Studuying to Design and Make Books from Scratch: Interview with Alexander Vasin

This January in the capital city of Estonia Alexander Vasin and Natalia Velchinskaya have produced a new course – Tallinn Laboratoria. Alexander and Natalia are creators of many typography and book design courses, both in Moscow and abroad. This time they’ve brought a group of students to study in a local print house Labora Tallinna Paber.

Within seven days participants made 154 sheets of cotton paper, drawn 48 artworks, printed them on manually operated printing presses, bound them into small books and had a chance to do a lot of other fun things.

Below you can find an interview with Alexander. We have talked about the Tallinn Laboratoria along with some other projects by Alexander and Natalia: Baltic School, another new project – Firenze Scuola, and their core book design and typography T_24 course.


iBookBinding: What are the origins of the Tallinn Laboratoria?

Alexander Vasin: During our visit to Tallinn several years ago, we came to Laboratooriumi Street, to the Labora workshop. This all happened due to advice of a designer Dima Makonnen. At the Labora we’ve met wonderful people, united by their love to art, word, and labor.

It is a very positive place. You feel yourself at home here. In the same room, you can meet dozens of people speaking different languages. And all of them are welcome here.

Labora resides in a building with multitude of rooms, staircases and passages. We found a small printshop, papermaking workshop, calligraphy studio, and a library here. Not mentioning a furnace and a small elevator. Ah, there also is Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church located in the same building!

We’ve invited Nestor Ljutjuk (one of the founders of the Labora) to Typomania fest in Moscow on summer’16. His story of Tallinn and Labora was well received by the visitors, and we decided to launch a new residential school there.

The main goal of the Tallinn Laboratoria is in fusing graphical experiments with craft. We were in charge of the first and Nestor has supervised the latter. We studied the city, created series of illustrations and finally implemented projects in paper.

Twelve students came along with us. Our students and friends. That was a merry band!

Nestor with his colleagues taught us to make paper. You have to put a special mesh down into a tank filled with pulp; draw it up; wait until water runs out; and place that bulky sheet on the special felt. He also showed us how to sort and dry paper (it takes several days).

It is a very special moment when you hold a ragged-edged piece of paper that you’ve made in your hands!

iBB: Oh, yes! This paper is really nice!

Alexander Vasin: Sheet size was A3. While paper was drying, we have met with a local guide Josef Kats and walked the streets of the city to create special lists of words and impressions. 48 items from that list made the storyline of our book.

Students of the Tallinn Laboratoria created dichromatic illustrations to supplement each of these 48 words and impressions. We had two tasks during that creative process: to find a metaphoric expression for each of the items; and to expand every drawing into two colors.

The whole book was prepared for printing in two color channels. Following by the page imposition, preparing of the plastic sheets, and exposing of the printing plates. In the end, we’ve got 12 large blocks.

All along these processes, we were discussing book structures, formats, folding the sheets, pre-printing treatment and chromatic layering. Nestor also told us about manual printing and folding.

Our printer was Hannah Harkes from Scotland. However, every student also had a chance to print several sheets. First color was blue…

…and then red was printed.

Book format was decided in convention. Book was too thick to bet stapled. That’s why we settled on using two rubber bands. That decision also had its influence on the cover design.

It’s always a pleasure when such decisions are made basing on function, not just due to some random creative idea.

iBB: That band is a really nice detail of this book!

Alexander Vasin: We also decided against trimming the book. Nestor showed us how to keep the rugged edges (and even add some). It was a small print: only 49 copies. However, in Moscow we ran additional digital print to give some copies to friends and for sale.

iBB: I understand that was the first experience of a full cycle bookmaking for you?

Alexander Vasin: We love to publish books and do that all the time. But to make it from the very beginning, starting with papermaking — that’s the first one. An important experience both for our students, Natalia, and I.

Book wasn’t our only project at the Tallinn Laboratoria. We also have been practicing graphics. A series of posters we made was put on display on the streets of the city and along the ramparts.

Anya Khorash made a video about that:

Other Projects

iBB: My initial thought was that the Tallinn Laboratoria is yet another branch of your Baltic School. However, now I rather think that all of your projects complement each other.

Alexander Vasin: They all are very different, even if many of them take place on the shores of the Baltic Sea. We love Baltic countries.

However, we have a name for all our teaching ventures: Educational Projects by Alexander Vasin and Natalia Velchinskaya. It includes our courses in Moscow, spring school in Florence and other things.

There is one more connection: every our past student receives a discount if he wants to join any our new school or other teaching project.

Other Languages Besides Russian

iBB: Is this all Russian language only activities? Even while taking place in some other country?

Alexander Vasin: At this moment we work only with Russian speaking students. However, we had a different experience during our studio in Budapest. We liked how it worked out and will continue to find some solution.

iBB: So, there is a chance for international students?

