Luke Ives Pontifell of Thornwillow
Luke Ives Pontifell is the creative mind that nurtured a personal and familial appreciation for the written word and art to the multi-faceted press that Thornwillow is today. He is part press owner, historian, curator and artist rolled into one and has a passion not just for his own work, but the survival of the processes and machines that make it possible. Anchored in a complex of 19th-century brick factory buildings in the historic city of Newburgh, his vision and footprint has slowly been growing and striving to incorporate more of Thornwillow with the life of the city and surrounding area. Thornwillow is quickly approaching their 40-year anniversary and after you hear more about Luke's drive and personal passion behind the art of bookmaking, you will see why he has stood the test of time. We are truly thankful for his generosity of time and hope you all enjoy this in-depth look into the mind of the man who is at the heart and soul of this wonderful press.
Q: You come from a family of artisans and writers and grew up in a surrounding that bred a love for the historical and the character of physical things. With these early influences, you began publishing books already at the age of 16. What would you say were the biggest contributors to you devoting your life to this craft and was there a pivotal moment as a child where you knew you wanted to do this for the rest of your life?
I was born in New York City and grew up there and in Western Massachusetts. My father was a writer and creative director at an advertising agency. He was passionate about the theater and had an extensive reading library. He wasn’t a book collector per se, but our home was full of books, some very beautiful and interesting, some not. He had had a correspondence with the Irish writer Sean O’Casey and I remember when I was in high school taking a class in Irish drama and pulling an O’Casey book off the shelf and seeing that it was inscribed to my father by the author. This was one of those moments that made me think about books differently.
Books are objects, each one a unique object that will have its own journey traveling through time, through people’s lives, being touched, read, written in, passed on and living into the future. As objects, they are more than a means to perform a commodity function. Today, there are many ways to preserve and communicate ideas, many faster, more economical, and compact ways to disburse information that from a commodity standpoint, are certainly more efficient. But books, unlike these technological efficiencies, are touched by the people who interact with them and thus are changed themselves by those interactions and in turn take on their own individual qualities and have their own journeys. As objects they become a physical part of the relationship between the reader and the written word.
My mother is a sculptor and from my earliest memories I watched her make things out of wood, wool, ceramics, and all kinds of found objects from fossils to beads, and tin cans. She was always busy in her studio working on projects, making things with her hands. When I was little we would make toys. We made a whole mouse village consisting of buildings, gardens, furniture and stuffed felt mice. The whole family would get in on it. My grandfather, for example, would make things out of metal and he made an extensive collection of miniature copper furniture for the mouse village. My grandmother would sew the little mice. There was a king and queen mouse, a letter carrier mouse, a grandma mouse, and a printer mouse. So, from my earliest memories, craft was an integral part of life. It’s just what one did.
Together my parents restored an 18th-century farmhouse in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It is really like a museum. Many would find it uncomfortable and not set up for “the way we live now.” It is furnished with 18th and early 19th-century furniture. There are giant fireplaces that really work to keep the house warm even in the cold Berkshire winters. There is not a lot of technological innovation in the kitchen. This house was standing much as it is today long before us and will be there long after we are gone. I’m sure that the act of living with things and in a place that is rooted in history, and being taught to see oneself as a caretaker of these places and things, influenced my interest in becoming a maker of books, books that will be here long after we are gone and will be, in their way, caretakers of the ideas in them for readers yet unborn.
Q: Thornwillow took a roundabout path to get to where it is today. At one point, you were living in Prague and working with companies like Montblanc, Cartier and Ralph Lauren doing custom printing, when a corrupt manager caused a collapse of the company in that iteration. Seeing where you are now and the success and impact of Thornwillow, how do you reflect back on what must have been a very difficult time?
