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  1. Bookbinder of the Month: Jan Sobota

    December 30, 2012 by Erin Fletcher


    I’m finishing off this month of Jan Sobota bindings with another miniature book that was created in collaboration with his wife Jarmila. Inside the hand-sculpted robot lives an accordion book of sixteen panels. The text explores the birth and usage of the word “robot”, which is first used by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek in 1920 (the word “robot” derives from a Czech word meaning forced labor or serf). The term “robotics” was coined by the Russian writer Isaac Asimov.

    The accordion-fold panels fold ingeniously into a compartment in the back the 2 3/4″ tall metal robot. A metal panel is held in place with a magnet affixed to the back of the robot’s head, securing the pages inside the robot. The robot is made with the use of A+B EpoPutty plasticine and metal parts and finished with an application of patina, the front is engraved with three lines: Karel Čapek / I, Robot / Isaac Asimov.

    This binding was created in 2007 in an edition of 30, each copy is signed by both Jan and Jarmila Sobota. The book object is housed in a suede-lined clamshell box. 

    asimov_sobota2resource: J. & J. Book Arts Studio

  2. Bookbinder of the Month: Jan Sobota

    December 23, 2012 by Erin Fletcher

    rachlik_sobotaIn the spirit of Christmas, I offer this binding by Jan Sobota that appears like box within a box. In 1986, Sobota completed this layered book object of Frantisek Rachlik’s Komedie plna lasky (Comedy Full of Love), a story about the life of Jindrich Mosna, a famous Czech actor during the nineteenth century. Each layer of the book object represents three different costumes from his most important roles. 

    The book object lives inside a box sculpted out of board to mimic a newspaper reporter’s jacket. It is covered in natural sheepskin and includes buttons and a pocket with document, with details outlined in blind tooling. The second layer of protection is a slipcase modeled after a soldier’s uniform. Also sculpted out of board, the slipcase is covered in blue calfskin with onlays of various colors embellishing the jacket. Blind tooling is also used to finish off the details.rachlik2_sobota rachlik3_sobotaFinally, the boards of this box-binding are sculpted with board to represent the costume of a Czech peasant, covered in white goatskin and natural cowhide. Relief onlays, gold and blind tooling complete the design. 

  3. Bookbinder of the Month: Jan Sobota

    December 16, 2012 by Erin Fletcher

    rimskalyrika_jansobotaThis book object and stand were crafted by Jan Sobota in 1987, the book is Rimska Lyrika (Lyrics of the Roman Empire). The book is covered in natural calfskin with blind tooling, decorative edges and headbands. The stand is made of binders board and balsa wood covered with natural goatskin and dark red onlays. The overall design is a canopy bed with slightly erotic elements inspired by the old Roman lyrics. 

    resource: The New Bookbinder: Journal of Designer Bookbinders. Volume 10, 1990.

  4. Bookbinder of the Month: Jan Sobota

    December 9, 2012 by Erin Fletcher

    Over the course of 10 years, Jan Sobota participated in four Helen Warren DeGolyer Triennial Competitions. Every three years the Bridwell Library on Southern Methodist University’s campus chooses a book from their collection to be rebound by an individual binder. Each participant offers a proposal binding for the chosen title in addition to an example of their work. The winner of the Helen Warren DeGolyer Award receives a commission to bind the selected book according to their design proposal.  Two other prizes are awarded for excellence in fine binding and design. 

    The first time Sobota entered this competition was in 2003, creating a proposal for Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His design was given the Judge’s Distinction of Interpretation award:

    An example of his work submitted for the 2003 competition:

    This binding of Les Chansons de Bilitis by Pierre Loüys is translated from Greek and includes illustrations by G. Barbier engraved on wood by François Schmied. This edition was printed in Paris in 1922. A triple cover board binding structure bound in brown Harmatan goatskin for the top layer, gold leather for the middle and dark blue goatskin for the doublures with blue suede leather flyleaves. The same gold leather was used to create wrapped headbands, the top edge was gilt. 

    For the Fourth Helen Warren DeGolyer Exhibition in 2006, Sobota presented his proposal for Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones:

    Sobota proposed a triple cover board binding structure, to be covered in dark blue paper made of leather-maché, light blue French box calf (title in relief outlined in gold tooling) and batik suede pigskin. A brass plate on the spine engraved with the author’s name along with a brass clasp along the foredge engraved with the author’s portrait. The middle board would be covered with gold leather and doublures of batik suede pigskin. The flyleaves would be light blue paper of leather-maché. Double core leather-tooled headbands and silver multi-metallic gilt top edge.

    “The design depicts the ‘fictitious’ soul of the text and the illustrations, which the author also suggests in the title of the book”. The 1987 edition of Ficciones includes illustrations by Gabriela Aberastury, Julio Pagnao, Mirta Ripoll, Raúl Russo and Alicia Scavino.

    An example of Sobota’s work included in the 2006 submission was a binding of Jules Verne’s Le Tour Du Monde En Quatre-Vingts Jours:

    John Grave’s Goodbye to a River: A Narrative was chosen for the Fifth Helen Warren DeGolyer Competition in 2009. Here is Sobota’s proposal submission: 

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  5. Bookbinder of the Month: Jan Sobota

    December 2, 2012 by Erin Fletcher

    Jan Sobota produced several miniature bindings, which were included in various exhibitions. This binding of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Black Cat was published in a small edition of 20 by Jan and Jarmilla in 2009. This book-object was designed as a ‘Jack-in-the-Box’, the book is permanently attached to a spring that jumps forward as you open the lid. The black cat silhouette on the front cover is laser cut and finished with hand painting and tooling in white foil.

