Winfred Bixler reviews book designs with students from Wells College in her studio in Mottville.

Making books
in Mottville
by Ellen Leahy
photography by Ellen Leahy

The spirit of industry is very much alive in Mottville. On one property in particular, there is a reverence for art and culture and preservation that is rare in today's Walmart World. It is the site of the former Skaneateles Handicrafters on Railroad street, which is where Marshall Larabee conceived the Skaneateles Trains among other fine toys of mass production.

Mike and Winfred Bixler bought the property in 1982 and have lovingly and painstakingly set about restoring the historic structure. They are artists who met while studying at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Their medium is the art of the book. Once a trade, bookmaking is now a craft, Mike said, A craft they mean to keep alive. Mike also teaches his craft off premises on the campus of Wells College's Book Arts Center.

Also in the Bixlers' building, which sits along a portion of Skaneateles Creek, is Westlake Conservators, art conservators with a national reputation. And the Bixlers live above their shop or studio, where Winnie raises show quality Cairn terriers, or many Totos.

Last week, Mike invited his class of nine women up from Wells. "A month ago most of these women had no idea how a book went together, but now many of them are really getting a feel for the process," Mike said. They mat never use this for their chosen fields of say library science or writing, but this understanding will enrich their work he said. It is much like understanding the classics in whatever your chosen field. Studying thinking that has gone on before can only enhance one's understanding of how to evolve.

It all started with a love of letters, making the letters in fact. The Bixlers' studio consists of thee soon to be four rooms. The first is a reception area, which has a large paper cutter, and among other things a slate on the wall engraved with a gold-leaf alphabet by the artist John Benson, who Winnie said is well known for his work especially in the Washington DC area, where he engraved John F. Kennedy's gravesite among many other special plaques.

To the right off the reception area is the foundry or a room equipped with several Monotype composition casters and other machines from the early 20th century, machines that each replaced the work of 30 to 40 workers, while not sacrificing quality. These became obsolete 40 years ago, as computers grew, but a level of quality was lost.

Mike Bixler demonstrates how to cast letters for Wells students on a field trip to his studio in Mottville.

Mike demonstrated several machines last week, one a Monotype Composition Caster that forms metal letters and can do some composition of the type is small enough (under 18 points). He had the class operate a Monotype Super Caster, which casts larger letters and forms. Each student picked a different ornament (similar to a dingbat) and made as many as they wanted to use back in their class. This type casts mainly for hand-setting (anything above 18 points), Mike said. There is another machine that melts down spare type, as it is recyclable. Letters are melted down and turned into other letters for other books, Winnie said.

"The machines look complex because many things are needed to move together," Mike said. There is a bath of molten metal heated to 770 degrees as one of these parts, yet the type once formed cools rather quickly. The molds need to be well-oiled, or they wouldn't last very long, he said. Mike is the one who keeps the machines in working order, which only requires spare parts of which he has many, and and a couple of wrenches and screwdrivers. He also reviewed a machine that makes slugs to go between the metal type.

Bixler not only runs a letterpress for his own printing business, but is one of only three letter foundries casting type used at letter presses around the country today.

Now the third area is entered off the left of the reception. This is where the type is stored and manipulated. And beyond this is a studio under construction that will be for book designing and binding alone. This has been in the type room but has outgrown the space.

Winnie refers to the art of making books as a journey, one that is meant to be thoughtful and full of care. She said you can not make a book you haven’t read."

The Bixlers actually started by printing certificates. Winnie said it is very important that a certificate not be able to be counterfeited, which is easier to accomplish with the uniformity of today's computer printing. A letter press leaves a trail much like a finger print. There are slight differences on each letter which is traceable. The Bixlers print diplomas for Yale, Georgetown and Julliard. They also print special certificates of achievement for Harvard, of which Mel Gibson was one of their honorees. Just his name on a piece of paper caused a few hearts to beat faster in this corner of Mottville."

The Whitney Museum was their first big customer, keeping their presses and ideas running as they started up their business here. They initially set the type but printed the books elsewhere, until they were able to get up and running. Their books are often handsewn by Winnie and bound at their press, which is called Michael Bixler Press and Letterfoundry. One of their first books was Helen A. Cooper's, "Winslow Homer."

A key ingredient is their associate, Ann Wooster, who runs the monotype keyboard, which creates ribbons used for composing pages of type. She also fills in on many other aspects of the process, including proofreading, binding, and printing.

Their customers come from all around the world, said Winnie, "Mexico to Newfoundland, Australia, Europe."

They do small runs of very precious books, mostly art books, where every detail counts. They have done several books on the works of Georgia O'Keefe, Ansel Adams, and Elliot Porter. When "Seven Years in Tibet" was made into a film, they made several special edition books, of which Brad Pitt owns a copy.

"What we do here is often for collecting," Mike said.

Two customers are the New York Graphic Society, Which they did a book on the designer Issey Miyake with photos by Irving Penn, and The Limited Edition Club of New York.

"We try not to design a square book," Winnie said. They review any pictures involved, handle print design, and when it comes to the cover, this must match the box that the book is housed in.

The edition of 'The White Spider' designed at Bixlers.

Some of their more interesting cover designs have included one made of bark for a book titled "The Man Who Planted Trees," and their edition of "The White Spider." This is Heinrich Marrer's account of his Eiger ascent. The client had wanted to incorporate stone from the base of the mountain. This is achieved with a relief made if small stone shards formed into the mountain face in a rectangle on the cover.

There is a grand book about three feet tall by 1-and-a-half feet wide on the work of the poet Langston Hughes, which is owned by President Clinton and Steve Martin. Martin, Winnie said, has a deep love of art and a great knowledge of art as well. He is both a writer and a collector of books.

Winnie starts with a client interview. In one case, a client really wanted a book written on the Japanese to be pink. She knew that pink and black was a dated look, so she chose a dusty rose for the cover and gray for the book.

Winnie told the students to think about how art will be incorporated in a book. She suggested using the best materials you can find. The books she makes are often all hand-done. "They pay me to suffer," she said "I will even make my own glue."

"You can create that book for the author and give it form," Winnie said, "And that is a journey."

At Wells, their book art center is part of the humanities curriculum. Many people have wondered why it is not considered a studio art, but as professor Gil, the assistant dirctor of the center, said, "Wells is about getting down to the words," she said, "We are the backbone of humanity, we are words, not studio arts."

"We think about the words too, the rhythm of words and the rhythm of books," Winnie said. "We are really happy to be asociated with Wells book art centers which is one of the premier programs of this type in the nation."

On home in Mottville

"We are so happy here, we don't even want to travel," Winnie said. Mike said he enjoys the changing seasons, which he thinks of more in 12 months, or chapters, then in the four seasons. It gives him a terrific sense of time and life.

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from November 19-25, 2003 issue of The Skaneateles Press of Skaneateles, New York, pages 1 and 3, vol. 173, week 47.

Copyright © 2003 Michael & Winifred Bixler
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