John DeMerritt Bookbinding






San Francisco Center for The Book

January 19, 2007

John DeMerritt and Nora Pauwels

Moderated by Steve Woodall,  SFCB Artistic Director



MODERATOR:  I have no idea what these people are going to talk about.


JOHN: Me neither. We spent the last half of this meeting we had talking with Nigel   Poor about how to make bookcloth out of dryer lint. People are fascinated already. And the hair cut party. So the other part of Nigel’s residency is, we won’t keep you in suspense but there’s a hair cut party involved. I’m not cutting mine but Alice, you’re go going be a big donor. Linda, your hair looks really good, too.


-           We’re going to get great haircutters in here to do that.


JOHN: We’re going to get the Vidal Sassoon people.



Welcome to our inaugural Artists in Residence Arts Talk. Nora and I were the guinea pigs


I don’t know if you’re familiar with this but another fundraising and fun event at the San Francisco Center for Books is Road Works, the Steam Roller print event that they have every summer. There’s a few people here that have performed that task.  They give you a big three foot square piece of linoleum and you hack away at it. Then they close the street off across the street for one day and you ink that thing up and run it over with a steam roller. It’s really funny.

Nora and I were asked to participate in that and we were like well, it should be something book-like, so we made this:



To us it’s like a page. We’ve always had an interest in things like ledgers and automatic writing and anonymous sources, graphic information. So, we wanted to make a big print that would be like a page from a ledger, an accounting of things.

We were very, very happy with the overall results and the Center thought there was maybe the potential to make a book project out of it so we were approached by Penny Nii and  Michael Carabetta.  Penny and Michael asked us if we’d be interested in re-interpolating this big print into a book.  In our minds the print was always a page from a book anyway, so we were interested in creating the book that the page originally came from

We went home and wondered how the hell we were going to do it. We started thinking about why we’re interested in all this kind of imagery, because this all happened very quickly. You know, Nora usually does this stuff all the time but I don’t, I just made it up. We started to go back to the subconscious source material and we came up with a lot of starting points. 

I’m a book binder by trade. I’ve always been really fascinated by all things 19th Century, all things Victorian, all things machine made, all that stuff that was machine made and very anonymous in that  mass produced way. I love those kinds of things. It’s a little bit maligned in the book world and I think unfortunately. The whole Arts and Crafts movement really cast the industrial revolution in a bad light and it’s easy to dismiss that period.  A lot of those sort of 18th Century practices are practices that I use in my daily work life,  trying to crank out multiples of everything.  I love that kind of process and I think modern day publishing processes aren’t so very different and modern day speed of life isn’t so very different.

We had this old hotel ledger that I’ve owned for years and years. A friend of mine who’s involved in advocacy for the homeless received it from a client.  It’s a hotel ledger from the Hotel Iroqois, 835 O’Farrell Street, 1945 through January ’45 through March, April ’46. A fascinating document from the post war. There’s probably a lot of servicemen in there.  This document was the jumping off point for us in creating “De Rekening.”  In a lot of ways, we see “De Rekening” as a companion piece to this ledger.

As we started to really examine  this anonymous thing,  it was hard not to build in the space, all the spaces in between.  We started to build this fascinating narrative and it became a narrative of its own device. It became this piece of wallpaper that we could build this narrative around, like when somebody got an extra bed or they would disappear for a couple of weeks but then would come back. The next day they would make a long distance phone call or they would make one phone call that cost forty cents and another that would cost ten.  It’s riveting reading because you’re starting to create this story that’s not really fair but it’s humming along in your mind anyway.

So, in a way, we thought that our book project would be our response to this ledger. We thought that if there was enough air in there to fill in this story, this is how we would have filled it in with our own story; a somewhat anonymous and illegible story but something that has a bit of a repetitive motif in it and that sort of musically circles back on itself with enough variations in it. Perhaps someone would be able to insert their own story into it.

Nora is a printmaker and does a lot of drawings. She’s really interested of late in this kind of automatic writing. They don’t say anything. Well, they have dates and stuff and they say a lot but they don’t say anything and there’s a lot of—they’re generally I think made in response to something that’s not there. Would that be right Nora?

The book as object is really universal and carries a lot of allusions with it. You’re interacting with it on a daily basis and there’s a lot of things you could do with this thing. If you put those corners there it really changes a way a person thinks about it so we’re very aware of those kinds of things and trying to make it look as anonymous as possible, but at the same time make it ours.



