SUMMERFIELD Back in 1972, Monique Lallier walked into a bookbinding studio in her native Montreal and fell in love.
At 31, Lallier had graduated from a school of fashion design, then studied education and geography. She taught high school typewriting during the morning while her two young boys were in school but looked for something to occupy her afternoons.
She read an article about a bookbinder who accepted students and visited the next day.
When she entered the studio, she became instantly captivated by the old tools, the scent of the leather, the beautiful books.
“I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she said.
More than 46 years later, Lallier has become world-renowned for her own design bindings. They have earned international awards.
The first solo retrospective of her work is now on exhibit at the Guilford College Art Gallery through Jan. 6.
The opening reception attracted visitors from as far as California, Colorado, Michigan, Canada and even Shanghai, China.
“The fact that so many people traveled great distances to see Monique’s retrospective is an indication of her stature in the field of design binding,” said Terry Hammond, the gallery’s director and curator. “Collectors and students of design binding know that bookbinding exhibitions like this are infrequent, and when there is a significant one, one needs to jump on the opportunity to see it.”
Collectors from the United States and abroad commission Lallier to create the perfect design binding for limited edition books.
She reads the text, then painstakingly fashions an interpretive design that reflects its spirit.
Her materials go beyond leather binding, thread, gold leaf and a variety of paper. Her design bindings can include broken bits of eggshell, pewter, telephone wires, agate rock, lizard and snake skin — and on one, her own hair.
In another, she used layers of an old wasp’s nest.
She often includes cutouts, reveals, pop-ups and movable parts.
With each book, she also creates a custom box to complement its design.
For “Jacqueline Kennedy and the White House Years,” which accompanied an exhibition of the First Lady’s fashions, the red box resembles a jacket.
“Every book is really, really different, so I don’t think I could do something similar,” says Lallier (pronounced “Lall-ee-ay”), 76, in the French accent she has retained.
“That’s why I enjoy design binding, because every time it’s a new adventure, it’s a challenge and it’s wonderful,” she said. “It keeps you young and busy.”
Many books in the exhibition had been donated to Guilford College by Dan and Beth Mosca of Browns Summit.
Others were borrowed from UNC-Greensboro, McGill University in Canada, private collectors and a few from Lallier’s own collection.
The Moscas were introduced to design bindings by Lallier’s husband of 31 years, Don Etherington, a top international conservator and bookbinder.
Dan Mosca calls Lallier’s bindings “extraordinary and unique, and Monique is the only one who can express them. It comes from a mind full of creativity and fingers of dexterity.”
He mentions a book in the exhibition, “The Birthday” by Emily Whittle, that he and Beth donated to the college. “She took someone else’s manuscript and made a fan out of it,” he said in awe.
Lallier and Etherington share a sun-bathed studio in their art-filled Summerfield home. They share a passion for their work and for each other.
Their conversation fills with the lexicon of their profession, such as doublure (ornamental lining inside a book cover), and the signature (a group of paper sheets, folded in the middle, and bound into the binding together; the section that contains the text).
Etherington even co-authored a dictionary, “Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books, A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology.”
Materials, tools and presses fill much of the room.
Lallier shows her current projects.
One miniature book pays homage to Anne Muir, well known for her marbled paper.
Before opening a larger book that she covered in light-colored red leather, she first spreads out a piece of wool blanket on her workbench to protect it. She soon will add onlays and tooling with gold and colored foil.
Georges Brassens, a French singer-songwriter and poet, wrote the 1974 book, “Chansons” (“Songs”).
When a client asked her to create a design binding for the book, “I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, yes, because I grew up with his songs,’” Lallier said. “When I was doing the reading and the sewing, I would sing.”
She also created a design binding for their grandson’s wedding album.
It features thin sheets of pewter that she has manipulated, creased and darkened.
Customers have asked Lallier to create a leather design binding for the catalog published with her Guilford College exhibition.
She plans one with her initials in kumihimo braids, the fine, intricate Japanese form of braid-making.
She used them in a design for Francois Rabelais’ book, “Pantagruel,” which won her a silver prize at the International Competition of Design Bookbinders. The book has been exhibited around the world.
At the request of friends, she even created three different design bindings for her husband’s autobiography, “Bookbinding and Conservation: A Sixty-Year Odyssey of Art and Craft.”
Designs reflect the six important periods in his life: In his native London and in Southampton, England; Florence, Italy; Washington; Austin, Texas; and Greensboro.
“It’s interesting to see what you can do with the same book, with the same idea, but you do things totally different,” Lallier said.
It was during Etherington’s time in Austin that he and Lallier met, at a 1987 invitation-only, international conference on bookbinding in Finland.
It was love at first sight.
They left their spouses. Lallier moved from Canada to Austin. They moved to Greensboro, where Etherington started a new conservation lab with the HF Group.
On Nov. 12, 1987, they were married.
In their studio, Lallier also teaches other design bookbinders. They are typically younger, often working in bookbinding, and want to perfect their art.
Some come through the American Academy of Bookbinding in Telluride, Colo. Lallier served as its director for five years, and still teaches there.
Is design bookbinding a dying art?
“Sort of,” Etherington replies.
Lallier sees it differently.
“I am more optimistic than Don,” she adds with a laugh. “I think there will always be some collectors that will want a design binding. At least in my lifetime, I hope.”
Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 336-373-5204 and follow @dawndkaneNR on Twitter.