Decorating Paper Interview #1: Why?

With the first copies of Decorating Paper due to be shipped out in about a month's time, I thought it would be interesting for people to hear from co-creators Barbara Hodgson and Claudia Cohen a little about how the book developed, and how some of the (many) challenges posed by the topic were addressed. Over the next five Mondays we'll post a series of discussions with them about specific aspects of the project, starting this week with the why of it all...

Why did you think that this project was worth all you’ve invested in it? Loving decorated paper isn’t enough; you have to have also felt you were adding something to subject, if not original information, then in what & how the information is presented. 

Barbara Hodgson: I am as interested in the techniques and history of decorated papers as in the end uses of the papers. Historically, decorated papers were created mainly to enliven objects such as books and boxes, while protecting them; they were also applied to walls and furniture, and, in some cases, were displayed as art for the ordinary person.

What especially intrigues me is that it's possible to replicate hand-decorated papers made centuries ago. In order to do this, one has to know how the papers were made: the printing technique, paper type, pigments, and so on. 

The more one studies the history of the techniques, the more the papers come alive as expressions of the artisans who made the papers.

Claudia Cohen: The kinds of papers in this books, all these different decorated papers that were once so ephemeral and common, really don’t exist anymore, except in the most precious way - salvaged samples and rescued fragments. The wonderful papers that were made by the big machines in the 19th century, these intensely pigmented wrapping and wall papers,

The wonderful big machines in the 19th century that made reproductions of marbled and airbrushed patterns, all kinds of book papers, and the intensely pigmented wrapping and wall papers - it’s finished, it’s gone. It’ll never happen again. That’s one reason I wanted to make a book exhibiting as many examples as possible, samples of papers that are never to be made again.

Also, there isn’t a good reference book in English on the subject. There’s Albert Haemmerle’s Buntpapier, or August Weichelt’s Buntpapier-Fabrikation, but nothing similar in scope & depth in English, and as a paper collector that’s been frustrating. Most of the books in English are about marbled papers, and those focus on identifying various types. I’m not interested in that.
I wanted to create a study collection of these techniques and papers, filled with actual examples.

I’m interested in asking the question, 
How were these papers made?  

Claudia made the comment while flipping thru the book that she loves how so often paper is pretending to be something it isn’t; expand on that: whato do you mean, & what are some examples? Put another way, what’s with your passion for paper?

BH: Decorated papers were cunningly used to emulate all kinds of other materials. They were patterned with swirls and streaks to imitate marbles, onyx, agate, and many other kinds of stone. They were decorated with representational images such as animals, people, plants to become faux tapestries or weavings. Textures were embossed into them to produce fake wood or leather. Someone who cannot afford to have a leather-bound book, can substitute a paper-leather binding. Depending on the skill of the maker of this paper, the substitution can be very convincing.

CC: Paper is cheap and plentiful, and it can be made to look like materials that are much more expensive or scarce. It's not trompe l'oeil, you're not fooling anyone, but it's an affordable substitution. Papers can pretend to be leather or cloth or wood, lithographed papers pretend to be marbled, it goes on and on. All because paper is such a versatile raw material. 

Whatever your initial reasons for/thinking around the project were, how did it develop or mutate in directions/ ways you hadn’t anticipated?

BH: One of the difficulties of this project was first defining, then limiting its scope. Claudia was the initiator, and her vision of it was organic, rather than academic. She developed the idea from using decorated papers in bookbinding; making decorated papers herself, especially paste papers and marbled papers; and collecting papers over a long period of time from many sources, in some instances knowing the maker, in others finding older examples with fascinating pedigrees.

As we began to organize her initial ideas, the fundamentals—the origins, the basic techniques, the development of styles and patterns—led to increasingly complex topics. From the start, I wanted to present the subject in an organized way, but I knew that anything to do with human creativity was going to challenge any such attempts. In reviewing other, noble efforts at organizing the history and techniques of decorated papers, I found repetition, detours, orphans, and many other obstacles to a straightforward presentation. Following chronology is usually a reliable method but, given that decorated papers have been made around the world, chronology meant moving back and forth through time, depending on where the paper was made.

We began the book with an overview of origins, techniques, and patterns. As for the specific techniques, we eventually settled on an organization by technique, starting with papers made by hand. First we looked at the simplest papers: those made with randomly-applied colours (by spraying, sprinkling or brushing, for example) or by crinkling. Next were papers decorated by manipulating the paper pulp itself. From there we moved to the more systematic production of paste papers and marbled papers, all still done by hand.

Printed papers were the next main category. These included those made by stencilling and resist techniques, lithography, embossing and relief printing.

Because of the large number of samples, we decided we had to break the book into two volumes. Dividing it into the two categories of hand-made and printed made the most sense, with the samples set in after each chapter.

CC: I’ve been collecting paper for over 30 years, but much of that was me as a bookbinder gathering as many raw materials as possible to use in binding. I did have to buy a fair bit of paper to make this a satisfactory book. And I couldn’t stop, I kept finding one more person I wanted to include.

In terms of the techniques covered in the book, we've tried to be as comprehensive as possible  - we’ve included all of the major techniques used over the past 300 years. Then the question became, What samples do you include for each process? For the ones that really are obsolete now, it was a function of what we could source. For techniques still being practised, it was completely subjective on my part. While the book is comprehensive in terms of techniques, it was never intended to be a compendium of every living person practising these methods. I wanted the best examples of what I liked that I could get. For example, with marbled papers I could have gone in many directions, but I focused on the work of Karli Frigge and Eva von Breughel because they’re my favorites.

So the book is one binder’s favorite papers. I couldn’t include everyone. I could have kept collection for another 30 years, but then there’d never be a book. Finally Barbara had to say No more paper! But I kept sneaking some in. The last sheet [below] just arrived from Copenhagen. It’s from the 1950s, by Ingeborg Borjesson, who practised in Stockholm. It just finishes the book off perfectly. It’s a resist paste paper, which is sort of a combination of a mixture of batik and traditional paste paper. No one is doing it anymore.

What’s the difference, or value, of showing people actual samples vs photographs?

CC: Reproductions aren’t good enough: there’s no way to understand how the papers were created unless you’ve got an actual sample in front of. You need to be able to handle it, and we designed the book so that people can see both sides of the samples. It’s important to see the back because it helps explain how the sheet was created. 

BH: A number of very useful books have been produced with reproduction samples. We decided that the most valuable aspect of Decorating Paper is the combination of description and actual samples. Being able to see and touch the paper itself is more than just a sensory addition. With the real samples, one can see precisely how the papers were printed, how pigments were applied, the depth of the embossing or crinkling, and what the reverse side looks like.

Decorating Paper is being published in an edition of 30 two-volume numbered sets uniformly bound. Each of the two volumes contains well over 200 samples, accompanied by a separate sheet identifying each sample by type (i.e. method of decoration) and, when possible, maker. If you are interested in knowing more, please contact one of HM's booksellers, listed at right. 

Next week's post will be focus on exactly what Decorating Paper presents and contains, and some of the related design and production challenges.