I started Thornwillow after taking a course in letterpress printing when I was 16 at The Center for Book Arts in New York. You can take basically the same course today. The first book was a children’s book written by a family friend for her grandchildren. I set the type and printed it at the CFBA, then sewed the pages on the kitchen table with help from my mother. It was a short, one signature book about the sun, moon and stars. I packed each volume up in glad sandwich bags and carried them to bookstores to see if they would sell them. At first, they all said no. But with persistence, I was able to persuade a bookstore in New York and two in Massachusetts to sell the books.
A family friend, the historian and World War II correspondent William L. Shirer, joked that I should print something of his. I said absolutely and next thing I realized he handed me an envelope with a manuscript recounting how the world changed in an instant after the dropping of the atomic bomb. It was the 40th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and he thought this monograph would be timely. This time, I had the type set in Monotype and rented access to a Vandercook at Michael McCurdy’s Penmaen Press in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Michael was extremely generous and supportive to let this young teenager work in his shop. After printing, I sewed the paper wrapper copies again on the kitchen table, but this time there were also a few hardcover copies that were bound by Peter Geraty with hand-marbled endpapers made by Iris Nevins. This time, when I took the finished books to stores, I got a better reception. At this point there were about 10 stores that took the books including Rizzoli’s in New York which, at the time, was my favorite bookstore, so I really felt I had “arrived”.
Their offices were in the old Scribner’s building on Fifth Avenue where they also ran the Scribner’s bookstore on the ground floor. I remember being brought by the head buyer on a tour of the Scribner offices, which had been abandoned at that point. The paneled rooms with glass dividers were all still there, but the furniture was long gone. The buyer, Cynthia Conigliaro, showed me one office and said “this was Max Perkin's office.” And down the hall she pointed, “and this was Charles Scribner’s.” I thought I had reached the Elysian Fields, walking in the rooms where so much great literature was born.
At this point, Thornwillow was off and running. Every year during college I made one book. I concentrated in History and Literature at Harvard and spent much of my time at Houghton Library, the rare book library. I studied with Roger Stoddard, Rodney Dennis, Eleanor Garvey, and Richard Wendorf, all of whom introduced me to books, ancient and new. In every way, the books I make today are rooted in being able to engage with the historic volumes in the Houghton collection. To study up close editions of the Nuremberg Chronicle, Aldus Manutius, John Baskerville, the Cranach Press, Doves, Ashendene, Kelmscott, and the work of Bruce Rogers, D.B. Updike, William Addison Dwiggins, Fritz Kredel, Jan Tschichold, Frans Masereel, Rockwell Kent, and bindings of Paul Bonnet, Sangorski and Sutcliffe, and many more were fundamental inspirations for the work I do today.
Basically, the way things evolved was organic. I wrote letters to authors who I hoped might work with me, and sometimes they said yes. Each time I would send a copy of a previous work to show what I had in mind and asked if they might let me do the same for a work of theirs. I wrote a blind letter to Arthur Schlesinger to see if he might have something he would let me print to commemorate the 20th anniversary of JFK's assassination. He sent a manuscript back in the mail. I wrote to Walter Cronkite, knowing that he was particularly interested in space exploration and asked if he might be willing to work with me on a project to mark the 20th anniversary of the first moon landing. He didn’t say yes at first, but agreed to meet at his office in New York. After the meeting (and my first martini) we worked out a plan to print the CBS transcripts of the broadcasts from space and his interviews with the astronauts along with a new essay he would write to contextualize the events on the occasion of the anniversary. By senior year, what had started as a hobby had become a little business and after graduation, the question was how could I continue this enterprise.
