Fritz Wiese - Foreword 'Der Bucheinband - Historische und neuartige Einbände'

Jun 24, 2024Benjamin Elbel

I have often searched for ways to describe what we do as bookbinders in a broader sense, and I've had a few ideas, but I don't think I would have managed (or dared) to put it as broadly, boldly and elegantly as Fritz Wiese!  



This quote is taken out of M. Wiese's foreword to his last book 'Der Bucheinband - Historische and neuartige Einbände', published in 1981. Frank Mowery began its translation in the eighties, then passed it on to Peter Verheyen, who sent it to me recently during a conversation we were having about the origin of Edgard Claes's hinge binding. I was really impressed with this text, and because its message resonates so well with what we are trying to do with bookbinding out of the box, I decided to share it here.

I hope you like it, and if you do (or don't), please leave your thoughts in the comments box below, and share it with your friends, students, etc

Maybe next time someone asks you what you do for a living, you'll answer 'Oh, I serve the eternal youthful spirit'.

How about that for a mission statement?

Happy reading,



In my earlier years I visited the Fürstenbergische Library in Donaueschingen. I went into the building healthy and came out ill. Not that I got infected there, but as a bookbinder I became sick.

A half year earlier I had completed my Masters exam in bookbinding in Weimar and thought myself to be on the highest order of skill and knowledge. Now I had seen in the Library for the first time works of binders from the past: a palm leaf book, a accordion book, bindings in horn, in wood, portfolios, dos à dos bindings; bindings whose form, construction and decoration bore witness to an astoundingly rich bookbinding tradition of which I was completely unaware. I was amazed and in awe of the originality and beauty of these medieval bindings, and saddened by their loss.

It now seemed to me that contemporary bookbindings were over bred, too refined and boring. Even the gilding, these days considered more important than the binding itself, suddenly lost its significance in my eyes. And I had just seen but a few of these old masters' bindings in the Fürstenbergische Library. What other treasures remained hidden from me elsewhere? What I had seen surged through me and overwhelmed my imagination.

That being said, it was clear to me: it would be ridiculous to try to duplicate the works of the past. These bindings belonged to their age, to which I as a craftsman could not return, but I might try to reproduce one or two for study purposes.

From now on fantasies of new bindings flashed before my eyes, and I imagined ways of constructing them along with the possibilities of using their structure as a part of the design. I could envision how the different components of these new bindings would fit together, and what the various steps of the processes would be. Thanks to my professional knowledge, I was able to distinguish the feasible from the non-feasible, and once I perceived an imagined structure as feasible, I began to work. The majority of bindings that are depicted in the book were executed in the years between 1926 and 1939.

Later, while teaching at the master school for bookbinding in Munich, the models that I had bound and showed to the students were often copied. We will hear the names of these students again...

We call artists the bookbinders who can execute a design using decorative techniques, especially leather onlays and gold tooling. There is nothing wrong with that, but I want to divert the binder's eye to form and construction, since they can be an important design element, even in the aesthetic sense.

As a means of inspiration I suggest that one go and study the works of the old masters in libraries, but also the depiction of bindings in art. Religious figures are often depicted with contemporary bookbindings in their hands, and you can find those paintings in old churches and museums.

Then I suggest visits to ethnographic museums such as the Völkerkundemuseum in Munich, where you may find surprising examples of unusual books and book-like objects from around the world. Finally, there is an impressive amount of literature about old binding forms that is hard to obtain in shops, but can still be found in libraries.

I suppose one could ask, what is the purpose of depicting new binding forms whose appearance seems to be influenced by an older idea, which are not part of a natural historical development, and stand little chance of ever falling into the mainstream.

That is a legitimate argument, and I want to point out that I did not intend to publish these special bindings until 1978, when my publisher was planning a reissue of my book "der Bucheinband" and asked me to include and describe some of these new types of bindings. This proved to be difficult, so we decided to publish a separate volume dedicated to this subject. So much for the purpose of this book. 

