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Hedberg bindings

"It's meant to look as if it has been bound in Paris and not in Sorunda."

It should be right first time

A Hedberg binding is the Bentley among bookbindings. The row of beautiful bindings in ESSELTE's company library, now in the Swedish Centre for Business History's archive, originates from the workshop of a design-conscious entrepreneur from 100 years ago.

In Swedish antiquarian catalogues you often come across the term Hedbergband (Hedberg binding), or simply "Hedberg" in brackets. Many Swedish libraries and countless private collections contain books that were bound long ago by Gustaf Hedberg's Royal bookbinder's workshop, and a Hedberg binding is considered synonymous with beautiful hand-bound volumes. Who was this Gustaf Hedberg, whose bookbinding is associated with the very best in Swedish craftsmanship from the 1900s?

The founder of the business, Gustaf Hedberg, came from the Ängelholm district, and following an apprenticeship at a bookbinder's in Helsingborg he made his way to Stockholm and worked at well-known bookbinders' of the time. In 1881 he received a grant of SEK 400 from the National Board of Trade (Kommerskollegium) to study bookbinding. It was customary within the handicraft field to further one's training through a journeyman tour, but Hedberg travelled to France instead of one of the neighbouring countries or Germany, which was a more unusual move. His choice of country could be said to have reinvigorated Swedish bookbinding. In Paris Hedberg worked for, among others, Jean Engel, who practised industrial bookbinding, but he also learned handicraft skills from gilder Richter and etui-maker Gaultier.

Design as a competitive device

The industrial expansion of the late 1800s demanded profitability. Competing against machine-made books required both precision and a rapid rate of production, and that was one thing that Gustaf brought home with him. The second was the successful craftsman's competitive device, namely design. The specialised French bookbinding trade had room for artists, and Hedberg would succeed in making a name for himself as a skilled bookbinder through collaboration with prominent designers, such as architects Agi Lindegren and Ferdinand Boberg, design partnership Eva and Louis Sparre and artist Olle Hjortzberg, to name but a few.

Having returned home he opened an "Atelié för handförgyllning" (Studio for hand-gilding) on Drottninggatan. The name signified his ambitions, but the business soon switched to regular bookbinding. A portion of Hedberg's income came from orders via the National Library of Sweden (KB), as Gustaf Klemming, head of the library, supplied the young bookbinder with work. He was also able to arrange an exhibition at KB in 1888, and it caught the eye of many book collectors, who began using his services. Uppsala professor Carl Wahlund was one of these. To mark his 50th birthday in 1896, Hedberg's bookbinder's was called on to supply a gift binding with decoration to reflect the design ideal of that era: gilded foliage on a tawny-coloured morocco binding. This very book can be found today in Uppsala University Library.

Hedberg's bookbinder's gained a wealthy clientèle in the industrially expansive Sweden of the late 1800s; well-to-do book collectors were keen to surround themselves with exclusiveness. He achieved a rapid international breakthrough thanks to the binding of William Morris' book The Tale of King Florus and the Fair Jehane, which was printed in 350 copies on paper and 15 on parchment by Kelmscott Press in 1893. Eighty-five of these were purchased immediately by booksellers James and Mary Lee Tregaskis, who in turn had 75 of them bound by bookbinders from different countries to provide a magnificent display at the Caxton Head bookshop in London in 1894. No. 68 in the catalogue was by Gustaf Hedberg, who used a design by Agi Lindegren to create a beautiful binding of yellow morocco adorned with flowers, trees, birds and foliage in leather mosaic with the title King Florus printed in gold on the front cover.

International renown

This was one of eight bindings that were reproduced in colour in the catalogue International Bookbinding Exhibition at the Caxton Head from 1894, and the fact that this in itself was a major commendation is clear from Sunny Frykholm's text in the influential 1899-1900 issue of periodical The Studio devoted to international bookbinding. She wrote: "Mr. G. Hedberg, of Stockholm, has worked wonders during the last few years."

The King Florus binding was a hit for Gustaf on the international scene, and it undoubtedly did much for his renown at home as well. Tregaskis later got to show off his display to Queen Victoria, and all the bindings were eventually purchased for the John Rylands Library in Manchester, where they are still housed today. Hedberg's creation can be viewed online as "The Stockholm Binding".

Gustaf's younger brother Arvid followed in his brother's footsteps and also trained in Paris, at the École nationale des arts décoratifs. Shortly after the turn of the century they went into partnership in the company, and in 1901 brother Gustaf was able to style himself Royal Bookbinder to the Court (Kunglig Hovbokbindare). Luxury bindings were good advertising for the company, but the bookbinder's, which had around 100 employees in the 1910s, also supplied a number of attractive half bindings.

One of those working there during that time was William Barkell, perhaps best known as an author of several popular books about binding, gilding and restoration of books. He attested that work at Hedberg's bookbinder's was highly specialised. His first task was cutting covers for half bindings, lining them with paper and fixing them, i.e. gluing them to the book in preparation for so-called leather wrapping. This task, covering the book with leather, was more prestigious and naturally crucial to the final appearance of the book.

Barkell was eventually transferred to leather wrapping, a task that Hedberg himself had carried out at Jean Engel's bookbinder's in the 1880s. According to what he says, in three years Barkell became an expert at both paring leather and covering books with it. (Paring is the operation where you thin out the leather so that it fits tight at the edges and provides appropriate fold resistance when opening the cover.) William Barkell reported that Hedberg's bookbinder's always used the best types of leather such as Nigerian goatskin and oasis goatskin. These were high-quality types of leather compared with, for example, sheepskin. Calfskin was very common and certainly popular with many customers for its softness and the attractive gilding effects that could be achieved. The largest and most beautiful volumes were bound with morocco, a fine goatskin. Calfskin was very common, but the largest and most beautiful volumes were bound with morocco, an extra fine goatskin.

Right first time

Gustaf Hedberg was himself heavily involved in the practical side of things and was particular about both production rate and workmanship. His motto, according to Barkell, was: "No unnecessary processes", and when he was dissatisfied with the workmanship on one occasion he is supposed to have said: "It's meant to look as if it has been bound in Paris and not in Sorunda. You could destroy my reputation, you know."

Gustaf died in 1920 at the age of 61, and the company was taken over by his brother Arvid. Arvid is perhaps best known for his comprehensive historical studies of Swedish book bindings.

With skilled craftsmen such as Adolf Johnsson (bookbinder) and Hilding Ljunggren (gilder) among its ranks Hedberg's continued to produce high-class bindings. However, society was changing, and the depression of the 1930s and the war also had an effect. When Arvid died in 1949 the workforce had shrunk to just a handful of staff. Arvid's daughter Greta kept the business going during the 1950s and 60s, and in the early 1960s there was a new drive to boost operations, taking on skilled young craftworkers such as Wolfgang and Kerstin Bremer. However, in 1969 the doors finally closed on this bookbinder's with its fine old traditions. Thus the firm was dissolved, and the National Library of Sweden took over the stock of punches and various other effects. However, the concept of the Hedberg binding lives on.

From the magazine Företagsminnen published by Centre of Business History