It was about a year after graduating that a friend sent a letter with samples of handmade paper from the Czech Republic. At that time, communism was crashing and the beginning of the privatization period was beginning as much of Eastern Europe was moving from a planned economy to a market economy. I first went to Prague to explore buying handmade paper for my books. But it turned out to be one of those crazy stories where I found that it was not possible to buy the paper, but it was possible to set up a mill. The communists had done terrible things in the Czech Republic, but one positive thing they did do was to preserve historic crafts. I had been doing some design work for Montblanc after graduation and when I told them about the opportunities for making handmade paper, they agreed to give me a contract for writing paper as well as logistical support if I could set up the mill. After a great deal of trial, error, and navigating a barrage of Kafkaesque bureaucracy, we got the mill going. And before too long found myself making paper not just for our books and Montblanc, but also for Cartier, Cranes, Ralph Lauren, as well as watercolor and printmaking papers. By modern standards, it was a tiny operation, but by 18th-century standards, it would have been considered a big mill. At its peak we had 70 employees making paper, letterpress printing, and engraving.
It was while in Prague that I got to know my wife Savine who was working there after completing her MBA at Columbia. A few years later we were married and she became increasingly involved in the company, managing operations, planning strategic developments, and growing the enterprise. For both of us, it was about the pursuit of craft and artisanal excellence. Parallel to the operation in the Czech Republic, we started to work with binders in England and set up a third operation in Florida to do engraving projects. In each of these cases, it was about following amazing craftspeople, true masters in their arts.
While on one hand this chapter in Thornwillow’s history was inspiring and resulted in our making some of my favorite books, it was also increasingly unrealistic to manage our artisanal operation as a global enterprise. Also, as the years passed, it became increasingly clear that everything I had been warned about doing business in Eastern Europe, the corruption and the lack of legal protection for foreign owners, was true. Ultimately, it was impossible to continue working there. It turned out to be quite a disastrous period. We lost everything we had invested and built up in the Czech Republic. We had to start over completely. That said, the difficulties we had to navigate through, became the catalyst for charting a new trajectory for the press.
Q: You have said that your wife Savine was instrumental in finding your new location and regrouping from the situation in the Czech Republic. Tell us a little bit about the search for a new facility and what your first impressions were of the locale and buildings that now make up the Thornwillow facility. Did you foresee the scope of what it would become?
After following master craftspeople literally all over the world, learning from them, and creating books that we are immensely proud of, Savine and I now sought to start the next chapter of Thornwillow with consolidated operations in one place. Our dream was to bring the related arts and crafts of the written word together under one roof. To that end, Savine put a compass on the map and drew a one-hour radius around our apartment in New York City and that’s how we landed in Newburgh. In Newburgh we found a 19th-century brick factory building which we were able to buy and bring the equipment we still had (including my first Vandercook which I bought when I was 18 from the proceeds of the early books).
We then proceeded to hunt down additional equipment to outfit the operation. Again, the evolution was organic. We never quite knew where we would find the next press or piece of equipment for the bindery. But gradually over time we have assembled an unusual collection of historic equipment that we use in our work. This wonderful equipment includes: Three Heidelberg flatbed cylinder presses, a Heidelberg windmill, two Vandercooks, three Chandler and Price platen presses, two Thompson die cutting presses, ten die stamping presses, two folding machines, three envelope making machines, a very rare envelope lining machine, three book sewing machines, several Jacques shears, edge gilding equipment, book presses, nipping presses, and (still to be set up) a Hollander Beater to make paper pulp. It is indeed a living museum.
Q: There are very few outfits that have the ability to do as much as Thornwillow does within your own four walls. From manufacturing paper, engraving, letterpress printing and binding, you really do have the capability to do it all. Did you envision having this scope from the beginning or was it a slow evolution over the years?
If I look back to the beginning, Thornwillow has always had an organic trajectory. I did not start out almost 40 years ago with the clear vision to develop it into exactly what it has become. The evolution of the press has gone through many chapters: The early stages when I was first starting and developing it while in college. Then the 14-year period in which we were following craftspeople around the world, setting up remote operations, learning, building, falling down, and getting up again. And then the consolidation phase in Newburgh which we have been working at for 18 years. I think we are now starting the next chapter.
Q: Two more recent additions to the Thornwillow family are the Thornwillow Institute and Thornwillow Maker’s Village. These parts of the company show an even further commitment to not only to the craft of making books, but the dedication to education and preservation of the art. Where are you currently at in developing these and where do you see them ten years down the road from now?
