Greater than the sum of its parts

Detail of Magnolia Tree, showing an abstract tree made up of the title and coloured dots.Cover detail of Magnolia tree, by Brendan O’Brien (Wellington: Fernbank Studio, 2001) No. 7 of a limited edition of 33 copies. Made at the Rita Angus Cottage using collages of photographs from the cottage garden. Hand-set type and hand-sewn binding. Ref: RPrNZ FERN OBRI 2001. This work is currently on display as part of the Book Beautiful exhibition in the Turnbull Gallery.

In the late twentieth century book design began to be approached in a more holistic way. Bindings and typography became increasingly focused on the text as their raison d’être. Expressive and adventurous book designs appeared, conveying extra dimensions such as culture and place, and tying medium ever closer to content.

The artist’s book, in particular, is a late-twentieth century development in which the book itself has become a work of art realised in book form. Typically an artist’s book provides a strong interconnection between text, image, and medium of presentation.

The Alexander Turnbull Library’s Fine Printing Collection contains many interesting works by contemporary New Zealand printers, binders, and artists which demonstrate this integrated approach to book making.

Shape reflects content

A number of these special printed books announce their intention to go beyond traditional book form by, in the first instance, being an unusual shape. Moeraki boulders, designed and constructed by Elizabeth Steiner is a good example of this.

Double page spread of Moeraki boulders, showing two circular pages with curved writing on one.Interior pages of Moeraki boulders: the legend of the Moeraki boulders, designed & constructed by Elizabeth Steiner (Auckland, E. Steiner, 1993). Limited edition of 5 copies. Hand-written text. Papers patterned and handmade by Steiner. Each leaf comprises two different types of paper, binding stips contain watercolour washes. Ref: RPrNZ STEI STEI 1993.

The Moeraki boulders are unusually large, round boulders scattered on Koekohe Beach on the Otago coast between Moeraki and Hampden. In spite of the technical challenges of creating a round book, Steiner takes this dominant characteristic of her subject and makes it a central feature. In the text, Steiner takes this even further by setting the text in a curve which directly echoes the round form of the subject and the book.

Paua shell attached to the rest of the book by a beaded metal chain.Paua shell housing of Palliser, by John and Allison Brebner (Feilding: Homeprint, 2003). No. 4 of a limited edition of 12 copies. Ref: RPrNZ HOME BREB 2003. See the Brebners' website.

Palliser, by John and Allison Brebner, is a book presented in a paua shell. The text consists of concepts associated with the coastal area of Palliser Bay, such as “angler”, “seagull”, and “tide terns”. These are printed on a variety of papers, all cut in an oval form to fit inside the paua shell, with a loop of chain holding all the parts of the book together. Some of the leaves (single-sided pages) are handmade paper and a driftwood leaf is included (see image below). The whole work provides the reader with a very direct physical and visual connection with the central theme, Palliser Bay.

Wooden page, with 'Drift Wood' printed on the surface.Example leaves (single-sided pages) from Palliser, by John and Allison Brebner (Feilding: Homeprint, 2003). This work features a variety of papers: some handmade; some iridescent, some cut from photographs. Leaf 6 (above) printed on a section of drift wood from Palliser Bay.

Content reflected in the paper

Paper has always been a central consideration in the making of a book. In the past, the weight of the paper, colour, and the finishing of the edges would have been the main focus. With contemporary book making and artists’ books, paper is still very important, but the emphasis has generally shifted to specially-made handmade or thematic papers. Contemporary handmade papers give the book’s creator another opportunity to link book content to the medium.

Karakia mo te harakeke, a broadside printed by the Green Bay Press, is a prayer for the harvesting of the harakeke (flax). The text is in Maori and it is printed on handmade flax paper. The paper has a slightly rough feel and the flax fibres can be easily seen, especially when the sheet is held up to the light. Using flax paper has allowed the printer to present the work simply, but with depth, resonance, and sensuality.

Prayer printed on handmade flax paper, reading 'Karakia mo te harakeke/E te Atua/Nau enei rau harakeke he taonga/Tukuna ki a matou/Kia tika o matou mahi/Ko Ranginui-e-tu-iho-nei/Ko Papatuanuku e takoto nei/Tuturu Whakamaua/Kia tina, tina – Hui e/Taiki e.'.Karakia mo te harakeke (Green Bay Press, 1999). Ref: qRPrNZ GREEN Kara 1999.

Detail of handmade flax paper showing fibres.Close-up showing the texture and flax fibres in the paper of Karakia mo te harakeke (Green Bay Press, 1999).

