FEATURE—Fall 2007
   

 
Kathy Ling, Art Class of ’09, works on a project.

Studio Speaks Volumes

In the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts,
a special studio immerses students from all over campus in “the art of the book”—a way to learn how to structure thought through fusing writing, design, printing, and binding processes.

By Betsy Rogers

At the Nancy Spirtas Kranzberg Studio for the Illustrated Book, traditional boundaries seem to dissolve—boundaries between fine art and craft, for instance, or between academic disciplines, or form and content. Indeed, the studio seems often to meld these disparate elements, with elegant results.

The studio—where students learn handsewn bookbinding, traditional letterpress and alternative print processes, and publication design—draws students from virtually every school on campus to the recently completed Walker Hall at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. “This semester,” says Ken Botnick, associate professor of art and director of the studio, “we’ve had more than 50 students enrolled in classes here from across the campus.”

Ken Botnick (left), associate professor of art and director of the Kranzberg Studio for the Illustrated Book, works with Jayce McQuerter, Art Class of ’09, in the sophomore core class Typography and Letterform.

Jana Harper, lecturer in the College & Graduate School of Art, appreciates the diversity. “The book studio is such a hub for so many different types of students,” she notes. “There are writers and photographers and printmakers and painters and architects, all kinds of people. It’s a place where multiple disciplines can come together. We’ve had engineering students, business students, medical students. One of my most memorable students in Introduction to Bookbinding was a business student. He made incredible objects.”

The diversity of work is on display each spring when the Kranzberg Studio holds its annual open house, welcoming hundreds of visitors from the community. “Each year we choose the two best projects by graduate and undergraduate students for an award we have come to call ‘The Nancy’ in honor of our greatest supporter, Nancy Kranzberg,” Botnick explains. “It’s a special treat to watch Nancy and her husband, Ken, as they review the extraordinary amount of creative expression their generosity has spawned. And two books created in this studio have now been published in facsimile editions by trade publishers. Nancy loves that.”

The book arts themselves represent a melding of old crafts and contemporary fine arts sensibilities. “In the 1970s,” Botnick explains, reflecting on the explosion of interest in book arts, “there was the big back-to-the-land, back-to-crafts movement. Ceramics programs, glass-blowing programs, things that had traditionally been too ‘crafty’ for art schools suddenly had a real weight to them.”

Meanwhile, offset printing had replaced the hot type of letterpress. Old letterpress equipment and its vast collections of wood and metal type were sitting unused and unwanted. “So people like me started scooping these things up,” Botnick continued. High-end letterpress printing of limited-edition fine arts books began to grow.

But the book studio under Botnick is concerned with more than form, producing exquisite books. “These are not one-of-a-kind book objects,” he says. “That’s not our program. This is not ‘book as art.’ It’s more ‘the art of the book.’” Botnick is equally concerned with what goes into the books made there, with fusing form and content. “I want people to understand the principles of binding and printing and to experiment and find beautiful forms, but that’s not the end,” he argues. “We teach the book as a tool for structuring thought. One of the things that distinguishes our students is their ability to write, to develop concept and a narrative that follows a logical, ordered sequence over the course of a book-length document. We are a program driven by content.”

“Illusory Motion” is a chapter opening from the book SEE: A Study in Visual Perception, a collaborative book done in Professor Ken Botnick’s Publication Design class in fall 2006. The design is by Deborah Slutsky, B.F.A. ’07.

That content, of course, varies widely, given the multitude of disciplines represented among the studio’s students. Painters, photographers, and graphic designers find expression for their art. “We have painters working here,” Botnick observes, “who suddenly find an avenue for combining words and images that they’ve been working on in their paintings, and they see that the sequential format of the book is perfectly suited to their work.”

Before printmaker Amy Thompson completed an M.F.A. in May, she worked as a teaching assistant in the book arts studio for two semesters. Thompson’s work dissolves its own boundaries. As an undergraduate at Willamette University, she double majored in studio art and biology and often used botanical imagery in her art. Her current work incorporates mathematics. “My brain works both analytically and artistically,” she explains, “and being able to use them both works well for me.” A graphic designer for six years before entering graduate school, she also values the connections the studio makes possible between fine arts and graphic design. “The book arts do a really great job of bridging the design side to the fine arts side,” she says. Thompson will continue her association with the book studio by teaching Introduction to Bookbinding in the 2007–2008 school year.

A different kind of content comes from undergraduates and graduate students in Arts & Sciences’ Writing Program, who publish their work in books they create in the studio. Indeed, the impetus for developing the studio in 1997 came in part from the strength of writers and writing in Arts & Sciences, as well as Olin Library’s Special Collections with its renowned collection of artists’ books.