When we first set out to bring the operations together at one location, we were advised by many friends that we would never be able to do it in America, that it would be impossible to find the master craftspeople here to do the work. Faced with this legitimate concern, we established the Thornwillow Institute with the mission of teaching and perpetuating the related arts and crafts of the written word. We realized that it was essential to train interested people not only in order to have the skilled talent necessary for us to pursue our dreams, but also to ensure that these crafts survive. Furthermore, in order to make it possible for people to dedicate the essential time needed to learn these crafts, we set out to create affordable housing and build out a community so that interested people can come to Thornwillow not just to work, but to learn, share, engage with each other, live, and play. Building the Thornwillow Makers Village is the chapter in which we are currently embedded. We are working through the Institute, which is a 501(c)3 public charity, to raise money to restore the long-neglected and dilapidated buildings that we have acquired to be part of our campus.
These buildings will provide not only affordable housing for ongoing employees, fellows, interns, and trainees, but also provide studio spaces for other artisanal entrepreneurs to pursue their work. We are also currently completing the buildout of a bookstore café (the first bookstore in Newburgh in more than 50 years) as well as a gallery and event space and an indoor/outdoor marketplace. Newburgh is an amazing city with incredible history and historic architecture. Sadly, it fell on hard times in the 1960’s from which it has long struggled to recover. Our goal is to help restore our community and make it financially independent and a vital and vibrant place to be. Ten years from now, our dream is to have the village fully realized and running itself as an economically self-sufficient enterprise that has the solid resources to grow and thrive beyond where we have gotten it today. We will not be able to do this alone. We need to map out a plan that will take the enterprise forward even after we are gone.
Q: Looking back across some of your earliest works and running through to the present day, there has been a remarkable level of consistency in quality and aesthetic, while being eclectic in title. Each press puts specific emphasis on different aspects of their books (printing, interior design, illustrations, materials, binding design, ornamentation, paper and many others). How did you decide what would be the most important characteristics of your publications and what would matter to you as a press?
My hope is when you look at a wall of Thornwillow books that together they are more than the sum of their parts. Editorially they are extremely diverse. We do not set out to publish in one subject area. Over the years we have published history, new and classic fiction and poetry, facsimiles and new original artwork. Whether it’s a dystopian fantasy, Pride and Prejudice, a new collection of John Updike stories, or a volume of Louise Glück poems, each book stands alone, but at the same time becomes part of the Thornwillow tapestry of titles that together become a kind of time capsule celebrating and preserving ideas that inspire and we hope will endure. The books themselves are custodians of the ideas printed on their pages.
Aesthetically, each book is meant to be different. My great hope is that no one will ever find the design repetitive. Each publication should be beautiful and the design and craftsmanship should enhance the relationship between the reader and text. That said, the goal is for them all to look like Thornwillow books. When you pick up a Thornwillow volume, the hope is that you will know it by the look and feel. A Thornwillow book should have a unique and identifiable hand. There are certain design elements that have been consistent from the beginning. For example, we have used handmade paste paper for our half-cloth and half-leather bindings since the beginning. There is also limited ornamentation. I believe in clean typography and an aesthetically simple page with generous margins and classical proportions. The goal is for the elegance and sumptuousness of an edition to be conveyed through simple design, beautiful printing, careful binding, and exceptional materials.
We are also committed to making our editions accessible. To this end, we now bring out our books in a variety of different versions from copies bound in paper wrappers, to cloth, half leather and full leather. The materials and work that go into the different editions vary quite considerably, as do the edition limitations, but our intention is for every book, regardless of the edition, to be beautifully and meticulously crafted.
Q: Thornwillow has famously produced stationery for the White House for years and it seems that Thornwillow Makers is just as pivotal to your business as the press arm. How do you see this part of the business differently and what are some of the aspects of Thornwillow Makers that you enjoy as a different kind of artistic expression than the publications?
