Ancient Book Arts Thrive at the Thornwillow Makers Village

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The Makers Village will help teach a whole community about book making.
The Makers Village will help teach a whole community about book making.

“Where something is made, how something is made, and who makes it—these are part of the identity of the thing itself,” says Luke Pontifell. 

He should know: since 1985 he’s been crafting stunning limited-edition handmade books using antique technologies as the founder of Thornwillow Press. He’s built his creative practice, his company, and his entire career around these exquisite works, preserving and sharing ancient crafts, publishing innovative new works, reviving literary classics, and building a community of ideas that stretches from Thornwillow’s factory in Newburgh, New York, to Singapore, Australia, London, and all the rest of the way around the globe. 

Luke Pontifell in his office.
Luke Pontifell in his office.

For their next dazzling trick, Thornwillow aims to reinvigorate not just a few more entrancing titles, but an entire city with the launch of their Makers Village.

Using vintage machines to nurture new talent 

Befitting its mission, Thornwillow’s production takes place in a restored coat factory on the banks of the Hudson River that they’ve filled, over the years, with a clanking, whirring assortment of antique printing presses. He started with one in 1985, and today the company has 32, from letterpresses to die-stamping presses to die-cutting presses, most of which were built between the 1920s and the 1960s. The oldest one on the floor, a Carver engraving press, was made in the 1890s. “It’s so over-engineered,” Pontifell says. “It never breaks!” Two of the Carvers are the biggest machines in the factory, and among the rarest: Only 75 of that size were ever created, and Thornwillow has two. They’ve also got a Vandercook letterpress from around 1910, one of the first ever made; a press that was used at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving during WWII to print war bonds; and a letterpress of the same kind that was used to print the original The Great Gatsby.

What does Thornwillow do with all these strange old rescued machines? They make books—handmade, letterpress-printed, limited editions of new original texts and forgotten classics. They’ve created editions of Dante’s Inferno hand-lettered and illuminated by graphic novelist George Cochrane, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land presented with an original monograph by scholar Sravani Sen-Das, and Frederick Douglass: Portrait of a Free Man containing new essays by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; they made a book of Arthur Conan Doyle’s favorite Sherlock Holmes stories that includes an embedded mystery within the book for readers to solve, a fantasy facsimile of the imagined notes and sketches of Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Austen's most famous heroine, and a run of David Mamet’s Three War Stories that has artifacts embedded directly into the covers, like real arrowheads and B-17 pilots’ wings.

The most deluxe editions of these literary treasures—made using the same technology as Gutenberg; printed, cut, bound, and often illuminated by hand, one by one by one—come with one-of-a-kind artifacts, such as actual historic letters and photographs or hand-tooled and jewelled bindings. All of the work is done by expert artisans, from the printing and sewing to the binding, gilding, and paper-making. Producing even a small run of these books takes Thornwillow several months and brings together their entire staff, moving from machine to machine, printing pages, sewing text blocks, tooling spines, marbling endpapers, and gilding edges to produce exquisite book objects that are destined to last far longer than their makers.

Marbling paper
Marbling paper

Luke Pontifell, his wife and business partner Savine, and the rest of the Thornwillow team don’t just make all these treasures; they also spend considerable time sharing their knowledge and techniques with the next generation of makers and artisans, to ensure that these ancient techniques will continue to be practiced into the future. In 2015, to celebrate the press’s 30th birthday, they launched the nonprofit Thornwillow Institute, which is “committed to promoting and perpetuating the art of craftsmanship in all its forms.” This is the means by which Thornwillow passes on crafts like letterpress printing, engraving, bookbinding, typesetting, and paper-marbling. And in so doing, they made a fascinating discovery: “We found that these crafts also became a catalyst for urban revitalization,” Pontifell says.

Perfecting a spine at The Makers Village
Perfecting a spine at The Makers Village

Reviving a community as well as a craft 

The company is uniquely positioned to make that claim. Newburgh, the city they call home, is a fascinating place with a fraught history. George Washington lived here during the Revolutionary War, Thomas Edison installed one of the first power plants in the municipality, Frederick Douglass gave a historic speech on women’s suffrage here, landscape architects Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead designed New York’s “other Central Park” in town, and I Love Lucy’s Lucille Ball made her stage debut at Newburgh’s Ritz Theater. But the city has been in decline for half a century, plagued by myriad social ills, including governmental neglect, urban decay, racial animosity, economic crises, poverty, organized crime, and street gangs.

Now Newburgh is undergoing a revival, thanks in part to a steady flow of artists and creatives escaping the ever-growing expense of life in New York City. Of course, this kind of revitalization tends to be complicated, but Pontifell is both highly attuned to the nuances of gentrification and fervently devoted to Thornwillow’s home. “There’s such a vibrancy happening here now,” Pontifell says. “And we see our Makers Village being a catalyst to support it.”

The village will transform a complex of historic buildings into a hub of craft, culture, and community, including artist studios and residences, classrooms and maker labs, a bookstore (the first in downtown Newburgh in 50 years) with a café, a gallery, performance and exhibition spaces, an indoor/outdoor market hall, and a recording studio and broadcast center. It’s all designed to unite a global community of readers, collectors, artists, writers, scholars, and craftspeople.

It's not just teaching a craft, it's building a community
It's not just teaching a craft, it's building a community

Making the journey personal

This is, one might say, a rather ambitious project, and Pontifell is taking it in steps, working to secure funding in a variety of ways, including philanthropic and municipal grants. But Thornwillow is also calling on the vast international network of supporters they’ve spent three and a half decades assembling to be a part of this transformative project. That’s why they’ve launched a Kickstarter project (the company’s 29th campaign): to invite everyone to join them on this monumental creative journey.

“A book is an object that exists between the author and the reader,” says Pontifell. “And if it’s beautifully designed and well crafted, that only enhances the relationship. The object becomes integral to the experience.” In so many ways, the Makers Village will be the apotheosis of the journey Thornwillow began back in 1985. It will secure the legacy of the press while staying true to the ideals on which the company was built: preserving and sharing ancient arts and crafts, creating stunning books to preserve and reinvigorate important texts, and uniting a global community of people who relish all of these ideas—language and the written word, history and literature, arts and culture and crafts—just as much as they do.

The Maker's Village will be live on Kickstarter through January 8, 2020. 

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