Malene, of Co'libri Hand Bookbindery
I met Malene Lerager deep in the pedestrian center of Copenhagen. She was sipping on a coffee and chatting with a friend, seated on a chair outside of her basement level studio. I could see through the doorway just enough in to be intrigued—there were work tables and heavy machinery, every space piled with hundreds of beautiful hardcover books. I was hesitant to interrupt and enter the space, but when I asked if I could, she welcomed me into her studio and we got into conversation about her chosen craft.
Malene is a high-end bookbinder who works by hand. Her process is lengthy and requires immense attention to detail, as she focuses on revealing the essence of each text using only color, material, and texture. We all know we judge books by their covers, but in this case, it's good for business.
When I returned to Malene's studio later in the week for our interview, she was playing metal music in the background, buried deep in centuries-old technique. When she found out I hadn't listened to any Danish music yet, she changed the soundtrack to local group Bon Homme, to give me a taste of contemporary sounds. We shared coffee and she let me observe as she went through some of the many tasks that fill her day, embossing a book in gold leaf and adhering bindings to the inner pages of a series of volumes.
She was warm, thoughtful, and excited to talk about her handcraft. She believes talking to those who don't know much about what she does, helps her to think a bit differently about her craft. And considering her gift is bringing the old techniques of handcraft bookbinding into the present, putting her own spin on things, I would say she's right.
How did you discover the art of bookbinding?
I wanted to go to the graphic design school here in Copenhagen and make my own portfolio, so I took a course in bookbinding. It made so much more sense to me than sitting by a computer, so I just continued learning bookbinding while taking my tests for entering the School of Graphic Design.
Then in the end I didn’t get into school, which I was ok with because I thought I couldn’t have said ‘no’ to them anyway. It’s really hard to get into that school. So I chose something that was
even harder to get a place in, because for bookbinding you have to go to school, but get an apprenticeship as well. And that’s hard to find because there are not many of us doing this anymore. But then, I was really lucky.
So it was like fate, almost?
Yeah, but I think things like personality as well helped. I walked by this storefront a lot of times because I wanted to be an apprentice at this place — at Ole Olson, who had it before me. So I just kept coming by and saying “hi” and asking what he did, and in the end he was like “Yeah, ok, come on.”
That was actually my second question! About Ole.
Yeah, Ole Olson. He was the one. The cool thing about the apprenticeship I did here, is that it was just him, 73-years-old and then me. And we had a really good contact and humor.
And because it was just us, I had to go through all of the steps in this process. It wasn’t just doing one thing with the books, parting them or sewing them. I had to go through all of the steps, so when I finally got to take over from Old, I knew I could do all of the steps on my own.
You’ve been here running things for a while now. How do you make the business your own when you’ve inherited this institution?
It’s a heavy inheritance to lift, because he was really somebody — Ole. He had a name, started this company and a book club with it. And he had a lot of customers, regulars who kept coming back because they knew of his good work. But during my apprenticeship, these people get to know me, and most of them found out that I was doing the things as Ole did them, more or less.
And people really started to like the way I did things when I took over. What I have, which people really appreciate, is another way of matching and designing. Working with colors and materials a bit different than Ole, though the ground binding is much the same. So his workflow really made sense, and it’s really what I just took
over and copied and learned. And then just doing a little different colors, and putting things together another way. Doing my own papers, more graphic papers, working with a girl who does silk printing on cloth that I can bind with and all kinds of things like that. Just make them look more modern, more graphic, and people really responded very positively to that.
So it’s like a collaboration of sorts, because you’re taking something and playing with it and making it your own...
Yeah. I’ve just had a prize and what they explained was they thought I had a flare for combining a heavy traditional handcraft with some new ways, with new designs. So they thought it was a revitalization, of an old handcraft. It’s like coming alive. So that was a nice appreciation from people around me who notice my work.
Is there a particular part of the process you like doing the most?
What I really like is the variation in my work, because it takes so long to do a book. You have to go from taking the book apart and gathering it again, sewing it, gluing it, cutting it. All these steps—preparing and pairing leathers, doing gold printing. It makes it variated, my work. It’s never the same.
But I might have days, say if I do 50 books the same and they all have the same little invisible corners in leathers, and I might do 200 corners over two days, the same, the same the same, the same. And that can be tiring, of course, but I am still really fond of all the steps.
But besides that, the gold printing is the, in Danish you say, the “dot over the i.” I appreciate how it somehow completes the book, that otherwise would really have no identity.
Are there specific projects you’ve done lately in your career that you were most excited about?
Yeah, there have been projects or things I did during these five years that I’m more fond of, that were a bigger challenge somehow. But I really want to set time to do fine bindings — like real fine bindings. It’s not that they’re not fine, what I do in my daily work. But in my world, there are levels of fine bindings. And the normal leather bindings I do are just one level, and then there are different times of bindings I don’t have time and customers for because they take so much time and therefore are so expensive.
What I really want is to set time up to do these types of bindings again, the type that you do during exams. I have so many other ideas now how do them and decorate them, and that it’s sad to say that my best works are the one I did for my exam, but they are, book-wise.
Then I did a jewelry box for the Crown Princess Mary. And that was a big assignment, and took pretty long to make, and it was a challenge. It worked out well and it was like going to an exam again. There’s been things like that on the way that have been really challenging, which I’m really proud of.
For instance, I did document holders. It was for something that you honor here in Denmark, the year’s handcraft-man. Every year someone gets a medal for this. And then they have this present, in gift boxes, which I made ten of—each in all different papers and leather colors, with embossings. It turned out really beautiful and they were happy. And that was a different thing, because normally you work books, books, books and you suddenly do boxes, it can be a challenge.
But a nice one.
It’s really nice, yeah. It makes your little brain cells work in a different way.
What kind of places do you get inspiration from? Like art or the city?
It’s not something I’m really aware of. It’s not that I go somewhere and seek inspiration, because I spend most of my time working here.
So it is more or less from the book I’m standing with that I get the sudden inspiration to what kind of binding it is. But I guess everybody gets inspired from what you pass by, if you’re an open-minded person.
Of course I like to go to exhibitions, love to look at book covers and envelopes. How people do designs for daily things that you have in the grocery store, I always love to look at these as well. So it’s just everything that you walk by inspires me.