The Thornwillow Makers collection consists of the things we make at the press that, though they are made using the same equipment and involve the same meticulous attention to detail and hand craftsmanship as our publications, do not have editorial content. Often the amount of work that goes into making an engraved custom wedding invitation is more elaborate than the work that goes into publishing a portfolio of prints.
The number of print runs, the registration, and the engraving process can all be quite extensive. For years we have made an engraved calendar that features original designs for every month (often drawn from our publications, so a careful Thornwillow collector would likely identify the iconography). We make two engraved plates for each month and each card is hand fed through the press four times and the edges are hand stained in gold. Same for custom correspondence papers and our engraved motifs. Over the years we have built up an enormous collection of hand engraved motif dies that we offer on note cards. These dies are literally hand cut into steel. They are miniature bas relief sculptures in steel that form the motif when stamped into the paper. In addition to the stationery, invitations, and announcements we also do custom bindings as well as commissioned editions for private distribution when time permits.
Q: One of the most unique things about your imprint is the monthly Thornwillow Dispatch and that you have a tiered subscription of shorter works that come out on a predictable basis. How did this idea evolve and how do you decide what your next few projects are going to be? With such a blistering pace of publication, what do you do to stay ahead in planning out the many aspects of future releases (overall aesthetic, binding material, color, artist, typeface, etc.)?
The Thornwillow Dispatch is a kind of Harry’s Shave Club for fine printing. Every month subscribers receive a box containing a short publication along with a curated assortment of finely printed ephemera (like broadsides, bookmarks, and note cards). Like Thornwillow’s anchor publications, these little books are very eclectic editorially, but united in the hope that together the collection will add up to more than the sum of its parts. The series grew out of our desire to do more and to find a way to engage with our community on a steady, regular basis.
Because of the pace, we need to plan far ahead with the titles. Some months are classic texts that we think are relevant today (like Hemingway’s short story Hills Like White Elephants or Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Addresses), and others are works by established current voices (like Anthony Doerr, Haruki Murakami, and Louise Glück). Also, a few times a year we feature the work of a new emerging writer through the Thornwillow Patrons’ Prize which we have been awarding in collaboration with NYFA for the last four years.
The Dispatch is a gateway into the world of Thornwillow. Subscribing not only gives you something interesting to read and puts a beautiful book on your shelf every month, it also steadily provides support for the mission of the press.
Our model is itself very old. In fact, it is the same model that John Baskerville used 250 years ago. Like Baskerville, we sign up our core subscribers before going to press. Like Baskerville, we print a Subscription Register so that now, and years from now, one will know who made our editions possible. Thornwillow’s collectors are directly involved in the enterprise. They are a blend between patron, investor, partner, and co-conspirator. They are integral to the mission of the press and share our belief in the importance of preserving the crafts of bookmaking. But for all that what we do involves physically making things and the intense pursuit of handcrafts, and follows a very old business model, we are an ecommerce business. Through the internet, we unite a truly global community of collectors who support our work. Books ship from New York to London, New Zealand, Singapore, and Tokyo.
Q: One of the most interesting concepts I have heard you talk about is the idea of a book having a soul. What did you mean by this and what do you think is required of the artist to imbue a piece with this level of connection between creator and their art?
I believe that objects, inanimate objects, can have a soul. They have a soul when a few things come together. An object has a soul when:
It is made by a person who has dedicated their life to the pursuit of their craft. Whether you are a painter, a pianist, a baker, or a bookbinder it takes years to be good at your craft. It does not happen instantly, overnight, without effort. The commitment to pursue an art form with the goal of getting better at it every day and with the notion that you are never done, that there is always something new to learn animates the objects that are made by the hands of this kind of artisan with soul.
The object is integral to the experience of an idea. It is a vessel for ideas and inspirations. It is the gateway for the engagement. The object exists between the creator of an idea and the experiencer of the idea. A violin, for example, exists between the composer, the musician, and the audience. A beautiful instrument is integral to the experience of the artform. A book is like a violin. If beautifully designed and carefully crafted to last, it is integral to the relationship between the reader and the author. It is a vessel that will perpetuate that relationship through time and space.
