Unbound: Hà Nội bookbinder fuses art and craft

July 03, 2022 - 08:42
A passion to preserve the craft of bookbinding is what drives Trần Trung Hiếu, who creates unique handmade books imprinted with his considerable talent.

TOOLED UP: Many tools are needed for bookbinding, such as bone sticks, large awls, chisels, needles, threads, knives, hammers, boards, scissors, paint brushes and glue. Photo courtesy of Trần Trung Hiếu

Trang Nguyễn and Bích Vân

A passion to preserve the craft of bookbinding is what drives Trần Trung Hiếu, who creates unique handmade books imprinted with his considerable talent.

Hiếu, 24, a graduate from the University of Industrial Fine Arts in Hà Nội, has made a significant contribution to the restoration and development of the craft of book rebinding in Việt Nam, both as an occupation and artistic outlet.

The young man has been inspired to do bookbinding since he was a student at the university several years ago.

He realised that modernisation and high technological globalisation were damaging many traditional crafts in Việt Nam, including bookbinding, which is gradually disappearing.

Nurturing talent he has had since a young child, especially an interest in manual work and artisans creating objects with their own hands, Hiếu was determined to do such work and decided on bookbinding.

Bookbinding originated from European and Middle Eastern countries. It came to Việt Nam during the French colonialism, but book repairing has been neglected for many years due to rapid socio-economic development, according to Hiếu.

Few bookbinders in Việt Nam work in the trade, and fewer still are of an international standard. It is incredibly difficult to find a vocational course on bookbinding in Việt Nam.

"I had to start with zero knowledge about skills, materials and tools. The biggest disadvantage was that I didn't have an experienced teacher by my side to help me start the profession," he said.

However, such difficulties could not stop him from trying to learn more.

Initially, it took Hiếu two years of tinkering to learn how to finish a product.

“I used to take up to two years to complete binding a book. I couldn't find any documents, teachers, or tools for my first practice. Fortunately, with my foreign language skills, I could talk with foreign friends, some of whom knew about bookbinding, and by reading foreign instructions on the internet, I improved my skills," Hiếu said.

Instructional videos on YouTube helped him bind more books, and he became familiar with the Bookbinder's Chronicle channel.

The more he learns, the more he is immersed in and passionate about the craft.

"When I watched a report on John Newman & Son's bookbinding workshop in Dublin, Ireland, I could see how a professional bookbinder worked, as well as some tools I never knew existed, and terms I had never heard of. It was all so new and beautiful," he said.

RARE WORK: Hiếu completed the rebinding comissioned for book 'L'art à Hué', by Léopold Cadière (the Nouvelle Edition, which is the second edition published in 1930). The book is in French and about ornamental art in the Citadel of Huế, Việt Nam. Photo courtesy of the artist

And he has learnt many lessons. To rebind an old book, it must go through five main steps, including assessing the book, removing the old covers, creating the design structure, wrapping and decorating.

The main material for book covers is goat skin. Many tools are also needed, such as bone sticks, large awls, chisels, needles, threads, knives, hammers, boards, scissors, a paintbrush and glue.

It takes Hiếu about a week to bind a simple book, but for more complicated books, it can be several weeks or even months.

Being an enthusiast of "old things" and having been switched to the craft since he was a freshman at the university, Hiếu loves and values handmade products. He devotes all of his energy to perfecting each book he works on.

To finish a beautiful and standard binding, besides the quality materials imported from abroad and selected by himself, he also needs meticulousness, ingenuity and perseverance.

Mark Kirchner, a senior and experienced bookbinder from France who saw Hiếu's efforts on Instagram, has offered to teach him more about bookbinding techniques.

The foreign artisan had spent time teaching and giving Hiếu comments to perfect his product. After each time they worked together, Hiếu became more knowledgeable and "firm in his hands" and slowly learnt the right methods for each step of binding a book and the requisite materials needed.

“There is no special book because they all bring me certain emotions. After each book is repaired, I gain a lot of experience,” Hiếu said.

Under his skilful hand, old books seem to "put on a new jacket", reflecting a desire to keep knowledge forever.

For books that are more than 100 years old or unique books he regards as "national treasures", the binder said it was particularly important to have patience, meticulousness and take care as much as possible to avoid damage.

BOOKBINDER: Trần Trung Hiếu in his workshop. Photo from Hiếu's Facebook page

Spreading the word

In the past few years, bookbinding has returned as a craft of artistic merit, attracting the attention of many worldwide. In Việt Nam, it all started with special book editions produced for bookstores such as Đông Á and Nhã Nam.

Hiếu is known as one of the very young, enthusiastic and skilful bookbinders in the country.

He is currently working at the Sao Bắc bookbinding workshop and cooperating with Nhã Nam Company to carry out special editions to bring hand-bound books closer to everyone and arouse the interest of the younger generation.

"Bookbinding is a synthesis of what I love -- ABC (art, books and craft). I am happy to have a profession that can satisfy my needs to create, and of manual and spiritual labour, and at the same time gain more knowledge. It is also soul therapy for me, and maybe for many others ... something about it feels like meditation. I want to teach others," he said

Sổ tay thợ đóng sách (The Bookbinder's Handbook) is available on the Spiderum website, and showcases Hiếu's shared knowledge and experiences that document his career.

He said he hoped that what he wrote on the page would help others better understand the value of handmade books, the difficulties in bookbinding and the miracles of a craft that has existed for so long.

Although he has had to face many challenges following this rare craft Hiếu loves his job. For him, bookbinding converges all the things he loves, from art to knowledge to crafts. It even helps him satisfy his hobby of hunting for antiques.

“Young people who have or are intending to follow the bookbinding craft should be confident. It will help if you have perseverance first. If you have this in addition to being eager to learn, you will surely get the results you deserve,” Hiếu said.

He is looking forward to the day when this special handicraft will become more popular and develop across the country. VNS

The main material for book covers is goat skin, Photo courtesy of Trần Trung Hiếu