The Northwoods is full of experts and artists you might not expect to find in a rural area. If you drive along the right road in Arbor Vitae, you might find yourself in a fine book bindery called Atelier.
Florian Bieschke’s workshop, like book binding itself, is a collection of small and precise details.
“This is the bindery, as small as it is," he says. "We heat it by just getting more people in – five or six people and we can turn the heaters off!”
The room is already crowded, though not cluttered, with brushes, rulers, antique leatherworking tools, and several bulky pieces of 19th century machinery. The pale green walls are neatly hung with framed prints made by Bieschke himself. Ballpoint pens aren’t allowed here, but glue made out of animal hide is right at home.
The name of the bindery, Atelier, is French for workshop. On the day of my visit Bieschke is working with a college student from Appleton. Alison Peregrine is spending a week learning the basics of how to design, sew, cut and bind a simple book.
“I’m basically just making two blank books," Peregrine explains. "And it’s the entire process from folding the paper, setting up the sewing frame, picking out the materials for the covers. Gluing, shaping the spine – all that kind of stuff."
Right now she and Bieschke are readying themselves to make the cover, using a blue marbled paper and another made with pale silk. The process seems akin to preparing for minor surgery. It even involves a scalpel.
“So now with paste on this we’re able to lay this down like that," Bieschke is saying.
I’ve never been in a book bindery before, and I’m amazed by the time they take for careful measurements, weighting down the paper before marking it lightly with a pencil. I ask Bieschke what he likes about the book making process.
“Like about it? When they’re done!" He jokes. "No, actually I like every minute of it."
Folding the pages one by one, scraping leather for hours until it’s thin and delicate enough for a cover.
“Every time that you get to do something that you’ve done before, you get a chance to do it better." Bieschke says. "And usually it is better."
Are people surprised that it takes a whole week to make a book, I ask.
"I don't think so. It' probably a bottom line thinker that would think that way," Bieschke says. "This is a 15th century hand skill in a digital age. It's not going to go very fast.”
Bieshke started his artistic career working as a fine art printer using hand presses to print wood cuts and lithographs. While there he got hooked on book binding and later opened his own studio in Bloomington, Indiana. And he looks at a handmade book the same way he would a piece of fine art.
But it hasn't been easy transplanting his craft to the Northwoods, where fine art of book binding isn't in especially high demand. He’s given out hundreds of business cards and flyers for classes, but only a handful of students have materialized. But he does keep busy with restoration projects. Though he was recently asked to repair a beloved Betty Crocker cookbook, the projects are mostly of the rare and valuable kind.
“This is Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island from 1904," Bieschke says, unwrapping a case that's designed to look like a treasure chest.
"The book was initially covered in black goatskin. Then the planks are individual pieces of calfskin – and inked. For the woodgrain. The original cover illustration that used to sit on the outside of the book is now saved as a board paper on the inside.”
Bieshke says each restoration challenges him to understand the unique approach that another book binder took, decades or centuries earlier.
"You’re following someone’s footprints, and you’re not wearing shoes," Bieschke smiles. "You’re in contact with that person through their work. And you have to honor their work by doing just as good.”
Whether it's salvaging crumbling illustrations of Treasure Island or hand sewing new pages together, each book keeps centuries-old craftsmanship alive and into the present.