’s pressman, Cohen learned letterpress printing. From Baskin, she learned typography.

“I was mad for printing,” she says. “I loved ink and paper. I was hooked.” She spent two summers at Baskin’s Gehenna Press before she went to college. “I had a vague notion I wanted to be a paper conservator, but it didn’t work out because I would have had to take chemistry.”

After a stint in the Yale University Library’s conservation studio, Cohen began a five-year apprenticeship to Maine bookbinder Gray Parrot (pronounced par-OH). Parrot let her have free run of his bindery on nights and weekends, which is what she does now with her own apprentices, giving them access to the papers, tools, leather, and all the equipment that is necessary for them to learn their craft.

After studying for several months in Switzerland with “one of the great German meisters,” Hugo Peller, she returned to Massachusetts to open her own bindery in a 19th-century textile mill.

Cohen was greatly influenced by her time with Peller, and even now considers her technique to be descended from that of German bookbinders.

“The Germans give a physical lightness to their books; also their books open beautifully. English bindings are heavier. French bindings are different weights but none of them open well. They’re like clams.” She says that the first book she bound was “terrible. It was heavy and it didn’t open, but I was very fond of it.”

Paper is in her blood

Cohen works with one apprentice in a sunny basement studio in North Seattle that is smaller than the storage space in her former Massachusetts studio. The studio walls are papered with her collections of book-related equipment and accessories: vintage dime-store pencil displays, dividers of all sizes, spools of thread. Her work tables hold cans and jars filled with the brushes, bone folders and other tools she uses to make her books.

Though she loves all her materials and all her tools, it is paper that makes her really happy.

“To be a bookbinder, you have to be passionate about paper,” she says as she caresses a large sheet of handmade paper between her fingers. “And I am. I love paper.” She closes her eyes and smells the paper and gives it a sturdy shake just to hear the sound it makes. For a moment she is transported, borne away by smell, touch, sound to a better, more papery place.

Cohen comes by her interest — OK, her obsession — honestly. “My family was fascinated with paper,” she admits. “They collected drawings. After dinner we’d all go into the living room to look at watermarks.”

Cohen’s current show at Wessel and Lieberman is an overview of her work of the last 20 years. Some of the books are one-of-a-kind. Some are limited edition, such as her “Ephemera” series. These books hold snippets of leather, cloth, labels, thread, paper — all the materials she uses to produce her books, ends and cast-offs that could just as well have ended up in the dustbin but are here arranged artfully on the page and made to seem considerably less ephemeral.

Also on display is an example of a larger project Cohen was involved in: a copy of the only Bible from the 20th century in which both the Old and New Testaments were illustrated by a single artist, Barry Moser. Cohen, along with bookbinder Sarah Creighton and 10 apprentices, spent three years binding 50 deluxe editions (five volumes each) and 400 regular editions (two volumes each).

The project was so large, says Cohen, that it took three months just to fold the paper and gather the pages together. The Bible project “stretched the limit of my fascination with edition work.” Also on display is a collection of her paste papers, decorative papers that she makes for use as book covers, endpapers and boxes. The prices of the books in the show range from $125, for a small book of German type specimens that she bought as loose pages and later bound, to $10,000 for the Bible (a deluxe edition of the Bible, not in the show, sells for $30,000).

Books, and boxes, too

All of Cohen’s commissions come from word of mouth.

“People come to me with all kinds of books,” she says. “For instance, about 10 years ago a dealer in Pennsylvania approached me with a book on electricity that had been written by Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century and badly bound in the 19th century.” Cohen took the book apart and put it in a leather binding, using acid-free materials.

Another commission she received was to bind a “contemporary illuminated manuscript” that was given as a birthday present to Agnes Gund, former president of the Museum of Modern Art. Her husband commissioned top American artists to make original drawings, which Cohen bound into a one-of-a-kind book.

Though Cohen has moved to Seattle, she has kept many of her East Coast connections, and continues to produce handmade books and boxes for the Museum of Modern Art, the New York Public Library, Harvard University, the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as “the whole subculture of bibliomaniacs who keep people like me busy.”

For now, Cohen has no trouble staying busy.

“The good news is that after 28 years of making a living as a bookbinder, I still adore this work. I know I can grow old gracefully as a bookbinder. I have known many binders who are in their 80s and are still going strong. I don’t plan to stop until I can’t see anymore. Even then I don’t want to stop.”

Dana Standish is a Seattle-based freelance writer: danastandish@yahoo.com