Designer Bookbinders’ history can be traced back to 1951, when the Festival of Britain attempted to revive the spirits of the British people after the austerity of the 1940s. The Festival inspired many groups of people to take a positive view of the future and promote various art forms. Bookbinding was no exception, as at that time it was in great need of a new approach and ideas to move it on from its traditional origins, where output from most workshops, and particularly ‘the trade’, was still mired in the 19th Century.
The formation, in 1951, of the London based Hampstead Guild of Scribes and Bookbinders sought to fulfil this aim but was hampered from the beginning by being too localised, and consequently lacked members and funding. It would be four more years, and with the strong and visionary leadership of Edgar Mansfield, before the Guild of Contemporary Bookbinders was formed. It was hoped that this new guild would be more effective by not restricting its geographical catchments to the London area alone. The first meeting of the new guild was held on April 7, 1955 at 63 Broadwick Street, London. Election to membership was subject to the successful submission of two fine bookbindings as testimony to the quality of an individual’s performance in both design and craft.
The originators of this Guild - now very famous names in the world of bookbinding - Arthur Johnson, Edgar Mansfield, Trevor Jones, Arthur Last and Bernard Middleton produced work which extended boundaries and gradually transformed the art of the hand bound book. They did not appear from nowhere however, and the influence of figures like Cobden-Sanderson and Douglas Cockerell in terms of sound structures and integrity of design was always apparent.
From its modest beginnings the guild attracted notice not only within Great Britain but also from overseas. Its second exhibition was held at the National Book League, London in 1956. Writing a review in “Printing World” Eric Burdett, the highly regarded teacher, commented: ‘This little exhibition....of 20 bindings....is worthy of the attention of every bibliophile.’ Also in 1956 there was a much larger exhibition at Foyles Art Gallery, which became an established annual London venue for the Guild, and a large number of sales and commissions arose from these exhibitions. Many bindings went into collections such as those of Major J.R. Abbey, Albert Ehrman, The Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum.
The Guild organised an ambitious programme of national and international exhibitions in England and Northern Ireland, Stuttgart, Offenbach, Helsinki, Oslo, Stockholm and The Hague, and in 1961 -62 a travelling exhibition visited eleven venues across the U.S.A.
The Guild’s activities attracted a common interest in the craft. As more interest grew in the work presented to the public more people wanted to join - not only binders, but collectors, librarians, curators etc. But enthusiasm for propagating modern design in bookbinding, regardless of difference in training or professional or amateur status, could not be maintained indefinitely. With the new membership came internal pressure for change. After lengthy deliberations a formal constitution was drawn up and ideas proposed. These included new categories of membership: Members (later Fellows) as the established exhibiting members; Honorary Members (later Honorary Fellows) awarded for services to the craft and to the society; and Associate Membership for historians, librarians, foreign bookbinders and others wishing to support the society other than as exhibiting members. At a meeting on 7 December 1968 the proposals were accepted, and the Guild of Contemporary Bookbinders became Designer Bookbinders, and Ivor Robinson was installed as a new president.
The established high standard of exhibitions was maintained with a major touring exhibition of the U.S.A., organised in 1971, with fifty-two bindings shown at three major venues. On its return to Britain a year later a further fifty-two bindings were added and finally exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum. This exhibition, with its illustrated catalogue, was a major event in the early history of Designer Bookbinders.
In 1973, ‘Designer Bookbinders Review’ was published as a vehicle to circulate in-depth information about the craft to members. After fourteen biannual issues it was replaced, in 1981, by ‘The New Bookbinder’, published annually with a larger format, high quality content and colour illustrations – ‘TNB’ has since celebrated its 25th year of publication in 2005.
‘Designer Bookbinders Newsletter’ was also initiated, and to this day provides a quarterly forum for the free exchange of ideas, information and opinions and has fostered a sense of involvement amongst the membership.
During the 1970s the Fellows pursued a policy of raising the standards of exhibited work, and as a result, it became more difficult for Associate Members to make the move to Fellowship. Consequently it was decided in 1978 to create a new category of membership, which became known as Licentiate. These aspirant members could then benefit from a five-year period of guidance and encouragement from the Fellows to attain the required standard.
Since 1975 the society has sponsored The Bookbinding Competition to encourage students, and particularly the Associate membership resident in the UK, to take part in this annual event which has been of major importance in the promotion of the craft and its practices. Many of the prizewinners have become Licentiates and subsequently Fellows of the society.
The 1980s and 1990s saw exhibitions and other notable events taking place. The ‘Horizons in Bookbinding’ International Conferences of 1984 and 1994 were both very well attended with participants from the UK and overseas. Since 1983, the society has organised a series of lectures at The Art Workers Guild in London, given by distinguished exponents on book arts subjects.
Since 1991 Fellows of the society have been commissioned to make designed bindings on the short-listed novels for the Man Booker Prize presented to the authors at the award ceremony. There have also been many successful exhibitions of bindings over the years including the Tregaskis Centenary Exhibition in 1994 where eighty-five binders from thirty-two countries contributed and the bindings were purchased by the John Rylands Library in Manchester, to join the bindings from the 1894 Tregaskis International Exhibition.
Back in 2006 there was a major three venue tour of Japan, with 50 bindings on show as part of an historical retrospective of "Beautiful British Books". In 2008 Lord Tom Sawyer commissioned bindings by Fellows of Designer Bookbinders as part of an exhibition entitled 'Socialism: A Celebration - a collection of beautiful books'. The exhibition was held in the glorious Royal Gallery at the House of Lords.
Between 2006-2013 the society organised an annual series of very successful selling exhibitions at the Flow Gallery in Notting Hill Gate, London. More recently in February 2018 Designer Bookbinders exhibited work of some of its members at the Crafts Councils' international art fair for contemporary objects, entitled 'Collect'.
Since 2016 Designer Bookbinders has also been taking part in London Craft Week, showcasing the work of its members to a larger audience as well as putting on many series of workshops to run alongside selling exhibitions of bindings.
As the society moves forward into the 21st Century from its formation more than sixty years ago, it can be said that it has achieved its fundamental objectives to promote, maintain and improve the standards of design and craft in hand bookbinding by means of exhibitions, teaching and publications.