By the Book: A Private Tour of Lunetta Bartz's Book Bindery
Decor & Design, News & Trends

By the Book: A Private Tour of Lunetta Bartz's Book Bindery

Designer Lunetta Bartz of Maker introduces us to the beautiful practice of binding books and journals the old-fashioned way: completely by hand.

Sarah de Pina

The studio is unassuming. A rectangular facebrick space painted white, with a sweeping view of a garden that seems to go on for a country mile. As you’d expect, there are books lining the shelves and stacked on wide tables, along with the odd vintage press and elegant pieces of beautifully patterned paper. It doesn’t instantly feel like a place where magic has been happening for many years – but this used to be the workroom in which sculptor Edoardo Villa made his smaller pieces, some of which still have homes here, on plinths dotted around the space. 

In its latest incarnation, this is interior designer Lunetta Bartz’s book bindery.  

For many years, when not designing furniture and interiors for big names and their offices, Bartz has created books for her husband Warren Siebrits, the storied art dealer and collector. She’s been responsible for the design of his catalogues since the 2001 exhibition, Aspects of South African Art 1903–1999. Naturally, this soon progressed to working with the artists themselves.

While Bartz was working with artist Jo Ractliffe on a book, Jack Ginsberg – a major collector of artists’ books – convinced Peter Carstens, ‘probably the best book binder in the country,’ says Bartz, to run a six-week short course on the art of book binding for both artist and designer. Ginsberg was concerned that this important craft would disappear if not passed on to another generation. 

So Bartz and Ractliffe did the course together, but it would be Bartz who was so fascinated by the experience that she asked Carstens if she could continue to come to his workshop to learn. ‘I just wanted to carry on,’ she says. ‘I thought, “Sjoe, I design books, but to make books is a whole other thing.” So I went on to work with him every Saturday for six and a half years.’

Bartz laughs as she reminisces about the ‘super grumpy but wonderful’ man who taught her how to make a Solander box – a clam-like case that can be built to hold anything from documents to flash drives. Bartz went on to make some exceptionally beautiful examples that were used to house artist William Kentridge’s film works. 

As she worked with Carstens over weekends, he would help her with her own projects, and teach her all manner of special binding techniques to use on her artist book commissions. Many of these were traditional skills no longer practised thanks to mass production and mechanised labour, and all of them require patience and light, thoughtful touches.

‘Book binding is about detail, so it’s no different to interior design. It’s just a much smaller format,’ says Bartz as she shows me the narrow, handstitched ‘headband’ at the top of an elegantly leather-bound book. A headband is a small piece of card that is stitched and bound onto the top of the book with embroidery thread, normally in two colours. You can buy premade versions, but Carstens was having none of that and instead made his own. And Bartz still does the same for the journals, artists’ books and gift tags that her bindery makes today.

 

The presses and guillotine from Carstens’ bindery made their way to this space after his unexpected passing a few years back. Bartz’s voice still holds a twinge of emotion when she speaks of how sudden it was – in the middle of a project during the holiday season. But, of course, (and as Ginsberg had hoped) Carstens’ life’s work is able to live on in the works that Bartz makes with help from Carstens’ long-time assistant, Sam Nyalungu.

Every detail of the books that Bartz creates here is highly considered, and each is an expression of her design sensibility, which always considers tradition but also tweaks it to create an off-kilter beauty. The unique details include the use of special papers that Bartz has sourced from dusty archives around the world; marble end-papers that she has started experimenting with making herself; and the high-end leather that wraps around the hand-stitched bindings in jaunty, staggered proportions.

Above all, this is a highly laborious and intense process – depending on the level of detail involved, she and Nyalungu can make two books in a day, or just two in a week. But this results in each volume having its own story and character. And, in an age of screens and faceless automation, there is certainly a special kind of magic that comes from holding one of these tomes, each of which has small pieces of artistic soul stitched into every detail.

‘That’s my love for books,’ says Bartz. ‘I know everyone types on computers [these days], but nothing is physically left any more. With books, the trace is there; they are a very special way of holding knowledge – so they may as well be beautiful.’

Visit makerstudio.co.za to order a Lunetta Bartz handmade design.