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Art of the Book, Vol. 1

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

Jacek Tylkowski - Bookbinder


Jacek Tylkowski has been running his family business, Introligatornia Tylkowski, for over 30 years just outside of Poznan, Poland. Many of you will recognize his bookbinding prowess from the number of Suntup Edition Lettered productions he has been tasked with including Blood Meridian, The Handmaid's Tale, The Silence of the Lambs, Hex, The Godfather, The Outsiders as well as the recently announced Legion and Amityville Horror. If Paul Suntup's high level of trust and confidence in him was not enough, it only takes a couple minutes browsing Jacek's work to see that he is a master artisan who has honed his craft and defined his style over the years. He has lived and breathed bookbinding for decades and we are honored to have him kick off our new Art of the Book series that will highlight the many contributors that make small and fine press books truly special.


Q: You are part of a multi-generation bookbinding business started by your father in 1980. Tell us a little bit about how your father started as a bookbinder and how your transition into the business evolved. What kind of training did you go through? How have you continued what your father started and in what ways are you trying to expand on this legacy?

Blood Meridian Lettered from Suntup Editions

Well, it was definitely harder for my father, as he was born during World War II, and then practically all his life he had to work and live in a country behind the Iron Curtain. It was a different reality. He worked in an industrial bindery for almost 20 years. He worked hard and I usually only saw him on weekends. When the opportunity to start a bindery under his own name arose, he took advantage of it. It was 1980 and he started in a difficult period. Preparations for huge protests organized by the SOLIDARITY trade union were already underway in Poland. The whole next decade was very unstable, and when the processes of change started in earnest after the communists lost power, my father suddenly fell ill with cancer and died in 1991.


From the very beginning, my mother also participated in the project, and after school, instead of going home, I often visited my parents. I did not plan a professional career as a bookbinder, nor did my father put any pressure on me, although I heard him say that he still hoped that one of his sons would become interested in this craft (my older brother chose a different profession).


I found that I liked working with books very quickly, already as a teenager. So, I chose a high school with a bookbinding profile, and for three years I continued to grow my bookbinding skills in a reputable bookbindery in Poznan.


I was 23 when my father died. Since 1991, I have been responsible for the Tylkowski Bindery and I try to do it as best as I can.


For the next decade, I performed traditional bookbinding services, receiving mainly orders from state administration offices and law firms. Individual customers were in the minority. The transition from a centrally planned economy to free market rules brings certain turbulences, and the experience of running a small family business was never dull, but again difficult at times.

Upper Left: In front of Jan Sobota's House in Loket - Upper Right: Atmospheric Streets in Loket, Czech Republic

I survived these changes and managed to adapt to the changing economic rules in my country, amidst new emerging opportunities and threats, and then I made one of the best professional decisions in my life so far.


Maintaining the family business was a priority for me and I worked hard at guaranteeing a future for it, although I had little job satisfaction and felt as if my skills were stagnating. I no longer had the same level of joy in my profession like I had at the beginning and more and more often I was looking for the right stimulus that would restore what I once had.


This is how I ended up at Studio Sobota, in the charming small town of Loket, in the neighboring Czech Republic. For the next few years, I went to Jan Sobota (Czech master of artistic bookbinding) for training in techniques that were unknown to me. I have very emotional memories of those times. Jan quickly drew me into the fold of the Association of Czech Bookbinders, invited me to further training sessions with the equally famous Belgian bookbinder Edgard Claes and made me rediscover this craft.


Q: What an amazing thing that you found a mentor and kindred spirit to push and encourage you on. Walk us through a typical day (if such a thing exists) at Tylkowski Introligatornia and what it looks like for you. Do you like to work on multiple projects in a given day or stay more focused on a specific project and how do you prioritize your time? What do you like to do outside of your craft?

It happens that I tend to work on several projects simultaneously, but I definitely prefer to focus on one order and finish it. Bookbinding has its own specificity and haste is never recommended. There is also rarely monotony, because the work is diverse, but my satisfaction often depends on the results achieved. When unexpected problems arise, I try to find solutions, and this has an impact on whether I consider my day at work successful or whether I leave the studio disappointed.


In my spare time, I usually deal with… bookbinding. It's a little crazy, I know, but there's nothing I can do about it. I have a lot of different industry publications that I constantly look at. Our dogs mobilize us (my wife and me) for daily, longer walks. We live in the vicinity of the National Park, so we are happy to use every opportunity to spend a moment in the forest. Contact with nature is beneficial for me and during such walks, I recharge my batteries.


Q: If you decide to do more of your occupation with your free time, then it sounds like you probably picked the right profession! You have done some incredible rebinds over the last decade and have been recognized for a handful of them (one example would be Ubik by Phillip K. Dick), what are a couple of the individually commissioned rebinds you are most proud of and why?

