"Air neuf prend des couleurs"
The new bookbinder, vol. 22, 2002, p29-34

AIR neuf prend des couleurs (1) = AIR neuf puts on colours.
Nine colours altogether (2)

Allowing just one single colour for each binding had a far reaching-impact none of us could imagine when we received the rules (3) which had been set for this exhibition.

For centuries bookbinding had the limited colour range of light-resistant natural colours. Gold tooling and intricate patterns brought variety and difference, but only fabrics, embroidery and painting could introduce colour. The last century, our century, changed all this : leathers of every shade are available and “ painting ” with inlays and onlays became the bookbinders’ favourite form of expression. After the unusual setting and total freedom of work of our previous exhibition (4) this new one was a real challenge ; we had to restrict ourselves to the use of one single colour and also - according to the requirements of the Bibliotheca Wittockiana - to books who would fit into the standard display cases. Could AIR neuf, whose very essence is non-conformity and creativity, succeed beyond the strict limits of well-groomed bookbinding, and yet still fly with such clipped wings ?

Monochrome bindings are certainly difficult to make and, placed side by side, do not enhance each other. Are beige and grey meant to be white? Where is the borderline between green and blue, blue and violet, orange and red ? As a result, most of the binders avoided subtle colours ; the red books were all truly red and even the jury got caught in the trap and hesitated over a bordeaux and violet binding and a green-blue one, not because of the quality of the bindings, but because their colour was not really spot on.

The founding members of AIR neuf had two additional constraints (I wonder why we are always set apart from the happy crowd...). We had to make artist books and of set dimensions 250 x 400 cm. It was not said or discussed what “ artist book ” means. Ask your fellow binders and they will each give a different answer. And in fact the nine of us understood it in different manners. Of course many of the other members turned to artist books as an opportunity to regain some creative freedom. That in turn raised other problems ; to judge bindings with different technical and cultural backgrounds is a difficult task to begin with, but on what grounds is it possible to choose among artists books ?

For the display it was decided to separate the nine colours. This was a fantastic opportunity to look at colours in an unusual way. Exhibiting only one coulour of book does not make them mutualy enhancing, so it proved how important even a small element of another colour is. This very point was brilliantly emphasized by the incorporation into our exhibition of Belgian artist Marc Ver Elst’s bookworks choosen as the centre-point (or counter-point ?) of the exhibition. In the very centre of the exhibition space, in a small display case, stood piles of small packages made of books and folded papers, tied together with cords and sealed forever as they had been plunged in hot, coloured wax. Photo : expo W Van E + A de Coster.jpg (Annie de Coster the keeper of the Bibliotheca Wittockiana and curator of the exhibition shows it to a visitor)
Behind the huge glass wall - which usualy shows the shelving full of precious old bindings - more heaps of these brightly coloured bookworks can be seen standing on a large table [Fig. 1]. photo expo W Van Elst grand .jpg . Whether or not you like the idea of silencing written pages forever, Marc Ver Elst certainly gives them a new life through colour and beauty.

The perforated metal covers of Manne Dahlstedt’s (5) artist book do nothing to protect the book. The yellow signatures are shot through thirty times [Fig. 2]. I was glad to recognize in the yellow group a nice single section binding by Françoise Petitjean. Many years ago I copied that structure from an american conservation binding. I learnt later on that the American friend has copied it from a French artist book... the important thing being that good ideas never get really lost.

A writer friend wrote a book especially for Annie Boige (founding member and current vice-president) on the subject of her chosen colour, violet. She underlined the importance of the text by making a very discreet and elegant binding. In her group was a very beautiful silk binding by Marie-Claude Bastien.

The red group was led by our Canadian founding member Odette Drapeau. Her crossed structure fish skin binding contains a book published by La Tranchefile, Odette’s atelier in Montréal. The covering leather is a composition of different shades and textures of fish skins all dyed by Odette in magnificent warm colours. The contrast of textures and shades was the decorative technique most  commonly employed in this exposition. In this red group Sylvie Frégé demonstrated this with different red leathers and Maïlys Herubel with painted silk-papers.

