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Michael O'Brien





Internationally this discipline is called 'designer bindings'. I prefer the term 'expressive bindings', as I see a designer and an artist as quite different. I consider these works as art expressed through the medium of bookbinding.  Each book is unique. I go through a long process of reading the book, frequently several times, to get an insight into the author and/or illustrators intentions. The binding I then create  expresses what the story says to me. I use traditional materials, though sometimes in non-traditonal ways.  


Commissions need to be discussed and negotiated.

Into the Thirties - Style and Design 1927-1934.

Klaus Jurgen Sembach

This was my first foray into expressive binding. At the time I was intrigued by the style and design of the twenties and thirties.


I wanted to get a round feeling for the book, like a binoculars case. To do that I used thick sculptured boards which presented its own challenges for opening and closing.  I used black oasis goatskin, Japanese handmade paper and chromed brass and exotic New Zealand paua  shell for the inlays.

This won second equal in the Designer Binders Competition in London in 1987 (no first was awarded that year).  At first Miriam Foot, the Chief Librarian of the British Library, thought it was an original binding from the thirties that someone had snuck into the competition.


Artist's collection.

This was commissioned by a prominent New Zealand yachtswoman, The Sea Around Us being one of the first books championing the environment.  I wanted to give a feeling of depth by using graduated  blue staining on the kangaroo skin covering. Beneath that I placed found objects, shells and pieces of binding chord. The orange toned leather is actually fish skin and extends beyond the edge of the front board.  It also has Paua shell inlays and hand marbled endpapers that I made myself.


Private Collection

The Sea Around Us

Rachel Carson

Arawata Bill

Denis Glover

This is a fine edition with six original aquatints by Gary Tricker.  The design suggests the bleak rock of the southern alps, using subtly stained blue and green over grey oasis goatskin . The boards are heavily sculpted, I cut into them and inlayed thin strips of black gold tooled leather, suggesting the elusive thin vein of gold the main character in the poem is always looking for but never finds. The top edge of the book I rough gilded and carved the boards to resemble

a glacial 'U' shaped valley.

The handmade Japanese endpapers rough deckled edge extends beyond the top of the book suggesting mist. The box is hand marbled and resembles a tombstone, I was thinking of Arawata Bill's headstone in Dunedin.


Private Collection

The Garden Party

Katherine Mansfield

This was collaboration between myself, Ulrich Schmid (papermaker) and Deirdre Van Der Vossen (calligrapher).  Using tongue in slot binding the boards were created off the book. I wanted to use a lot of colour to suggest the brightness of the New Zealand light.


Some of the symbolism :


The blue and white stripped ellipse on the bright green goatskin suggests the marque on the pristine lawn. The black leather spine separating the two boards is  the road that divides the worlds of the haves and the have-nots. The story is about the exposure of falsely held sentiments, so I exposed the sewing on both the chord and the  vellum tape that cross the spine.  On the back cover I used strips of hemp chord covered in orange and red goatskin strips to suggest the corrugated iron roofs of the have-nots' shacks. The black spiral that extends out beyond the front board is her hat which features prominently in the story.  



Private Collection

The Garden

Andrew Marvell

I decided to use the fern motif largely recognised as New Zeland symbol, and chose the flower motif because in our gardens here in spring the many tall poppies and tulips raise their fair heads. Vaguely discernable are a few spirals (Maori and Celtic), and something look like a bird which appears in local ancient Maori rock drawings.


Green deerskin and goatskin, with a sculptured snail and raised fern, poppy seed-pod and tendril decorations, painted and dyed. Paste paper endpapers made by the binder. Edges coloured blue. Cloth and paste paper drop back box.




Private Collection



Bernard Middleton


Dark green Oasis goatskin, gold-tooled with dots. The raised design extends across both covers, and parts of it are built up with millboard and balsawood. The gold-tooling, after the portrait of Bernard Middleton in the text, was done using only a 26 Pt. full stop. The doublures and flyleaves are of handmade Nepalese dragon paper, and other endleaves are handmade New Zealand flax paper. Top edge gilt. Sewn on five thin tapes, using the French method. Gold silk double headband, green tailband.  Black cloth drop-hack box with a gold, tooted and lettered green leather label, lined with black silk-covered pads to take the raised design on the boards.


