Bound for glory
Ozymandias, a limited-edition artist book, features photographs by Mark Crysell.
More than a century ago, Charles Dickens wrote that “there are books of which the fronts and backs are by far the best parts”. Master bookbinder Barbara Schmelzer would agree. The German-born naturalised New Zealander has been refining her skills for the best part of 18 years, since arriving here in 1990 with her Kiwi husband.
In 2007, she reached the highest level in her craft, creating a trio of masterpieces in a 72-hour practical examination in Munich, Germany – two hand-bound books, each with its own slip case, and an exquisitely boxed calligraphy set crafted to her own design, containing the finer tools of her trade.
Barbara Schmelzer has quietly established herself as the country’s best by hand-binding books for artists such as Bill Hammond, for whom she created 20 large, full-bound works containing etchings from the 1980s. The commission called for huge goatskins, specially prepared in Germany, to envelop the large art prints.
Last year’s limited edition of E Mervyn Taylor: Artist, Craftsman, a biography by Bryan James, was half-bound, with vellum on the spine and corners only.
Working with leathers tanned to European bookbinding standards and cloths and papers imported from Germany, Barbara hand-tools titles in gold, silver or other coloured leaf. She also experiments with New Zealand fish skins, plastic, foam and wood. One of her bindings features blue gum wood covers and a crocodile spine; another, black plexiglas.
Barbara first came across what would become her life’s obsession while at secretarial school in Bavaria. “I used to walk past an old bindery on my way to college. It had just been left empty and had intriguing tools and old books in the window. It was very dusty.”
But it wasn’t until she arrived in New Zealand, with her then husband Mark Crysell, that she was able to study elementary book crafts – and soon realised she would have to go back to Europe to learn fine bookbinding.
“There are no apprenticeships here any more,” she says. “I still don’t know anyone who takes trainees.” She studied at the Bookbinding College in Stuttgart, Germany, followed by internships at the British Library and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. More recently, she has taught students in her own workshop and at Whitireia Polytechnic.
Moving house is not easy when you have a huge guillotine and a board chopper, each weighing hundreds of kilos and requiring heavy transport to move. Book presses, on the other hand, each require only two people to lift.
Barbara first set up shop at the tiny Newtown, Wellington cottage she shared with Mark, then on the upper floor of a cake-tin factory and finally in a 1905 bay villa in Kilbirnie. Mercifully, the villa was bone dry so there was never a problem with mould – especially important when people are bringing their paper treasures to you for restoration.
Barbara’s bread and butter work – binding portfolios for graphic designers and photographers, repairing old books to international conservation standards and creating new albums from scratch – is alleviated with a little fun now and then. She has produced a series of little handmade books for holiday notes, crafted from the paper bags of businesses such as Pandoro, Unity Books and L’Affare Coffee and titled Wellington (or Auckland or Sydney) in a Shopping Bag.
But the master bookbinder’s greatest satisfaction lies in binding and boxing portfolios for artist printmakers. A recent commission for Wellington art dealer Jenny Nelligan of Bowen Galleries involved crafting 28 boxes – each holding 15 prints – for the Melbourne Art Fair last year.
It’s fitting, then, that Barbara herself should cross the Tasman to live for a while, to be closer to family. She has set up her workshop in Brookvale, Sydney and is enjoying Australian commissions, such as leather-bound stationery for a luxury super yacht. But requests for bookbinding work-shops, such as the one she held in Wellington in May, will continue to draw her back to this side of the Tasman.
Story: Ann Packer
Photographs: Paul McCredie