Review: The Penland Book of Handmade Books

penland bookYou all know about Penland, right? The place around which the dreams of all crafters and book artists circle. I don’t think there is another place in the world where I more want to go to. The Penland school of crafts is located in North Carolina amidst a great nothing but nature, or at least it seems to me like this from the pictures and maps – I have never been even close. There, innovative craftmen and artists meet to exchange their knowledge, to teach and get taught, and to help others on their way and to go themselves a step further into the realm of crafts and art. Workshops are held regularly in Spring, Summer, and Fall, and there are additional programs for short-term and long term artist residencies.

This book now, focuses in each of 10 chapters on one artist/craftsperson who all have been instructors at Penland. These people are: Daniel Essig, Eileen Wallace, Steve Miller, Carol Barton, Susan E. King, Hedi Kyle, Barbara Mauriello, Dolph Smith, Jim Croft, and Julie Leonard.

Each chapter is organized in the same way: On a first spread with a photo of the artist with some of his/her work you find a few introductory words. This is followed by a longer text by the artist in which they talk about their career, their work, their general approach to craft and the like. Next is a so-called “hands-on” section. This is a step-by-step explanation of a specific technique that is important for this artist. This section is followed by the “gallery”, a section in which the artist talks about other artist’s work that influenced them or which they generally like.

My copy of the book is a A4-ish paperback, printed on 230 pages of glossy smooth paper. It has so many photos, that I cannot count them (and I didn’t find this information in the book itself, sorry).

So, do I like the book? The book has a strong emphasis openland book 2n the individual artists. Most of the text inside is about their careers and opinions. When I first held it in hands I was slightly disappointed: Sure it has really a lot of really beautiful images of a wide range of inspiring book – but so has “500 handmade books”, probably even more so. And the instructions inside are really instructions for one specific project, and do not explain general decisions and considerations. It seems to me that most of them rather answer the question how an artist achieves a specific look than that they are really meant to be followed by the reader.

But, and this is a huge but: The texts about the artists themselves turned out very inspiring. Personality cult was always a strange thing to me, and I never liked to read biographies, and never had a personal role model. Therefore some time passed until I discovered this true gem: These autobiographic notes turned out to be very personal, well written, entertaining. They helped to broaden my view on book arts. The gallery chapters are also more than just a series of photos of great books (like it is the case in “500 handmade books”): The words of the artists, explaining their connection turned out entertaining to read and enlightening, too. And finally, while looking more thoroughly through the “hands-on” sections, I found a lot of details, that I now do use here and there, and inspirations for new work.

So now I am writing this as a fan of the book, and I recommend to buy it to all who are interested in the book arts. Be aware that it is neither a book of instructions, nor a gallery of works. It shows the way of 10 individuals into the realm of book arts, and is more an entertaining read, and beautiful picture book than a reference book you’ll open during your work.

2 replies on “Review: The Penland Book of Handmade Books”

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  2. I enjoyed your perspective on the Penland Book of Handmade Books. I am fortunate to live in Asheville, NC, about an hour from Penland. In fact, I moved here in part because of the proximity not just to Penland, but to Arrowmont ( and John C. Campbell Folk School (, and because of the lively and growing community of book artists. Penland, of course, is THE unique experience.

    Asheville, which is surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, has a strong crafts community. We have a wonderful book arts facility that offers both workshops and studio equipment and workspace (BookWorks: Dan Essig, who is among the bookmakers featured in the Penland book, lives here, and teaches several workshops at BookWorks each year, when he’s not teaching elsewhere around the country. And the other book artists included in the book usually find their way on any given year either to Penland, Arrowmont, or BookWorks. Once I moved here, I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven.

    I hope you’ll have the opportunity to visit. It’s well worth the effort to get here. Thanks so much for your blog. I read it regularly and enjoy both the blog and your work.

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