Why would I go through so much work to write this book and create all these numerous illustrations? When I have learned and experienced something I feel compelled to share it with others, and this hasn't changed to this day. A bookbinder doesn't need to stick with the status quo but can explore new inspirations, other than those linked with his daily work, so he can develop further: that to me seems worth all the work. Every bookbinder who follows this suggestion can only benefit. It is never too late.

Should I have told a leather dealer, who came to me some fifty years ago with a piece of shoe sole leather to have it bound into a guest book, that it was not possible for this or that reason? I have never shirked from a job.

Every time I pondered about parchment and its stubborn resistance; whether I wouldn't rather fabricate the cover separate from the text block and join them later: should I have just not bothered with it? Of course not, for this is how the 'Scharnierband' was born, which can also be made with parchment covers. 

Or, when I held acrylic sheets for the first time, was it a mistake to immediately wonder about how a bookbinder might use this new material? There have already been some very beautiful and noteworthy bindings with acrylic covers.

I wish to encourage bookbinders, and especially the young ones, not to let fantasy and originality lie dormant, not to satisfy themselves with mindless repetitive work. Nowhere is it written that contemporary binding art must be content with a few styles of binding. In the study of the work of old masters, the bookbinder will walk on the path of history, where upon he will see so many interesting things, that it will be impossible that he stays unmoved. He will find much inspiration regarding form, construction, and decoration. Bookbinding, like everything else, must look forward. But nothing exists that didn't have a basis elsewhere. Ideas just don't fall out of the blue sky. 

For once the binder should forget routine, and seek to meet the spirit of a book by experimenting with new forms and decorative ideas. The binder serves with his art the cultural life, the eternal youthful spirit. It is just this that will keep him young and his work alive.

As a general statement the bookbinder knows too little about the history of bookbinding. His occupational training is often mostly directed towards daily needs. That is understandable, but this way he is only attending to the present, and for the most part doesn't have an idea of the great works that his ancestors in the past thousands of years have created. This is a shame. Whoever lives a life without history lives only half a life, even seen professionally.

The bookbinder who knows the history of his craft gains a more complete understanding of his profession. As a bookbinder he is more open minded, more inspired and that is not just technically, but also aesthetically. Therefore, it is urgently wished that the schools for training trade and master binders incorporate the history of bookbinding in their curriculum. The proper place for this training should be the school, not the workshop.

Whoever undertakes to recreate one of the bindings in this book is well advised to organise the sequence of work into steps and make notes and sketches about his observations during the work. Whoever believes he will not forget what he now sees is fooling himself. On the other hand, one cannot forget, and can easily retrieve what is written down. This method disciplines one to a more conscious and organised work procedure.


If my book is of some use in this light, I will not regret all the work I have spent in its creation. I dedicate this book especially to all the bookbinding youth.

Munich 1980
Fritz Wiese

Foreword to the book 'Der Bucheinband - Historische und neuartige Einbände' (historical and novel bookbindings)
English translation by Franklin Mowery, reviewed by Ben Elbel and Lori Sauer
Published here with the authorisation of the publisher, Schlütersche Verlag



About Fritz Wiese
Fritz Wiese (1900 - 1986) is one of the most important bookbinding professors and authors of the 20th Century. After completing his apprenticeship he worked as a finisher for Otto Dorfner in Weimar (photo above), before taking on a teaching position at the school for bookbinding masters in Munich.
Throughout his career he published numerous books, notably his most famous one 'Der Bucheinband: Eine Arbeitskunde mit Werkzeichnungen', which is the go-to book for bookbinding students and apprentices in the German speaking world. A little less known is his last opus, 'Der Bucheinband – Historische und neuartige Einbände', where he shares some of his research into the field of novel bookbinding construction, a book which has inspired developments by many other contemporary bookbinders, including Edgard Claes and his hinge binding.

Photo taken from 

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