The text of At the edge comprises words, phrases, and images relating to conservation, sustainability, and recycling. Not surprisingly this work is hand printed and hand bound. A variety of fonts convey through their uncoordinated style, the handmade and recycled ethos of this work. In addition, the collages in At the edge incorporate found objects and fragments of paper – recycling in action. And finally, the pages themselves are printed on that icon of the “reuse, recycle, reduce” age – the brown paper bag.

Title page of At the edge, signed and numbered by the creators.At the edge, Allison Brebner (Feilding: Homeprint, 2006). Limited edition of 20 copies. Hand-printed and hand-bound. Ref: qRPrNZ HOME BREB 2006.

Detail of the book's title page, showing the ragged edge of the paper bags used as pages.Close-up of pages showing fore-edges of original pinking from the paper bags used in At the edge, Allison Brebner (Feilding : Homeprint, 2006).

Beyond the book itself

The interpretative design goes beyond the book itself in Like a tree: poems, a collaborative project by Judith Haswell, John Mitchell, and Tara McLeod. In this work the poems, binding, and wrapping are by Judith Haswell, the recycled handmade paper, cover, and embossing by John Mitchell, and the handset type and images by printer, Tara McLeod. The wrapping, comprising yellow calico, features screen-printed autumn leaves on the inside. The book binding is in green card featuring a black and white mounted woodcut leaf motif illustration with a twig of Houhere (Lacebark) attached.

Bound book and its cloth wrapping, printed with leaves.Screen-printed wrap for Like a tree: poems, by Judith Haswell (Auckland: Pear Tree Press, 1993). No. 5 of a limited edition of 8 copies. The wrap is made of yellow linen cloth lined with calico. The book enclosed in the wrap features handmade and recycled paper, and handset type. Ref: fRPrNZ PEAR HASW 1993. See the Pear Tree Press's website.

Detail of the bound book, shows woodcut illustration and Houhere twig wound with green and gold thread.Book binding for Like a tree: poems, by Judith Haswell (Auckland: Pear Tree Press, 1993).

Terragraphics: printing with soil

Ekkeland Götze’s Ruaumoko is a particularly good example of the lengths to which book makers and artists will go in conveying the work’s content. The text comprises twelve Hone Tuwhare poems in Maori translated into English and German. The book itself has a binding of handwoven harakeke (flax) covers.

Handwoven flax cover.Handwoven harakeke (flax) covers made by Tina Wirihana in Rotorua for Ruaumoko, by Ekkeland Götze (Munich: Götze, 1998?). Limited edition of 17 signed copies. One terragraphic was printed on flax paper which was produced by Götze and Wirihana. The first copy of the book was returned to Te Arawa. Ref: fRPr GOTZ Ruam 1998. See Ekkeland Götze's website.

When the box containing this large work is opened, the light, summery scent of the dried flax binding is immediately noticeable, enhancing the beauty of the intricately plaited binding. Although the cover is special in its own right, what makes this work particularly interesting is that the interleaved pages were printed using terragraphics. In this process pure earth is printed on a variety of papers providing the work not only with graphic, textured images, but also a spiritual bond between the work and, in this case, Mount Tarawera and the geothermal area of Whakarewarewa, the source of the soil.

Detail of a terragraphic leaf inside the book. It has a mottled look.Detail of terragraphic leaf in Ruaumoko, by Ekkeland Götze (Munich: Götze, 1998?).

Contemporary handmade books and artists’ books are more than the sum of their parts. While many are understandably limited edition works or even unique, it is generally another characteristic which makes them special: the text is the key to the maker or artist treating the book itself as a medium of creative expression. The resulting visual, tactile, and aesthetic features explored and interpreted in relation to the text imbue the finished work with qualities seldom found in other books.

It is the layering of experience which these books provide which I find so attractive – their ability to draw one in, revealing detail gradually, raising a smile, or providing surprise. Handmade books and artist’s books demonstrate a deeply personalised and integrated approach to book making and reflect the integrity and intent of their makers. The end products of this creative process are certainly books, but also conspicuously much more.


The Fine Printing Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library has many examples of this genre. These books may be accessed using the National Library online catalogue and searching for keywords such as handmade, the genre term Artists' books, and subject headings such as Wooden bindings and Fine Books—New Zealand—Auckland—Specimens.


Every effort has been made to contact the copyright holders of the materials featured. If you are the copyright holder and have not been contacted, we would be very pleased to hear from you.

By Rose-Marie Tonk

Rose-Marie is the Collections Librarian at the Turnbull, and has a particular interest in artists' books and zines. At home she has a small but growing collection of paper-engineered books.

Post a Comment

(will not be published) * indicates required field
tarn June 2nd at 12:23PM

so inspiring. Kia kaha ki a koe. I hope my reo is placed correctly. Would love to see more. So many great aspects to the concept alone. Add to that the creativity, sustainability, uniqueness.