This is a featured article from  Pauline and Paul of the New York City Museum-a-thon, a couple transplanted to New York from the West Coast who have made it their goal to visit ALL 180 museums of New York City (and  blog about it).  

Imagine an enigmatic 126-year old society in New York with an arcane name, peculiar interests, and membership by invitation only. According to rumors, many of New York’s wealthiest and most influential are counted among its members, including the Mayor and Chief of Police. Sound like a conspiracy in the Da Vinci Code? It’s called the Grolier Club, and entrance to the society’s stately Upper East Side townhouse is restricted (of course), but the general public is allowed into its lower floors for four exhibits per year.

The Grolier Club was founded January of 1884, as a society of bibliophiles devoted to the “book arts.” The founders were an odd mix of printers, bookbinders, printing press manufacturers, editors and collectors of fine books, concerned that the age old arts of printing and typography were in a rapid decline, brought about by “mechanized presses, machine-made papers, and a general slackening of standards” (from Hard Times at the Grolier Club, by Eric Holzenburg). To quote from the Grolier Club’s constitution, the object of the club is “to foster the study, collecting, and appreciation of books and works on paper, their art, history, production, and commerce.” To this end, the society publishes and maintains a large private library of books about books (e.g. book making and book collecting), and generally promotes education and appreciation of the book arts.

The club is named after Jean Grolier de Servières, Treasurer General of France in the 1500’s, and one of the great book collectors of all time. Grolier’s library contained the great literary works of the time, but it was more than just a good read; Grolier prized books for their physical beauty. He designed printings just for him and his friends using the finest paper, painted compartments, gilded covers and initials in lavish colors, and he is apparently legendary (in bookish circles) for using the highest quality of bindings and requiring the widest of margins (a status symbol in bookbinding). He was such a well known book connoisseur that many of the best printers and binders of the era (Garuffi, Étienne Niger and Budé) dedicated printings to him, and books from his library are considered some of the finest examples of the book arts to this day.

As you can imagine, the exhibitions the Grolier Club puts on are somewhat specialized. Themes have included modern fine presses (“K. K. Merker: Serving the Muse / Stone Wall Press and Windhover Press”), printing techniques (“One Text, Two Results: Printing on Paper and Vellum”), outstanding private libraries (“The Book Room: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Library in Abiquiu”), and book binding (“The Art of Victorian Bookbindings”). Today’s exhibition “Bound For Success” presented the top 117 bookbindings from the 2009 International Bookbinding Competition, organized by Designer Bookbinders (one of the foremost societies in the world devoted to the craft of bookbinding) and the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.

The contest was simple (if you’re a bookbinder). Each contestant was given the same book to bind in his or her own fashion. For 2009, that book was “Water,” an anthology of poems in several languages on the title subject. The top 25 best bindings were awarded a sterling silver bone folder (a bookbinders tool for folding paper- yes, I had to look up what a “bone folder” was), with modest cash awards going to the top two bindings. As should be obvious by now, Paul and I are great fans of books, but until now we had given no thought to the “book arts.” I must confess that after seeing these masterpieces, our shelves of paperbacks look quite shabby indeed.

The craftsmanship and creativity was amazing. Books were made from all kinds of materials, from the traditional leathers and fabrics, to plastic, metal, wood and glass. First prize went to Alain Taral of France, who created a book from wood veneers overlapping in delicate waves to look like water. Second prize went to Jenni Grey (UK) who constructed covers out of embroidered fabric, etched acrylic and silver wire draped to create water-like shadowing (see images of both prizewinners below). One of my favorites was white ceramic with a rubber stopper (like a sink), another overlapped layers of leather to create the look of parched earth on the front, and fertile watered earth on the back (see image above). Paul’s favorite was shaped from a crystalline material to look like a splash. He declared that he would have made his book waterproof, encased in neoprene with a diver’s mask on the front. We were all set to enter this year’s contest, if we just knew something about bookbinding.

addition to the larger shows, the Grolier Club mounts a number of smaller scale exhibits featuring the collections of Grolier Club members. At the discretion of the collector these shows are occasionally opened to the public. We were lucky enough to be allowed up the 2nd floor to see one of these, laid out in a library room with perfect conspiracy theory décor: wood paneling, dark antiques, red oriental carpet (to disguise the bloodstains) and a fireplace (to throw incriminating evidence into).

exhibit was called “Beyond the Text: Artists’ Books from the Collection of Robert J. Ruben,” and contained over 60 pop-up books, if the definition of pop-up books is expanded to all types of 3-dimensional book. How many types of 3-D books are there, you ask? Well, in addition to the “traditional” pop-up, there are accordion books, foldout books, box books, scrolls, tunnel books, and some things that are just kind of sculptures with words on them. We saw them all. There was an addition of the book “Flatland” describing life in a 2-D world, that unfolded as you read it into a 2-D surface, with the characters (lines, circles and polygons) depicted as cutouts between the lines of text. Interestingly, while we often link pop-up books with children’s books, most were on serious subjects, such as Tatana Kellner’s “71125: Fifty Years of Silence” devoted to her mother’s experiences in a concentration camp. Inside a plain pine box was a life-like cast of a forearm with the inked tattoo of her concentration camp number. The arm was embedded in the text and turning the pages revealed more and more of the story, and more and more of forearm and hand.

In Summary:
Paul and I both enjoyed this museum. The exhibits are perhaps a little simple and not terribly well explained but I’ll never look at a book quite the same way again, now that I know that they are capable of being such lovely works of art. And just try to leave here without fantasizing about being a member of one of New York’s ancient secret societies, imagining what rich and fabulous book collectors talk about with the Mayor at their invitation-only tea parties in the private rooms on the 5th floor.

Pauline: 8 out of 10 for a unique take on an old subject (books), interesting art and mysterious old-school NY location.
Paul: 8 out of 10. The best ultra-exclusive club run by the elite of New York that I’ve ever been too.

This article originally appeared on Paul and Pauline’s  New York City Museum-a-thon blog.  For the Untapped adventure with the Museum-a-Thon, check out our visit to the Harlem Studio and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  

Images in this post, from the top: the Grolier Club’s lower gallery; prize winners from the International Bookbinders Competition, listed from the top with their ranking, #6 Edgard Claes, #11 Eduardo Gimenez, #15 Jana Kaden, #13 Per-Anders Hubner, #22 Mary Norwood, #16 George Kirkpatrick, #1 Alain Taral, #2 Jenni Grey, #12 Killi Grunback, #27 Christine Sieber; two pop-up books from the “Beyond the Texts” exhibit, including Tatana Kellner’s “71125: Fifty Years of Silence”; and lastly, prize winner from the International Bookbinders Competition #23, Andrea Odametey.