It is the vehicle through which it is communicated, preserved and passed down. The object is the caretaker, the custodian of ideas and inspirations. The object memorializes ideas that matter. The object changes from being a commodity to being a way that we define our identity. When people identify with an object and define their own identity by association with it, that object develops a soul.
Q: From everything I have read, you seem to be just as passionate about the preservation of the art, the tools and the education of your craft as you do about actually running the business and publishing books. It appears that you view Thornwillow as much more than a press that makes beautiful products, but a legacy meant to preserve and grow the culture and community of artisan work. Where does this passion come from and is it ever difficult to separate this from the day-to-day aspects of running a successful business?
Yes, these two are entirely intertwined. Making the objects and perpetuating the craft that makes the creation of the objects possible is one and the same mission. It is a bit of a utopian notion of finding the place where craft, culture, and community intersect. William Morris was very concerned about this at the turn of the last century and I think it is essential for us to think intensely today about not just what we make, but how we make it and who makes it and what it’s made of.
In this age of disposable and intangible communications, virtual relationships, and AI, something made by real people who have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of excellence and craft matters more than ever before. In 1800, there was a reaction to urbanization. In 1900, there was a reaction to industrialization. In 2000, there was a reaction to technology exacerbated further by the COVID epidemic.
Whenever people are confronted with dehumanizing forces, there is a counterforce to celebrate and appreciate what is human. In this age where you can literally turn a book on and off with a switch, when AI makes it possible for a book to be written by a machine, now more than ever, something made beautifully by human beings matters. It is the foundation for a modern-day arts and crafts movement that is essential to our identity. Craft is at the root of what makes us human. It gives livelihood, spirituality, and purpose.
Some of the challenges come when new people come into the craft and do not have the experience or practiced skill needed for the quality of work, we are committed to creating. This can be frustrating for the artisan in training and for the products that themselves will never be “perfect”. What is important to remember is that the journey is the destination. Where we are today is not where we will be tomorrow and when tomorrow comes, we will not be done.
Q: If there was one word or phrase that came to people’s minds when they think of Thornwillow, what would you hope that it would be?
I still think that the Thornwillow motto, which has been with the press almost since the beginning, is at the root of our mission: Ars omnia tuetur. Art teaches and protects all.
Q: You recently announced another anchor title and I for one am very excited about the release of Charlotte’s Web. We also know you will continue with the monthly dispatches as you always do, but is there anything else coming up that we should be getting excited about that you can share?
There must be some surprise in the delight. So all I will say here is that the best is truly yet to come. We have a very exciting new anchor book to announce this fall if all goes well and on schedule. It is a project I have wanted to do for years and it is finally coming together.
Q: It must feel very surreal, but you are quickly approaching the 40th anniversary of Thornwillow. Do you have any specific plans yet for celebrating this incredible milestone?
It definitely does not feel like almost forty years have passed since first starting on this adventure. There are still many projects I would like to do, more than I will be able to do in this lifetime. The goal must be to fortify the infrastructure around Thornwillow so that it cannot only continue to realize the projects that Savine and I still hope to bring to life, but so that it also will be able to continue long after we are gone.
For the fortieth anniversary, I think we will definitely need to have a party.
To check out the new preview of their most recent release, Charlotte's Web: Kickstarter
This interview was done in a series of communications back and forth between Zach and Luke and we want to say a huge thanks to Luke for spending time on this interview and answering so eloquently and thoroughly. If you want to see more from Thornwillow and stay up on all of their new productions and expansions of the business, you can check them out at their website and sign up for the Thornwillow Chronicle to get periodic updates. You can also follow Thornwillow on Facebook and Instagram.
Interview by: Zach Harney a contributor to the Collectible Book Vault.