Interview with Maria Ruzaikina

The interview was conducted by Anna Markova and is posted here with her permission.

Maria Ruzaikina is a master gilder specializing in hand gold tooling on leather. She mainly works in the styles of classical European binding of the XVIII-XIX centuries, strictly following the tradition of creating decor using hand tools and real gold. Twenty years of experience and constant practice make her not just a craftsman, but a keeper of the European cultural heritage, due to the danger of the disappearance of the profession.

ANNA MARKOVA: You are a period style bookbinder. Which books do you prefer to make bindings relating to a particular historical time period for? What if a client requests a historical-style binding for Harry Potter? Do you have a preferred style of bookbinding?

MARIA RUZAIKINA: Unfortunately, I would have to get back to the owner of “Mr. Potter” with a polite refusal, but I would gladly recommend a few of my talented colleagues who specialize in modern literature. My niche is antiquarian books printed between the last quarter of the XVIIIth,  and the first third of the XXth, centuries. In candor, the widespread use of bad bookbinding materials, the reluctance of bookbinders to study the history of art and the rules of typography, and the inability to acquire high-quality tools have all led to a rather skeptical attitude towards “replication” in the world of serious collectors (let’s call a spade a spade, not a gardening tool). An average person would not always be able to tell the difference between hand-tooling with a gold leaf and stamping with foil under the press, but you cannot trick a true bibliophile. In my humble opinion, it is possible to achieve decent bookbinding in the style of the past centuries while strictly observing old methods, not taking liberties in the design, and using the right materials. Unfortunately, young people are not quite interested in such a “boring” job. Yet another argument to stay away from antiques are the high prices for hand letters, filets, and fine leather.

In common terms of art history, my favorite styles are neoclassicism and Art Deco (and this is where I wholeheartedly share the interviewer’s tastes). I admire Thouvenin Jr., Payne, Derome, Gruel, Legrain, and Bonet. Bonet is, perhaps, my greatest passion. Interestingly, the book in a binding designed by Paul Bonet can be found on the shelves of thousands of Russian readers. That would be the first stand-alone edition of The Little Prince dated 1963, in which “Molodaya Gvardiya” – the Soviet publishing house – did not deem it necessary to specify the author of the design of the book covers.

Leather clamshell box (beneath) gilded by M. Ruzaikina, 2021, bespoke made for Michelangelo by M. Saponaro bound in cosway-style by Sangorski & Sutcliffe; 1951. Private Collection.
Leather clamshell box (beneath) gilded by M. Ruzaikina, 2021, bespoke made for Michelangelo by M. Saponaro bound in cosway-style by Sangorski & Sutcliffe; 1951. Private Collection.

ANNA MARKOVA: You studied the art of bookbinding in the workshop of your father, the famous Moscow bookbinder Alexander Alexandrovich Ruzaykin. What is the most important thing that you have learned from him?

MARIA RUZAIKINA: Speed! Just kidding. Alexander Alexandrovich is a great book lover and a connoisseur of Russian antiquarian books. My father is very particular about observing the rules and canons, he has a decent collection of books on bookbinding as well as the so-called signed bindings (that is, bindings with the name of the master on the doublure or – less often – on the spine or the covers) of well-known bookbinders. Leading by example, he has inspired me to respect the book and its history and to understand the importance of the “do no harm” principle. Two years ago, we celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the date our workshop was founded. While working together with my father, I have had a great opportunity to observe how to organize the production process effectively, maintain long-term relationships with clients, and learned to use materials rationally. Of course, I was very lucky to have been born into such a family and I am very proud of my parents. My wonderful mother, Anna Gennadyevna, specializes in the restoration of paper (which, in my opinion, is the most laborious and complex work in the entire binding process), and blocks sewing. She has great taste and a penchant for perfectionism, she is in a way the director of production and quality control.

As it happens, I am in Moscow quite rarely now. I hope that this is temporary and that in the future, I will have more opportunities to work in our family enterprise – the workshop of my parents – which employs five people today. Now I have to take ownership of the whole process, including the laborious restoration work, gilding the edges, and my favorite gold finishing. I can confidently say that the main thing that my father taught me is hand gold tooling.

ANNA MARKOVA: Your father’s workshop has a variety of old finishing hand tools. Do these tools come from Russian pre-revolutionary workshops?

MARIA RUZAIKINA:  Indeed, we have a lot of finishing tools. There are even several sets of pre-revolutionary Russian fonts that it would be impossible to get hold of today. In Soviet times, such tools were being actively destroyed as they could have been used to print anti-Soviet propaganda. I’d like to share an amazing story about someone’s incredible generosity. In the 1990s, the Dusseldorf Chamber of Skilled Crafts published an article in the Handelsblatt newspaper on the Russian self-taught bookbinder Ruzaykin. Rudolf Spiegel, a bookbinder from the city of Ulm, who had already retired by then, read this article. He was impressed by the enthusiasm of my father and offered him all his equipment that was eventually brought to Moscow. It is impossible to describe how grateful we are to Mr. Spiegel. Over twenty years later, not a day goes by when we do not recall his gesture of generosity. Therefore, many of our old stamps are German. As you will know, the Russian bookbinding style was influenced by the French and German traditions, so these tools are very relevant in our work. That said, the foundation of the collection is formed of modern stamps and filets. They were created by an outstanding Russian engraver (whose name I will not reveal), who had crafted these tools to our order to enable us to replicate old Russian and French bookbindings using the illustrations of those bookbindings. He is one of the few engravers in the world who finishes the stamps manually.

Despite the advancement in technology, I see a global decline in the production of high-quality brass types and finishing equipment. I am a huge fan of hand-crafted tools and I do my best to advocate using them.

History of Banking in California by Ira B. Cross, Ph. D., 1927. Bound in morocco and gilded by M. Ruzaikina, 2021. Private collection
History of Banking in California by Ira B. Cross, Ph. D., 1927. Bound in morocco and gilded by M. Ruzaikina, 2021. Private collection

ANNA MARKOVA: You work in Moscow and London. How would you describe typical Moscow and London clients? Do you see any differences between the Moscow and London bookbinders, their relationships, and the level of cooperation?

MARIA RUZAIKINA: There are a few obvious differences, after all, the structure of the book and the cultural background in our countries are relatively identical. I am referring to the European civilization itself and the shape of the book in the form of a codex. It is hard for me to compare clients, as each book collector is a unique person, with his or her own approach to discussing the technical, creative, and financial aspects of an order. However, a couple of decades ago, the distinguishing features could have been seen in each order more distinctly. For example, during perestroika, a client could have asked, without a moment’s hesitation, to tear off magnificent original bindings from books. Cravings for kitsch in the mass culture, for luxury and abundance of gold, were reflected in the designs of bookbindings. The client in Russia has noticeably evolved in recent years, there is an encouraging tendency for restraint in the design. A culture of professional restoration and conservation of books is developing. And just a few words about bookbinders… London keeps the centuries-old tradition of professional communities alive. The most famous institutions, The Society of Bookbinders and Designer Bookbinders, regularly organize seminars, competitions, and master classes. English masters are quite willing to share the secrets of their craft. Unfortunately in Moscow, bookbinders tend to keep low profiles and do not willingly offer to share their skills with each other. The system of teaching bookbinding in Russia is non-existent. But we also have strengths. A typical Russian bookbinder is surprisingly inventive and disciplined in self-training, he is able to work despite the shortage of tools and materials. Some are able to make a plough and a press of their own design. Taking this opportunity, I would like to encourage Russian bookbinders to challenge themselves more often and take part in international bookbinding competitions.

Find out more about Maria’s projects.

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