Private Collection.


Giacomo Leopardi

Created for an Italian competition in which 917 bookbinders from around  the world submitted their interpretation of  Leopardi's poem L'infinito to mark the bicentenary of the great poets birth. This was one of the 125 that were selected as master bindings that  became part of the permanent  collection .


I chose a tight back sewing style as this construction was contemporary with his birth. I wanted to create a spiralling vortex on the covers using the sewing chords. The cover is concave, with a punched whole in the centre which ,(when the book is closed), gives a glimpse of the gilded endpaper beneath.


Leopard's dark nature is reflected by the grey colour of the kangaroo skin. His hill and distant horizon intercedes. The eye is drawn to the centre of the void which takes one on a journey through to the light on the other side and back again.


I used blood red Dutch parchment to create the raised horizon, overlayed with green abraided stained Oasis goatskin to form the landscape.


Public Collection

Brother Sun, Sister Moon

St Francis

Following on from the Leopardi exhibition the town of Assisi decided to honour their saint with a similar international competition.  For this binding I chose very colourful Oasis goatskin, the pink reflecting the colours of the limewash on the town's buildings.  The front and back boards show a raised and convex sun and moon. The sun being  rough  gilded  over red stained yellow goatskin. The gold reflects the light.  The moon is covered with Dutch transparent vellum over a disk painted  ( in luminous paint ) moonscape. In the dark it glows  like the moon.


The intersection of the sun and moon is an onlay of green goatskin representing the earth. On top of this is a portrait of the saint himself created out of leather. Above him is a gold tooled symbol of infinity, like a twisted halo. The first image in this series shows the brass tool I constructed especially to do this.  


The book is wrapped in a brown chamois and tied with a girdle representing the monk's habit.


Private Collection

Barry Lyndon


This most challenging of bindings took me eleven months (full time)  to complete.    Gambling, duelling and the duality of life are important themes in the story.   During the time I created this work  I fully immersed myself in the period. I took to wearing eighteen century clothing (though I was wearing Victorian before that!).  I imported a flintlock pistol (special license obtained from the police), and learnt to fire it.  The last photo shows a lead ball fired from that pistol. I did not however take up gambling.


The person who commissioned it forbade me to read Thackery's novel  so that the only influences on me would be those taken from Stanley Kubrick's film of the


book.  I watched the film dozens of times.


Along with the novel there was a set of  prints especially commissioned from a Melbourne artist. So the final work has two parts. One is the novel, the other, though externally  identical , is in fact a case. To do this I had to invent a new type of binding for the book. I created a reverse sewn block with a square spine attached tongue in slot that actually opens. The case has a drawer which opens to reveal the book of prints. The prints are bound without adhesive  in a modern style  with exposed sewing on limp red goatskin.  


The  box which holds them both I designed and had made out of Perspex.


Because I was drawing inspiration from a film I wanted to suggest the seeing of things through a transparent medium. The slipcase is clear. Built into the front and back boards of the novel  and on the case, are Dutch transparent vellum windows. This creates a feeling of looking through a film into the words and  images, within.


Drawing on the themes of duality  of light and dark the front boards are light, the rear dark. The male is leather , the female suede (a darker shade of leather reversed ).


The front boards show Barry as an Irish (hence the shamrock shaped window) opportunist  in an English uniform.  The jack is a knave, and the club is a shamrock. The rear board shows him as an embittered press-ganged Prussian  soldier , with the window in the shape of a Prussian Maltese cross. Countess Lyndon appears on the front board as an object of desire, the Queen of Hearts. On the rear she is shown broken, discarded, finding solace in  her Christianity.


The spines have still images of  two significant moment from the film,  hand-painted  and set beneath transparent velum. The spine on the case is of the moment when he gains her heart, the spine of novel shows Barry passing through the landscape, appearing, passing through and then gone.


Private Collection.