    The box is covered in black binders’ cloth and the lid is hand tooled in a pattern resembling a brick wall. The box measures 2.75″ x 2.75″ and the book measures 2.3″ x 2.3″.

    resource: J. & J. Book Arts Studio

  6. December // Bookbinder of the Month: Jan Sobota

    December 1, 2012 by Erin Fletcher

    Jan Sobota grew up engulfed by books, about 20,000 to be exact. His father was an avid collector of literature, most specifically children’s literature, filling their small house to the brim with books. Every available square inch of wall space was covered with bookcases leaving only the windows and doors untouched; before dinner books were cleared from the table and chairs. Eventually his father’s collection was moved to the barn after being converted into a library and office. Several books suffered from the passage of time and needed to be repaired. Sobota accompanied his father to trips to the bindery, eyeing the machinery and craftwork of the binders. One particular binder who peaked Sobota’s interest was Karel Silinger, working in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia as a designer bookbinder. At the time Pilsen attracted several artists creating a cultured and literate community. 

    Sobota began an apprenticeship with Silinger in 1954, learning binding techniques while conversing with artist, writers and actors. Sobota was accepted to a bookbinding program in Germany, but was unable to attend due to the Communist occupation at the time. Instead, he studied at the School for Applied Arts in Prague, where he was exposed to drawing, painting, sculpture and restoration of materials such as wood, metal, glass, ceramics, glass, paper and books. In 1957, Sobota completed his studies with both Silinger and at the School for Applied Arts.

    Left on his own to work, Sobota struggled with developing his own style of binding. His first bindings matched the style of Silinger’s bindings and other artists he found inspiring. For a time, Sobota did not have access to foreign literature from restrictions put forth by the Communists and therefore it became difficult to further his studies of bookbinding until the mid-1960s. During this time he concentrated on the techniques of Czech early Gothic-style bindings, being introduced to Gothic box bindings. He began to consult with Czech bookbinding professor such as Emil Pertak and Vaclav Vladyka. 

    In 1966, the Communists began lifting restrictions on art, allowing more bookbinding exhibitions and lectures to enter Czechoslovakia exposing Sobota to master bookbinders such as Jindrich Svoboda and Jan Vrtilek. Sobota continued to develop his personal style of binding though he found experimentation to be a struggle from the confinement by deep-rooted techniques of standard bookbinding, believing that binders were being held back from innovation and future development. It wasn’t until 1977, after reading Philip Smith‘s New Directions in Bookbinding did Sobota find the courage to produce more sculptural bindings known as book-objects.

    Sobota’s book-objects are sculptural box-bindings or flat bindings with a sculptural or relief box; the text is completely housed inside the sculpture keeping it safe from dirt and exposure. The construction of his book-objects are quite complex, but the books can be opened easily and read comfortably. Sobota never considered his work to be experimental. His intentions were to create something new, while serving the book by expressing its contents through his artistic and technical abilities. In 1979, he received the title ‘Meister der Einbandkunst’. 

    In 1984, Sobota was directed to Cleveland where he began working in the conservation lab at Case Western Reserve University; his latest position was as the Director of the Conservation Laboratory in the Bridwell Library of SMU in Dallas, Texas. Sobota was active in various bookbinding communities. As one of the initiators of the Society of Czech Bookbinders, he was elected their first president in 1997. Beginning in 1969, Sobota exhibited his bindings in 137 group shows and 32 individual shows, in addition to winning over 30 prizes for this work as a craftsman and educator. 

    In May of 2012, Jan Sobota passed away, months later at the Standards of Excellence conference, his wife Jarmila accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the Guild of Book Workers in which he was an active member. Sobota was gifted as an artisan and craftsman with a deep knowledge of conservation for both contemporary and historical bindings.

    The design binding in this post is a compilation of works by Charles Perrault completed by Sobota in 2011. The box is styled after the location where Perrault lived and worked, the Chateau de Breteuil, a 17th century castle located near the Chevreuse Valley. The Chateau is well known for its elegant interiors and majestic brick and stone exterior.

    The main text was published in conjunction with the 9th Biennales Mondiales de la Reluire d’Art in France in 2007 in an edition of 1,000 copies in which this is number 414. The additional 12 miniature books were published by Jan and Jarmila Sobota in Czech in 2007 in an edition of one. The box-binding (the tower and building exterior) are covered in both goatskin and calf in five different colors. Windows were cut from hologram glass and cover the ‘hollow boxes’ that house the 12 miniature books. The miniature books are covered in a gray goatskin with silver stamping and hologram silver gilt edges. The main text edges are gilt with hologram gold.

    Blue silk doublures lined the inside covers of the box, which also include portraits of Charles Perrault and Louis de Breteuil (the original owner of the Chateau).

    The tower is hollow with two floors connected by a wooden spiral staircase; on the first floor is an image of Puss in Boots (a character created by Charles Perrault) and on the second floor is a scene from Chateau de Breteuil lining the walls with a replica of the famous Teschen table (also known as the ‘Table of Europe’).


    1. The New Bookbinder: Journal of Designer Bookbinders. Volume 10, 1990. pg. 3 – 11
    2. Guild of Book Workers Newsletter. Number 203. August 2012, pg. 9

  • My name is Erin Fletcher, owner and bookbinder of Herringbone Bindery in Boston. Flash of the Hand is a space where I share my process and inspirations.
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