Thornwillow Press is turning thirty and the publishing world is celebrating. An exhibition of Thornwillow books is currently on display at the Grolier Club, the grande dame of the publishing world that celebrated its own 130 years of the printed word last year.
At the Grolier Club, the printed word is treated on a par with painting and sculpture. Now, the crafts of letterpress printing, papermaking, illustration and bookbinding are all on display as Thornwillow exhibits its limited-edition books on the Second Floor Gallery.
“Thornwillow is a manifestation of a craft that joins the reader and the written word,” explains Thornwillow founder and president, Luke Pontifell. In 1985, Thornwillow was born at Pontifell’s childhood home. Here, as a 16-year-old printing enthusiast, he set type and sewed books on the family’s kitchen table.
Home for the Pontifell family was an 18th-century farmhouse named Thornwillow. The house was furnished with antiques made for beauty and functionality. Pontifell absorbed lessons about crafted objects meant to last.
After college, Pontifell followed craftsmen who had been making paper, engraving and bookbinding for generations. He sourced his paper in the Czech Republic, his engraving in Florida and his bookbinding in England. Pontifell explains, “Instead of following these craftsmen, I was determined to create a center for the crafts of paper arts under one roof.”
Pontifell found what he was looking for in the city of Newburgh, 55 miles up the Hudson River from his home in New York City. “My wife put a compass on the map marking places one hour from Manhattan,” he explains about the choice. He moved Thornwillow operations to a 19th-century coat factory in Newburgh. The brick factory stretches about two city blocks with rooms connected through underground tunnels.
At Thornwillow’s Newburgh premises, Pontifell has assembled 32 presses plus dye cutters, envelops folding machines and binding machines. “I collect presses the way some people collect cars,” he explains. Like each Thornwillow book, each machine at the Hudson River factory has its own story to tell. He points to the 1915 press that once belonged to Charles Scribner’s Sons, the publisher that published books by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Pontifell himself appears as if he stepped off the leafy streets of West Egg. He inspects Thornwillow’s facilities dressed in a bespoke three-piece suit worthy of the jaunty Jay Gatsby himself. And Thornwillow offers a rebind of Scribner’s 75th anniversary edition of The Great Gatsby in a resplendent half-leather, bound in blue Morocco and handmade, lattice paste paper.
The Newburgh location is a stone’s throw from Washington’s Revolutionary headquarters on the Hudson. This is a fitting location for the printing of Thornwillow’s presidential series, comprised of books about American presidents written by noted historians. These titles include W.W. Abbot’s In Search of George Washington, Harold Holzer’s Abraham Lincoln: Defender of Freedom and William vanden Heuvel’s Freedom From Fear: The Life and Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Thornwillow, located in a former coat factory, is just across the river from Dia:Beacon, the celebrated museum located in a former Nabisco box-printing facility. In Newburgh, Thornwillow’s neighbor is Atlas Industries, a high-end furniture maker that migrated up the Hudson from Brooklyn.
So when Thornwillow printed President Obama’s inaugural address using letterpress printing on handmade paper, Pontifell was in step with other craftspeople who have migrated from New York City up the Hudson to practice their crafts. Explains Pontifell, “In this age of disposable and intangible communications, we are seeing a flourishing of craftsmanship and the appreciate of beautifully-made objects that are designed to last.”
Reviving the crafts of the book goes hand-in-hand with reviving the fortunes of Newburgh itself. Once hailed by Look magazine as the all-American town, today, Newburgh’s fortunes are again on the rise. Pontifell enjoys cordial relations with the city’s residents where Thornwillow’s employees are often locals. Some work printing presses that look as if Benjamin Franklin might have apprenticed on them in Philadelphia. Others master techniques of papermaking and hand stitch leather books covers using techniques that might have been familiar in Gutenberg’s premises in 15th-century Europe.
Thornwillow’s limited-edition books are in the collections of the White House, the Vatican and the Smithsonian. In New York City and Washington, D.C., Thornwillow hand-bound books and sumptuous handmade paper products can be viewed and purchased at the the St. Regis Hotel. At the hotel’s Thornwillow Library Gallery, a Thornwillow “librarian” will explain the fine points of papermaking and letterpress printing.
Born in 1985, Thornwillow Press can be classified as a Millennial, born between the years of 1975 to 1995. Millennials grew up during the time almost every American home had an internet connection and a computer. Many publishers see the future of the book as tied to the computer. But Thornwillow is about the book as object and Pontifell’s devotion to paper, ink and leather.
Pontifell sees the future of Thornwillow and its books as bright, glorious and in sync with the technical changes in the world of publishing. Thornwillow produces a magnificent hand-crafted Moroccan goatskin iPad cover. Embossed on the spine, Pontifell has meticulously embossed in gold Liber Electronicus.
Over the past three decades, Thornwillow has made its mark as one of the world’s finest printers and publishers of limited-edition books. Asked about the 30th anniversary of Thornwillow Press, Pontifell smiles, and puts the celebration into personal terms. “Every day,” he says, “I get to celebrate the written word.”
Inside the Grolier Club
You can join Thornwillow and Pontifell in the celebration exhibition at the Grolier Club Second Floor Gallery through November 7th. To celebrate the exhibition, Thornwillow is sponsoring a Panel Talk at the Grolier Club Ground Floor Gallery, Between the Reader and the Written Word: A Case for Fine Printing in the Digital Age. Speakers will include Lorin Stein (editor of the Paris Review) and writer, essayist and commentator Adam Gopnik. A reception and exhibition viewing will follow in the Second Floor Gallery, Wednesday, October 14th at 5:30 PM.