Arion Press on Creating Limited-Edition Artist Books by Hand

Our “Bay Area Made: Small Batch & Made to Order” exhibit for San Francisco Design Week was hosted by Arion Press in their beautiful 2,000sf gallery at their facility in The Presidio. Showcasing the high quality and innovative work of 50 Bay Area Made member companies, the purpose was to educate and inspire the audience about the benefits of small-batch and made-to-order production, and the conscious choices the participating companies have made from concept to finished product that result in products that are better for the user, the community, and the planet. From the clothes we wear to the food we eat, to the products we use daily, what WE MAKE locally and HOW WE MAKE IT really does matter. In the excerpt below from the exhibit, Arion Press shares how they create limited-edition artist books by hand.

The Arion Press is one of the leading letterpress printers in America today. For over 40 years, Arion Press has married great literature with great artists to craft handmade limited-edition books that could be produced nowhere else in the country. In the past, some of our most successful publications were partnerships with Martin Puryear, Kiki Smith, and Kara Walker. Arion has published over 100 limited edition books, and our volumes reside in institutions across the globe from the Getty Center to the Library of Congress. Arion Press operates under the umbrella nonprofit The Grabhorn Institute, which was formed in 2000 to preserve two unique San Francisco businesses—Arion Press and M&H Type—with roots stretching back over a century.

Above: The Nose, a novella by Nikolai Gogol with English translation and commentary by Stanislav Shvabrin. With 16 artworks and a flipbook by William Kentridge.

The Makers and Their Production Spaces

A dedicated team of 6 bookmakers—including typecasters, bookbinders, and letterpress printers—craft Arion Press limited editions by hand at our historic facility in the Presidio. Arion books are produced in the most extensive fully integrated type foundry, letterpress workshop, and bookbindery remaining in the United States. The facility has been designated an “irreplaceable cultural treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation for its collection of letterpress printing equipment and the largest assembly of metal typefaces in the nation outside the Smithsonian.

Above: Sea of Cortez, non-fiction by John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts. With six wood engravings by Richard Wagener, a map illustration by Martin Machado, deluxe edition box by Jonathan Anzalone, and a note on the publishing history by Jeffrey Yang.

All Arion bookmakers go through a multi-year apprenticeship—the only paid apprenticeship program in letterpress printing, hand bookbinding, and typecasting in the country today. Our apprenticeship program has trained dozens of talented bookmakers over the past 20 years, and graduates have gone on to start museums, found their own independent presses, and teach advanced courses on letterpress printing and hand bookbinding. Through this multi-year education, passionate artisans develop the expertise to create some of the finest artist books in the country and carry on the knowledge of traditional bookmaking forward into the 21st century.

“Arion’s facility is one of the few places left in the country where the entire process of making a book by hand is practiced under one roof.”

Above: Works by John Baldessari and Kara Walker featured in Bibliography of The Arion Press: The First One Hundred Books. Foreword by Kevin Starr. Introduction by Glenn Todd. Prologue by Peter Kraus. Preface by Andrew Hoyem.

The Making Process

Arion’s facility is one of the few places left in the country where the entire process of making a book by hand is practiced under one roof. Here traditional bookmaking—from the casting of metal type through bookbinding by hand— is still practiced from start to finish using the technologies familiar to Gutenberg. Books begin in the foundry where lead ingots are melted to form the typeface for our editions, which are then used in the pressroom to print the pages for the book. These pages are then folded, collated, and stitched by hand in the Bindery to complete the binding for each volume. As stewards of two centuries of San Francisco printing history, Arion Press exists as a forum where these disappearing crafts are celebrated and preserved.

“Arion Press collaborates with leading authors and visual artists to create limited-edition artist books by hand.”

Above: The Lulu Plays, a play by Frank Wedekind. With 67 drawings by William Kentridge.

The Production Model

Arion Press collaborates with leading authors and visual artists to create limited-edition artist books by hand. We have a select group of subscribers who are committed to purchasing each new edition we produce. As printer publishers, we design and distribute each book ourselves via a subscription model along with direct sales to individuals, libraries, and institutions across the world. Our books are typically published in editions of 250 copies and are issued in several binding variants, often accompanied by an additional print or suite of prints. The press aims to print 3-4 books each year, and this small-batch production model is designed to give our staff of craftspeople the time to create one-of-a-kind, collectible books that are handmade from font to cover.

Above: South of Heaven, a novel by Jim Thompson. Introduction by Arnold Hano, with 44 duotone illustrations by Raymond Pettibon.

The Materials

Arion Press employs the full array of traditional materials and supplies used in making fine-press books. These materials include: the lead alloy used to cast type; polymer plates, oil- and soy-based inks, handmade papers for printing; book cloths and binder’s boards, leather, linen threads and tapes, muslin, gold and other metallic foils, along with synthetic and animal glue. While modern technologies have brought new materials and techniques into the process, the foundational structures and methods of bookmaking have remained constant over time. Arion Press honors this legacy every day by working with traditional materials.

Above: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, a novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Introduction by Todd Hosfelt, with artwork by Tim Hawkinson.

View the Arion Press profile.

Read more about the exhibit “Bay Area Made: Small Batch & Made to Order” here.

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