Breathing new life into old books, a team of artists in Glasgow are keeping an ancient craft alive
Given the nature of our throwaway culture and insatiable appetite for all things digital, it seems unfeasible that a business as resolutely traditional as bookbinding could survive, let alone thrive. Yet that is exactly where Glasgow’s Downie Allison Downie finds itself. A second-generation family business, established in Finnieston by Morton Downie in 1981, it is going from strength to strength, supplying customers all over the world.
John Allison joined forces with Downie in 1997 and now runs the business alongside Lesley-Anne and Robin Mitchell, Morton’s daughter and son-in-law. The focus of the business is on creativity and quality, using the diverse skills and experience of a highly trained team of eleven. It offers a wide range of services, from visitors’ books, portfolios and thesis-binding to fine-binding and restoration. “We are different from other bookbinders because we like to train our staff on many aspects of bookbinding instead of just one,” says Robin.
“Our team is mostly made up of former art students – we find they are both creative and have a very high attention to detail. We have a silversmith, a graphic designer, two illustrators, a jeweller, a screen-printer and an interior designer working for us just now, which brings a wealth of creativity to the company.”
The team use techniques that have been around for centuries. The materials may have changed over the years as improvements have been made to their quality, but otherwise books will be bound in the same way as Milton’s Paradise Lost was in 1667 or Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was in 1729.
“And when we have to make paper repairs,” says Robin, “we use Japanese tissue paper – a very thin but strong paper made from vegetables; such papers have been made in Japan since 600ad.”
The old methods are still used simply because they still do the job. The techniques have been perfected over centuries, and DAD employs many of them. “We hand-sew in a variety of different styles that still work very well for the conservation of books,” says Robin. “Japanese or Coptic sewing styles, where the sewing is exposed, are currently very popular if people want something a little bit different on a newly bound book.”
There are added extras that can turn a leather-bound book into a work of art – gilding the edges of the pages with gold leaf and hand-tooling the title or a design onto the front or spine, for example. Gilding has been traced back to Ancient Egypt, and was brought to Europe in the 15th century from the Islamic world.
This is just a taster, you can browse the full article with more stunning photography on pages 44-48, issue 109.Subscribe now
Photography Kerry Douglas & Makeworks
Words Judy Diamond