For the Visual Communications course senior projects, Mary Rosamond, B.F.A. ’07, created books on jazz singers. Rosamond also is the creator of Concrete Poetry (right), which was a 2006–2007 “Nancy Award” winner. Each year, the book studio awards the best undergraduate and graduate projects with Nancy awards, paying tribute to Nancy Kranzberg, who along with her husband, Ken, made the studio possible.

“Librarians seldom get a chance to influence curriculum. We delight in the decade-long success of the studio and the creativity of the students who flock to it,” says Shirley Baker, vice chancellor for scholarly resources and dean of libraries. “The studio reflects the spirit of the Kranzbergs—generous, fun-loving, supporting collaborative ventures.”

Architecture students, too, use the book studio to study and apply theories about structures and landscapes. In an innovative course collaboration called Urban Books, Harper, Assistant Professor of Architecture Zeuler Lima, and their students study urban theory, apply it to St. Louis, and produce books about the city. The course draws students from both architecture and art.

In another imaginative collaboration, Harper and Assistant Professor of Architecture Jane Wolff designed a one-credit workshop and symposium around a unique collection of artists’ books about landscape titled Arcadia Id Est. Working with Ann Posega in Olin Library’s Special Collections, they brought Arcadia Id Est to the University as part of a national tour. Ten students from Arts & Sciences and the colleges of Art and Architecture studied the collection and then visited three sites representing different aspects of Arcadia with its utopian connotations.

“The students took photographs, made drawings and diagrams, collected materials at each of these sites,” Harper explains. “Then we spent the next full day in the studio compiling all that information into a collaborative book. It was a fantastic, invigorating experience.”

The focus on content brings an additional emphasis on responsibility. “It’s a marvelous thing to have a printing press in your hands,” Botnick acknowledges, “and to know that you have the means of production. When you print, you enter into a tradition of not only craft and technique but of spirit. I talk with students about their responsibility for what they are publishing, about behaving very early on as a publisher sending things out into the world.”

In the 10 years since its founding, the studio has experienced substantial growth. There is now a book arts minor. The course offerings have expanded, the number of students involved has grown, and the cross-disciplinary initiatives have multiplied.

In the studio, students receive hands-on training with a variety of materials, including the wooden type of letterpress printing.

One of the most fascinating of these initiatives brings the book arts together with cognitive science. This seemingly unlikely marriage explores how the brain’s wiring determines perception and the implications for effective design. Botnick, for instance, has been studying why some typefaces have more utility than others. “I’ve been working on understanding preferences in type, and how designers’ expectations of what makes good typography do not always jibe with what users experience,” he explains. “The goal is to develop a whole course of study in cognition and its impact on design.” A proposed master’s program in design would include a cognitive science component.

Meanwhile, five of his senior students found his enthusiasm so contagious that they embarked on their own project. Working with Carolyn DuFault, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology, they identified five topics, from the illusion of motion to the detection of edges to equiluminant color, and set about researching how the brain registers and interprets these design elements. Each student wrote a chapter and designed complex graphics to illustrate his or her findings. The group then printed and bound their work, producing a striking volume titled See: A Study of Visual Perception.

Botnick is fascinated as well with how craft stimulates the brain. “The beauty of craft,” he asserts, “is that when you have your hands on the materials and you’re assembling and shaping and doing repeated movements and are totally engaged in the craft experience, your brain is about as fertile as it can possibly be.”

In the studio, students get their hands on a variety of materials—the ingredients of paper, the threads and boards of bindings, the wooden and metal type of letterpress printing, and, in letterpress’s more up-to-date technology, the polymer plate, with which a designer can create content in a computer and transfer it to a plate for letterpress printing. The book studio offers all this equipment for students’ use.

Student work is on display each spring during an open house at the Kranzberg Studio for the Illustrated Book.

Not surprisingly, the studio has assumed a role in campus publishing. Working with the American Culture Studies Program, it has produced three books of faculty writings, and now Botnick co-chairs a University-wide committee exploring the development of a Washington University Press. “The advent of the book studio has raised the profile of book publishing to a pretty high degree,” Botnick observes. “Publishing is such an important component of research. It’s the marketplace of ideas. So for a university of this caliber to have a stake in the publishing practice I think is very important, not because the faculty need it—they all have places to publish their work—but it is a way for the University to identify some of its strengths and interests.”

Meanwhile, the studio will continue to meld disparate elements. On the one hand, Botnick says, the studio teaches “a craft practice with materials and technique that help stimulate and shape design ideas.” On the other hand, it teaches “a discipline of shaping content. Ultimately,” he concludes, “I want to develop students who are hybrid performers.”

Harper believes that this hybridizing activity explains much of the studio’s popularity. “It’s a place where multiple disciplines can come together for a shared goal,” she observes. “The architects, the photographers, the writers converge in this one space, and that’s pretty exciting for the students.”

Betsy Rogers is a free-lance writer based in Belleville, Illinois.