Adelene Koh, book surgeon

A new lease of life at this fine bookbinder’s workshop

In this digital age, books are becoming a luxury for the senses, offering a tactile alternative capable of rewinding time. Often, there are certain books in our lives that contain more than just the written story within. It could be a Bible that’s a family heirloom or a novel that was a present from one’s first love. While we’re unlikely to misplace our deep-seated memories, these storied books will inevitably wither.

But sentimentalists need not fear, because no book is beyond salvage. Well versed in the art of restoring them to their former glory, bookbinders such as Adelene Koh are a rare breed of craftsmen who can expertly extract the pages from the spine, straighten out the creases and replace or rejuvenate the original cover. The petite 32-year-old is the founder of Singapore-based dddots, a private bookbinding studio that was born after she had decided to leave behind her jet-setting lifestyle as a Singapore Airlines flight attendant. She was not a total stranger to the craft, however, having taken bookbinding classes at Lasalle College of the Arts.

“In the late 19th century, the Arts and Crafts Movement happened because industrialisation and mechanised production had taken over the manufacture of many things and there was great concern that traditional skills might be lost. People such as William Morris wanted to celebrate the beauty of things made with thought and a high level of craftsmanship, and just like what we are going through right now, people are starting to discover the beauty of things made by human hands,” says Koh of her love for the craft.

Bookbinding handle letters are just some of the tools Koh uses for leather covers

Trained by veteran bookbinders in Tokyo and London, Koh’s repertoire is extensive and she takes much pride in her purist, hands-on approach.

Despite her relatively
short stint as a professional 
bookbinder, Koh has already
 garnered several impressive
accolades, including being 
awarded the Highly Commended Certificate for her entry — Breakfast
at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote — in last year’s The Bookbinding Competition by Designer Bookbinders UK.

“The beauty of being a hand bookbinder is that I can create miracles with my own two hands. Every book I make or restore has a personal touch, a greater level of empathy and emotional attachment between me and the book,” says Koh, who is one of the few, if not the only, hand bookbinder in Singapore.

Her commissions include a mix of customised journals and restorations. One of the most memorable creations was for her good friend. Koh incorporated a piece of fabric from the latter’s wedding dress onto a handcrafted wedding photo album. Then there was a quirky, bespoke book for a German couple that contained WhatsApp messages exchanged during their dating days.

Indeed, the act of restoring a book affords clients with a great deal of customised options.

Scraps of leathers and papers come in handy when Koh wishes to try new techniques
Scraps of leathers and papers come in handy when Koh wishes to try new techniques

“As much as the mind can imagine,” says Koh, when asked what clients can choose to include in their rejuvenated tomes. “I’ll usually discuss the amount that the customer wishes to invest in their one-of-a-kind bespoke book during a face-to-face meeting, as well as talk about what the book is for, how it is used and whether they have plans to pass it on to future generations, so that I can give them a better idea about what materials are suitable,” she adds.

Relying on a collection of rudimentary instruments, which includes knives, rulers, self-modified woodworking tools and a massive 200kg cast-iron book press, Koh has skilfully created books using a variety of materials such as goat leather bindings and even wood veneers. The trickiest commission to date, however, was one that required Koh to bore holes in every page of a book — while making sure they were all aligned — so that it could hold an engagement ring.

It takes up to two months to complete a single book-binding commission
It takes up to two months to complete a single book-binding commission

Koh usually takes between one and two months to complete a book and most of her commissions cost at least a few hundred dollars. While that sum might seem like an unnecessary luxury, hardly anyone would disagree that you can’t put a price tag on memories.

“The book is really like a time capsule that allows an individual to record, create, fantasise and imagine on its pages,” says Koh.

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