Alexander Vasin: Even if we talk a lot during our classes, our main language is visual. Some things could be shown, drawn, etc. My English is quite bad, but that wasn’t an obstacle when we were working with Hungarian students. We have discussed everything and made wonderful posters.

That said, language gap shouldn’t be a major problem. As a last resort we can always hire an interpreter.

We work with fonts, letters and words. All these things are of interest to us and I’m sure that switching to another language would become just one more adventure for us.

Mistakes and Secrets of the Craft

iBB: It often happens that teachers themselves learn something new during their classes. Both from students’s previous experience and inventing something to help students overcome their mistakes. Have you experienced anything like that?

Alexander Vasin: Oh, yes! We learn along with our students. They make mistakes. We make mistakes. We err all the time. The one who makes no mistakes is not moving at all.

iBB: My teachers always told me that mastership of bookbinders is defined not only by their beautiful bindings. It is also dependent on how well they fix mistakes. Both the ones they made by themselves and caused by defects of materials used.

Alexander Vasin: I suppose that all the work of teachers and designers is dependent on mistakes and their consequences. We don’t really know how the culture would evolve. Which styles would prevail. Nobody knows. Mistake equals experiment. We cherish both these things.

Unique Materials and Craft

iBB: While I had experience working with different sorts of paper, I have never tried making it myself. During my own classes I see that when you give your students fine materials (e.g. leather), they respond momentarily. Did you feel something similar at the Laboratoria?

Alexander Vasin: Yes, of course. Both during our Talliin class and T_24 course we pay a lot of attention to handcraft. Under Natalia’s supervision our students stitch signatures, learn how to trim a book. We print with hand letters, cut templates. Handwork allows to understand the creation of a book better. Experiments with paper may lead to creation of a new book form, new bindings.

We have our pet riddle. You give your students A4 sheet and ask them to fold a square signature. That’s a most popular format amongst beginner designers, you know. Some are pretty fast in solving that puzzle, others have to spend a lot of time on it. Then we proceed to studying folio and pages sizes, formats, profitability of printing industry and wastes of printing process.

Future Projects

iBB: Would there be Tallinn Laboratoria Mark II?

Alexander Vasin: It seems it would.

iBB: When do you plan to announce it?

Alexander Vasin: We usually announce our next project 3-4 months prior to its start. We have three residential schools like Laboratoria right now. And have plans to launch even more.

In winter we have Tallinn Laboratoria. In spring we go to Florence. During summer we go to the Latvian shores to have the Baltic School with Natalia Toropitsina and Nikolay Shtok.

iBB: Oh, I saw these fun photos of words made on sand.

Alexander Vasin: We can’t wait until it’s already July. May holidays we spent in an apartment on the shores of Arno – that was the location of our new Firenze Scuola. Studying schedule included daily field trips and excursions, short exercises and work with posters.


iBB: And what about your core courses in Moscow?

Alexander Vasin: We have lots of students and that’s really nice. Two courses at the Moscow State University of Printing Arts. With freshmen we do small works in different genres (illustration, lettering, screen printing, etc.). Introduce them to the craft. Seniors are taking part in some larger projects: books, corporate identities, briefs, dealing with clients. We prefer all their projects to be real, not mock-ups. Our whole course is adapted for a six-year study.

At the Business & Design Institute we have our own branded course T_24. It is a sort of further vocational training program. Mainly we teach university seniors and graduates from the University of Printing Arts, British Higher School of Art & Design and Stroganov Academy of Industrial and Applied Arts here. Attendees have to have some polygraphic experience – we check their portfolios. Schedule is tough: 24 classes in three months. We had eight graduating classes since 2013.

Experimenting with Format

While talking we browse through different stuff in the classroom

Alexander Vasin: This box contains a collection of book forms, created by our students under supervision of a wonderful designer Evgeny Korneev. Students had a chance to experience both familiar and previously unknown to them types of folding and binding.

iBB: Here I can see some mix of Japanese binding and some pretty standard binding styles.

Alexander Vasin: Yes, it is something like that. What’s more important, this format is quite handy and technologically feasible. Wonderful implementation of a two-part format. We can put pictures in the first part and text in the second part. Or create a bilingual book. Or make it a book about two different artists.

Alike architecture, book art has indefinite possibilities for evolution.

Commercial Projects

Alexander Vasin: I’m a designer by trade. Since 2014 I’m in charge of the studio. Most our projects are books. We have wonderful clients, but also make in-house projects. Like the things we created for our Typomania fest. Here are some books from the Valuable Materials («Ценные материалы») series. They include articles about teachers of design with study assignments and examples of students’ works included.

Typomania Library («Библиотека типомана») is devoted to works of guests of Typomania festival. This series was created two years ago and we publish it with help of our fifth-year students. They have to meet with our festival’s guests (mainly coming from abroad), interview them, select images, deal with editors, do the prepress operations.

Additional info on the projects by Alexander Vasin and Natalia Velchinskaya could be find on their web sites and web sites of their projects:


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