Florent Rousseau (founding member and current President of AIR neuf) is very good at playing with colours : his green leather binding shows many shades and textures (the book inside is a set of original paste papers made by a friend for the occasion). Anne-Lise Chapperon subtle vertical lines in the black group are made of dyed and folded Japanese paper strips [Fig. 3].

Jacky Vignon (founding member and current treasurer) assembled paperworks by the members of his orange group in a book and made a woven-leather binding. The decoration of his book matches the structure[Fig. 4].

Carmencho Arregui’s (6) " Dromographies " are the result of her latest work with the computer. Once open, her paper book allows the display of five of these postcard-sized images. These are computer graphics of the book structure itself. Both the structure and the sewing are functional to the display [Fig. 5].

White colour in bookbinding is naturally associated in our minds with soft tones of vellum, paper and alum-tawed skins. White box-calf looks so lifeless ! Ana Ruiz Larrera’s and Jacqueline Poydenot’s talent helps to forget it... [Fig. 6]

Laurence Duffar’s (Canada) white paper artist book contains a text about the twin towers’ September 11 attack written in white [Fig. 7].

Helen’s (founding member, A. Noir is her artist name) used brown and took watercolour paper, paint and brush, then wrote and painted her story - without any binding. No surprise there as she is a finisher not a bookbinder. The extra flaps of course make it stand but also make reading it an interactive adventure.

My blue binding is a display device too. Being a founding member I had to do an artist book. My interpretation of “ artist book ” was that I was to make a book from A to Z all by myself. I wrote a fairy tale on my computer and on the way I learned a few things about Photoshop and QuarkXPress. The book’s four little sections are bound in a Staple Binding (7). The cover is painted hand-made paper. The magnetic fore-edge strips can transform the cover into a hollow tube presenting the signatures fully open. The blue group was not only rich in paper binding but also in artist books ; one of Alain Taral’s blue wooden bindings (with interlaced wooden strips) contains a letterpress book printed on wooden pages, expecially made for this exhibition. For the Fall of Icarus (an artist book bought in London) two front boards exist, which are fully interchangeable [Fig. 8]. In Alain’s bindings both boards and the spine are in wood. The hingeing system allows a perfect opening of the boards ; the books inside are not backed.

Joanne Sonnichsen choose a texte of Rilke, laser printed it on mylar and bound it in black paper. In her black group there are many artist books. Three from Claudia Renetzki (Germany) [Fig. 9] whose work interconnects her three fold activity (she is a freelance graphic designer, a photographer and a bookbinder) and two are crossed-structure books by Phet Cheng Suor-Cogant [Fig. 10]. There are two further interesting techniques among the blacks : on Godelieve Dupin de Saint Cyr oriental binding the Japanese paper collage has been covered by rounded plexiglass strips held by metal staples and Marie-Thérèse Vercheval used polycarbonate strip to contrast the imprints on goat skin.

My two favourites among the greens were Sophie Korcarz’s painted and varnished plexiglas boards [Fig. 11] and Anne Giordan’s image-decorated binding [Fig. 12].

Exploring the display possibilities of a binding structure or of a box is a very interesting subject. The Oriental Bindings have the “ built in ” display possibility of sewn guarding (8). Depending on the dimensions, chosen by the binder, sewn guarding can help the book to stay open, to stand, or to hang and it can also be shaped in any symbolic form as on Marcelle Murat’s binding [Fig. 13]. It can bear the title as on Christine Fabre’s paper binding covered with a blue print of a photograph [Fig. 14]. Mireille Poulet photo VER 15 even opens her oriental binding at the spine joint by hingeing the front cover to the back cover over the fore-edge. Accordion folds stand naturally and can be seen from every angle - a widely used structure for artist books. Due mainly to lack of exhibition space, many of these were presented closed. It was impossible to appreciate Régine Hue’s bookworks - a graphic representations of the word “ yellow ” translated into eighteen languages and another made around a text of Myriam Basset’s artist book held between silkweaver’s shuttles.