-           So this is the accounting, the accounts, the reckoning?


JOHN: Yes, the bill, the day of reckoning.



JOHN: The main thing is all our printed stuff, that’s sort of our response to all the information and then there’s some secondary response kind of work, hand work that Nora and I would sit there draw.


-           That’s not printed, that’s [inaudible]?


JOHN: All the book is, yes. So printed and handwork.


-           Where did you get that paper, John?


JOHN: I’m going to talk about that in a minute. If I start talking about that I’m going to get really sidetracked. More handwork. Is that hard to believe?


-           How many copies did you make? Fifty?


JOHN: Sixty. So, we tried to build in a variation of space and repetition, variation built in over repetition. This is my favorite.


-           Wow. [inaudible]?


JOHN: Yes. [inaudible].


-           What kind of writing is that?


NORA:           Paper pen and ball point.


JOHN: That’s like the pen used by the UN. We found the pen that they used.


NORA:           It’s a Swedish company.


JOHN: A Swedish company.


NORA:           [inaudible].


JOHN: Yes, this artist Russell Crotty told us about that. He’s like the ball point pen guy. He’s the go-to ball point pen guy. We were like man, aren’t you worried about it all fading?   He’s like no, I found like, you know, I use the pens that the UN use.

One of the nice things about doing these kinds of projects is you get to indulge all your material fetish fantasies. That’s one of the fun things about my job.  I get to buy all of the over the top materials. So, we went to kind of ridiculous lengths but that’s what you have to do.  I’m very interested in emulation and what it takes to emulate something and how to emulate something without looking like you’re trying to and that’s a hard thing to do.

We spent a lot of time discussing how to build the proper object. These books, these legers,  were mass produced. Every city in America had a Stationary binder.  The stationary binder bound the ledgers and account books. They were produced on a large scale by a large crew of people where the labor is completely subdivided and using inexpensive materials to do it. If you look at it closely it’s done—it’s not like some fine binding that somebody spent six months on. This stuff was meant to be durable and it’s rough and ready and it’s kind of raw and wonderful I think. You could throw it out a second story window  I just love that.  You know, they don’t care if there’s some big bump of leather here. They’re not going to spend another half hour of paring it down. Why? Then you’d have to raise your price.  I went kind of crazy on E-Bay buying all this stuff, you know, like this weird corduroy account book.

-           What did you have to pay for those on E-Bay?


JOHN: I paid more—the shipping was more than book. It came to eleven bucks. You know, the interest, the historical interest in book structure, it’s getting there. There’s become quite a bit of flurry of interest in the ledger binding in the book structure/ conservation world in the last few years. You can take workshops and learn how to make all this stuff. There’s a very particular kind of ledger binding called a spring-back binding. It’s got this rigid spine on it that sort of goes over the cover like this so that when you open the book at a certain point it acts like a lever and it throws the gutter of the book up, kind of snaps it open. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one but it’s an incredible mechanical binding.

The best thing about these books things is the ruled paper used for the text blocks.  So, we looked into that a little closer and we found out a little bit about what this ruled paper is and how it’s manufactured. It’s manufactured by a process called pen ruling. There are all these filaments that ink travels down to a series of adjustable pen-heads. And then through a series of devices paper is fed through the machine and pen heads are put down and lifted with all these cams and levers. It makes a very, very distinct line, not printed. It’s a Victorian drawing machine.

So, we looked high and low and then finally via some resources on the internet we found this place called Golden Business Forms in West Burlington, Iowa that still has an operating pen ruling machine.  It’s run by this woman named Susan Pratt.  Sue is one of the few people in America actively doing Pen-Ruling.  There are probably a lot of dead Pen-Ruling machines out there. Nigel Poor told me that she knows someone in Sacramento that has one but it’s not—


NORA:           It functions but I don’t know if you can use it for anything.


JOHN: I think we need to start like a pen ruling fan club and go out there and convince this guy to fire that thing up.

JOHN: Sue’s pen ruling machine that was made by the Hickock Manufacturing  Company in Pennsylvania, which actually manufacturers a lot of book binding equipment. It was her father’s. Her father had a printing company and he ran it for fifty years. She keeps it in her garage. So she doesn’t really do it full time, she works for a large printing company I think in Iowa City. But we called her house and I had some conversations with her and I sent her this and she was like oh, yes, I can do that.



