Bondo Wyszpolski

The book as well-crafted art: a talk with Jennifer Phiffer

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Craft-binder Jennifer Phiffer in her workshop. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

For a Longer Shelf Life

Jennifer Phiffer can create the book of your dreams

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Mass-produced books have a mass-produced feel, which is why they’re relatively inexpensive. That’s more than adequate for most people, but there are men and women who regard the physical book as an oasis and a gateway to what’s between the covers.

“I think of reading a book as no less an experience than traveling or falling in love,” Borges wrote, and when we have an exquisite edition in our hands it’s like traveling in a first-class carriage rather than a third-class compartment.

Which brings us to Jennifer Phiffer, whose little workshop is hidden away in Torrance.

“What I do here,” she says, “is I make books to spec, and I also make books like blank albums, albums with pictures, odd boxes to house old items like photographs or books that are too delicate to be exposed to the air.” She also does custom titling (imprinting on the cover or spine) as well as book repairs.

More specifically, though, “I’m primarily what’s known as a craft-binder, which is different from a design-binder. If you have a book in mind, you come and say, ‘I want this book, and you’re going to make it yellow, and it’s going to have red end pages, and it’s going to have this wonderful picture stamped on the cover.’ And the craft-binder says Okay, and does all those things.

“With a design-binder,” Phiffer continues, “you come to the studio and say, ‘I want this book,’ and the design-binder says Okay, and you get what they want you to get. You pay them for their vision and their design, whereas with a craft-binder you pay them to make your vision.”

A slipcased Four Horseman of the Apocalypse set, by Jennifer Phiffer

Books that go the extra mile

Jennifer Phiffer’s nickname is not Sir Speedy.

“The machines that I use are all very old,” she says. “I have neither the space nor the power output to do any sort of industrial set-up. So, for that reason, I can be a little s-l-o-w (she drags out the word) compared to a traditional bindery where you get a thousand books in a week. My typical turnaround time for a book is two weeks for a simple thing, and up to two months for a more complicated leather or restoration.”

Phiffer occasionally receives queries from people interested in quantity, with little regard for appearance, “whereas what I do is make books that are only in your imagination appear in real life.”

The last part of that sentence reminds me of what Edward Burne-Jones said regarding the 1896 Kelmscott Press edition of “The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer,” for which he provided over 80 wood-engraved illustrations. Remarking on the project beforehand, he expressed the hope that “it will be a little bit like a pocket cathedral – so full of design,” an apt description, as it turn out, of a book that was a labor of love and handicraft.

In our own time, one may think of the McSweeney’s Quarterly Concerns (the one I’m looking at now even has a comb tucked inside, presumably in case you boyfriend or girlfriend comes over while you’re reading).

“Their construction is very nice,” Phiffer says of McSweeney’s, “and I appreciate that there’s someone still out there who’s paying attention to the construction over the content.”

Other readers may similarly recall Nick Bantock’s Sabine and Griffin series, in which envelopes with letters inside were inserted into the books, in a way helping to break through the third or fourth wall of literature. My own idea for a book is one with little packets containing, among other things, volcanic ash, tropical leaves, and fabric from the dress of a murdered princess. You won’t opt for the Kindle edition of that one, will you?

Phiffer also has clients who are graphic design students whose ideas must be realized in the form of a physical book, and “oftentimes these are going to be in very strange bindings.” She shows me one, and it’s sort of like the equivalent of a three-headed calf. But Phiffer, bless her heart, loves the challenge.

Jennifer Phiffer’s restoration abilities on display

The act and art of preservation

As noted, she also does repair work, and not surprisingly she receives lots of Bibles, especially the older Victorian ones whose covers or binding or pages have failed the tests of time. In many cases, the glues or other materials have turned out to be subpar, reminiscent of certain varnishes used on paintings which seemed ideal but then darkened over the years.

Archivists and conservators are always looking for better ways to preserve books. This is not something readily taught in our local schools.

“So I’m constantly scouring old bookstores for very old albums that I can essentially tear apart and learn the construction of,” Phiffer says. “It’s through studying the models of the past that I’m able to integrate that idea into what I’m doing now. That, and a whole library of technical manuals. It’s not light reading, but I love it.”

Although she also works for the City of Torrance library, one can easily imagine Phiffer employed at the Getty Center or the Huntington Library in San Marino.

“I’d always thought I’d repair books,” she says; “I really thought that was going to be my career. But nowadays they don’t even do that. Depending on the book, (libraries) either order a new copy or it’s ‘We need to put this back on the shelf as quickly as possible using any means possible.’ Unfortunately that means glue gun and tape. In terms of immediacy, it’s what’s there.”

All the while, Phiffer is considering going back to school to get her chemistry degree in order to become a certified restorer, “and not just (remaining) someone who tests things empirically on their own time.”

Jennifer Phiffer

An immersive experience

As for the kinds of people who contact her, apart from those with crumbling Bibles…

“Strangely, my biggest clients are fine artists,” Phiffer notes. “In the art world, books are a big thing right now. Or artwork in the shape of books.”

That’s because books are usually accorded a certain respect.

“I tell my artist students, if you can make a book, even a badly-constructed book, you don’t hand it to someone and they go, ‘This is not a book!’ That’ll never happen. And it’s so much different than, say, a painting or a drawing where they are, like, ‘This isn’t art!’ There’s no arguing with a book. People will automatically assume this is important and I should pay attention to it, because it’s in the form of a book.

“So that’s one way in which books can be used by artists, not just conveying content, but as an object to display your art.” On this note, Phiffer mentions that books she created for one artist are currently in an exhibition, although it’s the artist, not the craft-binder, whose name is featured in the show.

Which is perhaps the only place to see Phiffer’s work apart from her studio, and that’s because she can’t compete financially with commercial products that sell similar-looking guest books and date books for maybe one-third of the amount it would cost her in time and materials alone. Where rapid quantity is concerned, she’s out of the running. However, “What makes me special is that I can do things that machines cannot.”

Exactly, and for that reason there will always be a select clientele that won’t hesitate spending a little more.

And so, going back to the craft itself and her love of repairing and preserving old and fragile objects, Phiffer says that “It’s exciting to be able to touch something from another time, and not have it crumble to dust in your hands. You can feel the things that the person who made it or the person who first owned it felt. You can smell the smells they smelled, and it’s just terribly exciting.”

Also, one’s encounter with books, finely-crafted or otherwise, is an intimate experience. Compare this to when you enter an art gallery, Phiffer says. “You’re told quite sternly not to touch the art, and that just doesn’t work with a book. A book is meant to be touched; you’re supposed to pick it up. It’s beauty is on the inside, not just the outside.”

Phiffer’s desire to enhance that beauty is admirable, and also, she adds, “I look forward to what other people are doing with books, transforming the book from just a book into an art form.”

Books don’t need to feel or smell new, but rather to exude and sustain a sense of the timeless. After all, it’ll likely be the well-crafted book that outlives us and that dies a natural death on someone’s bookshelf, or the book that gets passed down to friends or relatives. Conversely, it’ll be the cheaper, mass-market book that ends up in a box or scattered across a blanket at someone’s yard sale. With Phiffer’s help, it won’t be the latter.

Jennifer Phiffer can be contacted at (818) 631-1624 or by emailing jennifer@phifferbooks.com. Her website is phifferbooks.com. ER

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