The structure of Cristina Balbiano d’Aramengo’s book reproduces the form of the zinc-plate engraving (by fellow artist’s, Laura Cagliani), a cross-shaped sign containing the letters which form Red Deer, the subject of the artist book. The twelve panels are the prints in positive-negative, all of them joined by bamboo sticks and cloth joints, and the plate itself is hidden in the centre panel [Fig. 15].

An interesting statistics is that the overwhelming majority (more than two third) of the bindings are structures not requiring backing (this would make book conservators rejoice) : simplified bindings, twenty ; oriental bindings, twenty ; crossed structure bindings, eight ; etc.

However, it is disappointing to see that new structures with a strong visual impact of their own are slowly being taken over by the incessant need for “ decoration ”. I am also realising that most of the books I noticed were artist books - mainstream bookbinding seems to be going around in circles - or have I became too old and have seen too many ?

This exhibition was a great experience and a hard but very profitable lesson for all of us. From now on, using colours will be as wonderful as savouring tasty food after a long diet...

Aknowledgements :
Thanks to Carmencho for her remarks. They always help me to clarify my ideas.

Photographs of books : PasoDoble, Philippe de Formanoir.
Photographs of the exhibition  : Sün Evrard.


AIR = Association Internationale de Relieurs (International Association of Bookbinders), the abbreviation means " air " in French too. Neuf means, in French, both " nine " (nine founding members) and " new ".
AIR neuf was founded in 1994 by Carmencho Arregui (Italy), Annie Boige (France), Manne Dahlstedt (Sweden), Odette Drapeau (Canada), Sün Evrard (France), A. Noir (France), Florent Rousseau (France), Joanne Sonnichsen (USA), and Jacky Vignon (France). As our manifesto at the time stated, the aim of the association was to organise exhibitions, share ideas and exchange knowledge with other binders all over the world. The number of members is now around 150, mostly French with a few Belgian, Spanish and Swedish.
In the last few years discord regarding basic principles, such as democracy, general orientation, and the way of judging other binders' work has built up between the executive committee and several founding members. Carmencho Arregui left the Association after the jury of the exhibition in November 2001. I left in April 2002.


  • 1. Exhibition at the Bibliotheca Wittockiana (Rue du Bemel 21-23, B-1150 Bruxelles, Belgium), 9th February-25th April 2002. The exhibition travelled to the Belfort Municipal Library, France, Autumn 2002. French/English catalogue with 100 colour photographs. Mail order: AIR neuf, 34 rue Ballu, 75009 Paris, France.
  • 2. Nine colours were available for each founding member to choose from, and then for all members of AIR neuf, with the specification that only a single colour be used. Red, Odette Drapeau (Canada); white, Carmencho Arregui (Italy); brown, A. Noir (France); black, Joanne Sonnichsen (USA); yellow, Manne Dahlstedt (Sweden); blue, Siin Evrard (France); violet, Annie Boige (France); orange, Jacky Vignon (France); green, Florent Rousseau (France).
  • 3. Each founding member monitored the work of his or her colour group. Other members had to choose one colour in which they intended to work for the exhibition. They discovered later which of the founding members was responsible for that colour. No other colour could be used in the binding, not even gold.
  • 4. Exhibition in Mariemont, Belgium. Bindings, book-objects, and artist books were made to be placed among the standard collection items (next to a Ming vase, a coal-miner's lamp, a piece of Sevres porcelain, or prehistoric pottery) and also, if desired, in any corner of this concrete and glass building and its magnificent park. AIR neuf, Mariemont, Musee Royal de Mariemont, 1999. French/English catalogue available from AIR neuf, 34 rue Ballu, 75009 Paris.
  • 5. Founding member, Sweden.
  • 6. Founding member, Italy.
  • 7. See The New Bookbinder 21 (2001) p. 56.
  • 8. The signatures are sewn individually against folded paper. The book is assembled by glueing or sewing these guards together.