Rebind of Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Yes, Ubik is definitely my best achievement from the bindings that I sent to various competitions. I am happy with every, even the smallest success, but I admit that there were not too many of them. However, this has never stopped me from participating in such events. It is always associated with a certain dose of positive emotions and it is always a fascinating adventure. In addition to Philip K. Dick's book, I would also highlight Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano and William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Of course, there were more of them, but I rate these three titles a little higher than the others. Why? I made them in the technique that Jan Sobota taught me and I often think that if it wasn't for him, everything would have turned out completely differently for me.


Q: Suntup Editions has become a repeat collaborator of yours and I think I can be fairly confident saying you are one of their most respected binders to be given charge of so many lettered editions. How did you first get connected with Paul Suntup and how has that relationship evolved? What have been some of your favorite projects with them?


Suntup Editions is another twist in my bookbinding career and another fascinating adventure. But I have to say that it was Paul's determination that made me bind books for his clients. Perhaps you will find it strange, but I still have in my archive the content of an email from him from 2018 with a proposal for cooperation. At the time I refused. My negative answer was mainly due to my fear of not being able to cope. I often say in my mind that if I don't try something, I won't know. Unfortunately, in that situation, the fears were greater than the desire to discover something new.


Fortunately, Paul repeated the offer of cooperation two years later. This time I nipped my fears in the bud and decided to take up the challenge. I don't remember how long I worked on the project, but in the end, I was really happy with the result. All I had to do was pack and send the book to the other end of the world, and then wait for a comment. It was Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. As you can guess, Paul appreciated my effort and execution, and the aftermath of that event is now this interview.


My favorite projects for Suntup Editions? Definitely Blood Meridian, but it's easy to explain. It's the beginning of something new, a new adventure and everything that comes with it. And no matter how long it takes, the lasting mark will remain forever.


Q: Well my favorite is Blood Meridian as well, but each new one has been exciting to see and I hope Paul uses you even more! As your career has grown and the breadth of your work expanded, how do you go about choosing your future projects? Are you having to be more selective with what you are taking on and how do you make these determinations?


Cooperation with Suntup Editions has changed a lot in the implementation of other projects. Honestly, I had to make the difficult, but necessary, decision to stop taking orders from other customers. More precisely, to significantly reduce them. Bookbinding is generally a slow craft; individual production processes must take a certain amount of time and it is impossible to change these rules without compromising quality. It just has to go on. My production capacity remained at the same level as before. I still do most of the work myself. My personal books suffer the most, the pile of titles waiting to be bound is growing and for now, it does not seem that this will change soon.

Lettered Suntup Editions: Silence of the Lambs, Amityville Horror, The Handmaids Tale, and Hex

Q: When you decide to accept a particular commission for a fine press or individual project, what are your first steps as you try to wrap your head around a piece of work and capture it? Do you try and isolate yourself with the written work or is it a more collaborative project with other individuals involved in the project and accomplishing a combined vision?


I'm looking for a golden mean. It's no secret that I like ascetic designs, but I'm always open to recommendations from clients. I pay attention to typography, illustrations (if the item is illustrated) and I look for summaries for titles I don't know. I do not always follow the principle that the design must be related to the content, although I know that this option has many supporters.


I am also happy to use the help of graphic designers if my project idea requires it. Transferring the vision of the binding from the head to the computer screen or a sheet of paper helps a lot to decide whether the final effect will be in line with my expectations or whether I should look for other solutions.


Q: You seem to be consistently pushing yourself to try new things, whether it be creating interesting forms of bradel binding, using heated pigment foils in interesting ways or other techniques that give a unique feel to each individual project. Where do you look for new ideas and what are some of the ways you strive to keep your work fresh and original without resorting to novelty for the sake of novelty?

Commissioned Rebind - Niki by Tibor Dery

Often it is a coincidence, testing different things I unexpectedly discover something completely new. The failure of the airbrush made me think about how to decorate the edge of the book in a different way, achieving a similar effect. Necessity is the mother of invention. That's how I discovered that the heated silicone roller and colored pigment foils bring interesting results. Currently, I also successfully use the technique to decorate/dye leather.


I remember Jan's answer to the question I asked, where does he get his ideas for his bindings from? "Just look around,” he replied…and he was right. He always carried a notebook and a pen with him because he said that the best ideas came to him when he least expected it. He jotted down these thoughts quickly so as not to forget. Last year I made a binding design for the book NIKI by Tibor Dery, inspired by the entrance gate to the neighbor's property. Where did this idea come from, since the story is about the psychology of a dog, and its behavior towards a human? The story of NIKI is woven into the story of a young married couple in post-war, communist Hungary. I thought of the Iron Curtain and the hardships of everyday life associated with the societies that had to live in these conditions. The fascinating thing is that everyone sees it in their own way.


Q: That is a wonderful perspective, that inspiration is literally right in front of our eyes at all times. Who are some of your peers in the industry that you have a high level of respect for and why? Do you draw inspiration from other areas outside of bookbinding, if so, how do you try to incorporate this into your designs?