-           Is there a modern equivalent of that?


JOHN: Offset printing I think.


-           I wonder if Sol Lewitt actually knows about it.


JOHN: About pen ruling? He should.


-           How did you resolve the archival issues of the ink with Sue? Because I remember you saying that—


JOHN: No, it’s all water based. There’s nothing archival about it. But that’s why putting it in a book is the best thing you can do. Nicholson Baker published a book a couple of years ago, “Double Fold,” about libraries discarding all their newspapers. He made some really valid points about allegedly non-archival material and the institution’s contempt for it.  Of course all that stuff is fugitive and delicate. I talked to a couple of paper conservers I know and they were  like “oh, that stuff is totally fugitive.”  Of course, you expect them to say that and they’re right. It’s a water based die so it’s fugitive, it runs but look what it does.

I mean, I know all the things that can go wrong,  but look what else it does. It makes a beautiful, diffused line. That’s what it had to be because that’s what it was in there and you can’t run paper through your Epson 2200 and get those results. You can’t. Maybe through an older printer that was water based.


So we made the decision to—you know, despite all things archival this is life. There’s probably a lot of other things that are going to degrade on this book before the pen ruling does. Somebody told me once that the book binder’s only job is to keep everything from falling off the page. And we did that.


-           The paper isn’t that it’s—


JOHN: The paper is fine.  It’s Mohawk Superfine.


-           Okay, that’s pretty cool.



-           Nora, in automatic writing, how would you define it and wouldn’t you think in some ways the pen ruling machine has a kind of automatic writing quality to it, is that right?


NORA:           Yes. I agree with that absolutely.


-           Describe automatic writing.


NORA:           I don’t know whether I would really quite call it automatic writing. I’m very interested in the visual aspect of the writing. It’s hard, it’s just as a visual the way you look at like foreign text that you don’t understand but you kind of like to look at it.


-           You don’t think some spirit is moving through you as you’re writing?


NORA:           I don’t know if they’re moving through me but I write to particular people. And I certainly have something in mind to say but it doesn’t matter that it’s—less that it’s readable to someone else. But there’s something there, it’s not a kind of automatic writing. It depends more on the thing of like this could be a foreign text you wouldn’t be able to understand, it would kind of be the same. You know there’s information there but it doesn’t matter.


-           You can’t read it.


-           Yes.


-           Are you saying that you were imagining that you were a particular person?


NORA:           [inaudible]. And it’s also partly taking, keeping track of time. You know, I work its basis.


-           So each book is different?


NORA:           No. Well, each book is pretty much the same. The writing in each book is pretty much the same.


-           I don’t see how you could do that.


-           You can compare the books. I mean, they’re not like exactly the same.


-           You’re channeling a pen writing machine.


-           I’m channeling exactly that, yes, the pen ruling god.


-           You know, I can see working the same number of lines and all that but I can’t fathom how you would write eligibly the same things exactly the same.


-           Do you copy one from the other?


-           No, no, it’s printed.


NORA:           No, that’s handwritten.


-           No.


JOHN: That’s all hand work.


-           Oh, okay.


-           I’m going to find out.


NORA:           The column form is handwritten but printed.


JOHN: Yes, that was printed. We didn’t write that.


NORA:           The other pages are handwritten.


JOHN: That’s just like legible writing. We could print that. There’s always differences.


NORA:           I thought pretty much the same.


-           Like a musician plays the same music.


JOHN: Well, like format is the same. You know, we had templates.


NORA:           Yes, every barcode is the same.


-           [inaudible].


-           With 51 copies it would be rather arduous to print it.


NORA:           It makes it unique. Each copy is very unique.


-           That makes it even more valuable.


JOHN: Thank you for pointing that out. I never really thought about that.


-           So you had a template in what way?


NORA:           I had my written [inaudible]. And then sometimes I would save that and I’d think like oh, god.


JOHN: But you also see that your eyeball is an amazing measuring device. And you’ve got this wonderful grid. I mean, you’ve got this wonderful grid to work on so you can really place these things. You know, just to sort of control all that.


-           Did you have one template that you put that through all of them or did you do one?


NORA:           No, I had one template that I did each one with.


-           But there are like four different entries. So each entry had a different template?


NORA:           Oh, yes.


-           Do you really want to be an accountant?


JOHN: No. Maybe I do. I think I enjoy exchanging this for that. I like that part of accounting, that way of keeping track of things.