Roman Numeral Edition of The Exorcist by Suntup Editions

There are many such people and I could go on forever. I am happy that they share their work in various places on the Internet, so that we can all see and admire their artistry. It's important to this craft and everything that touches books. My greatest fears are related to my concern that one day we may completely disappear as a professional group and there will be no successors willing to deal with this beautiful profession. In many countries, there are no schools educating new generations of bookbinders, which is why it is so important to promote this profession. And Paul Suntup has a hand in that as well. Note that it offers cooperation to people from different parts of the globe, thus supporting their current activities.


As I mentioned, I find inspiration everywhere. Not just by looking at other people's work. Wanting to give my binding a certain look, I visit, for example, a DIY store. I find there are many interesting solutions, also useful in my industry. Observing the nature around us is a mine of ready-to-use ideas and countless colors and textures. I try to take full advantage.


Q: If you could choose one piece of literature to create an original binding for, in collaboration with a fine press, what would that be? Why would that be of interest to you specifically?


It's hard for me to answer this question unequivocally, but I think I would choose war literature. Books on war literature are often a very good description of the most difficult events and are a warning for the future, reminding what war is associated with. I closely follow what is happening in the neighboring country (Ukraine) and I cannot understand why people still do such things in the 21st century.

Lettered Prototype of Silence of the Lambs by Suntup Editions

Q: I hope that you get to do something in this genre at some point, I have no doubt it would be a moving and thoughtful design. What would you recommend to someone who wants to be a professional bookbinder themselves and what do you wish someone would have told you when you first started out? Where would you start and what would be the most essential techniques and tools that someone would need to begin?


If I could turn back time, I would certainly continue my education at an art school. The death of my father forced me to re-prioritize, but yes, now in hindsight I would choose this direction.


However, I can't complain, I took over a working family-owned craft bindery with a whole package of clients and already stocked with basic equipment. This is very important because beginnings are the hardest in any industry.


I recommend my students be patient and make sure that they put quality first. We are human and we make mistakes, but it is important to learn from each failure and not dwell on it for long. Everything else is in our hands and head. Each binder should start by answering the question of which aesthetic fits them best. This choice will determine their needs and allow them to make sensible investments in the right tools from the beginning.

Collection of Various Commissioned Rebinds

Q: If you could describe your personal bookbinding aesthetic in a simple phrase, what would that be?


“I like simple, minimalist designs and I believe that less is better. I focus on details that are often invisible in the foreground. I try to combine traditional craftsmanship with a contemporary approach to design.” This is a quote from my website description that best describes my aesthetic. Always up to date. The binding can also be a compromise of two different visions. Mine and the client's vision.


Q: We know you are working on the Lettered editions of Hex and The Godfather right now for Suntup Editions, but is there anything else exciting on the horizon? Are there any personal or commissioned projects you can talk about in their earlier stages?


You know the rules of this game and I would prefer it to be from Paul who will announce what title will be announced in the near future. Work on Hex has been completed and all copies will be sent to customers soon. The rest of the year promises to be a time of intensive work and it is no longer a secret which titles will be realized with my participation. The Outsiders, The Godfather, Legion and The Amityville Horror are all lined up, the former being on my table for a few weeks in production.


I will be able to complete a few smaller orders this year, but I have to make sure that Suntup Editions customers receive their books in accordance with the announced schedule.


Commissioned Rebind - Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I will humbly accept everything that will happen to me in the future. Thank you very much Zach for this interview.


This interview was done in a series of communications back and forth and we want to give our deepest thanks to Jacek for his willingness to start off this new series. If you want to keep up to date with what Jacek is currently working on you can check out his website or follow him on Instagram to stay on top of his latest binding work for Suntup and other individual customers.


Interview by: Zach Harney a contributor to the Collectible Book Vault

Photos by: Jacek Tylkowski


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229 Comments


Late to the game for the giveaway but this was an awesome read. Thanks to everyone who contributed.

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Zach Harney
Zach Harney
Jul 21, 2023

Thank you so much for everyone entering the giveaway, there was an even better response than we thought and I know Jacek enjoyed reading all your wonderful comments!


The lucky winner of the giveaway is: Robert Glodowski


Please reach out to me to coordinate with information for the enclosure and shipping. Our next giveaway is really amazing and you won't want to miss it courtesy of Marko at Amaranthine Books!

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Jacek Tylkowski
Jacek Tylkowski
Jul 21, 2023
Replying to

Thank you very much, Zach, for inviting me to the interview project. Thank you so much to everyone who stopped by to read this interview. I read all the comments and replied to many. Thank you very much for all the kind words.

Congratulations to the lucky winner and I promise that I will try to do something special!

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Amazing work! It would be an honor to own one of his works!

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A true artist. I'd love to win a case for a treasured book!

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Gary Phillips
Gary Phillips
Jul 21, 2023

I feel very elated that I own some of his creations.

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