The craft of bookbinding involves designing and creating the outer elements of a book in order to protect as well as ornament the pages within.

While bookbinding has not been as widely practised as other crafts in Aotearoa, practitioners from New Zealand have maintained international links and contributed to the development of the craft.

By Chloe Searle

Judging a book by its cover

Bookbinding is the craft of assembling the printed text block of a book and securing it to an outer cover in order to make the book useable and durable. The cover, spine and endpapers are often also decorated as well as displaying the book’s title and author.

Bookbinders work with materials including leather, paper, cloth, wood and card. While bookbinders may work with printers, the two disciplines of printing and binding are distinct. Bookbinding, as a trade, came to New Zealand with European settlers during the 19th century. As a craft, early New Zealand bookbinders were inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain.

A book of Arts and crafts essays bound in true Arts and Crafts style by Eleanor Joachim.

Dunedin Public Library, 39001001714719

Eleanor Joachim

Eleanor Joachim (1874-1957) was a skilled bookbinder in the English Arts and Crafts style. Joachim was active as a bookbinder from 1903 in to the mid-1920s. Joachim came from England to New Zealand with her family in 1876. She was educated in Dunedin, predominantly at home but she also attended Otago Girls' High School. In 1903 she traveled to London and studied with two of the pre-eminent Arts and Crafts bookbinders, Francis Sangorski and George Sutcliffe. Before this time there is no known record of her having studied art however her mother and two aunts were artists who exhibited regularly. She returned to Dunedin in 1904 and opened a studio known as ‘The Bindery’.

Joachim’s bindings were regularly exhibited in New Zealand and her work was also exhibited in Australia. Her work is characterised by the use of two decorating techniques; gold tooling and blind tooling (see glossary below). Joachim’s work is usually intricately detailed and in keeping with the Arts and Crafts aesthetic, floral and foliar depictions abound. Her work was of a standard that examples were presented to Queen Alexandra and to Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward.

The cover of this autograph book demonstrates Eleanor Joachim's mastery of the gold tooling technique. Autographs collected by Eleanor Joachim during her time in London training with Sangorski and Sutcliffe. Frontispiece drawn by Francis Sangorski. Bound in dark blue-green morocco with gold tooling in flower and leaf design; a.e.g.; four raised bands. Inscribed on front endpaper: M.E. Joachim, Dunedin, N.Z.

Dunedin Public Library, 39001017186589

James Edgar Mansfield

James Frank Edgar Mansfield OBE (1907-1996), known as Edgar, was a central figure in the development of modern bookbinding in the post-war years in England. He was primarily active as a bookbinder from the late 1930s until the mid-1960s. Mansfield was born in London but spent his childhood and teenage years in New Zealand. He studied art at King Edward Technical College in Dunedin and later returned to London for further study, including time at the Central School of Art and Design studying bookbinding.

Mansfield also served in World War Two. After the war, between 1948 and 1964 he was a teacher at the London College of Printing, and in 1955 he co-founded the Guild of Contemporary Bookbinders in Britain.

Mansfield divided his time between Britain and New Zealand, introducing what was happening in the wider fine art scene into the realm of bookbinding. Mansfield was also a sculptor and the bindings he designed reflect this - tactility is an important quality of his work - and the covers often feature modernist, non-figurative forms similar to those he executed in his sculptures.

Two expatriate creatives combine in this volume where Edgar Mansfield has bound a copy of Katherine Mansfield's "The garden party and other stories."

Auckland Museum, PR9639.3.M258 MAN

Michael O’Brien

Michael O’Brien is New Zealand’s most well-known contemporary bookbinder. While in London in the 1980s O'Brien took classes with renowned bookbinders David Sellars and Sally Lou Smith. Since 1994 he has been based in Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct.

The majority of his work is restoration while his craft bindings are produced in a variety of styles. He also produces designer bindings on commission. O’Brien’s focus is on individual products in opposition to mass production and commodification. This includes decorating marbled papers by hand. In spirit his work owes more to the Arts and Crafts ethos than to the modernist style of Mansfield.

Michael O'Brien hand decorates marble papers that are then used in his bookbinding work

Michael O'Brien © All Rights Reserved

Bookbinding in Aotearoa today

The Association of Book Crafts originated in 1988 following encouragement from Edgar Mansfield. The Society acts as a professional body for the craft of bookbinding in New Zealand. There are over 200 members nationwide and the 2017 BookWorks exhibition attracted 35 entries across novice and open categories. In 2014 the group organised New Zealand’s first bookbinding conference "Inside/Outside - A Case for The Book.” The conference brought international craftspeople to Auckland to present on aspects of book crafts. The society’s other activities include running courses in bookbinding and promoting the work of members.

For many of New Zealand’s bookbinders the day to day work they undertake involves repairing and rebinding books. Throughout the history of craft bookbinding in Aotearoa there has been a limited supply of commissions that can demonstrate the full extent of the art. At the other end of the spectrum, far from craft bookbinding’s Arts and Crafts roots, contemporary local zine producers incorporate some of the bookbinders craft as they design covers to protect and promote their work.


Gold tooling is a technique where gold leaf is impressed in to the leather or other covering material. It is used to add lettering and decoration to the spine and cover of a book.

Blind tooling is a technique where tools are used to make impressions in the cover and spine of a book. It is used for lettering and decorations. Unlike gold tooling the decorations remain the same colour as the leather or other covering material.

Header image:  Edgar Mansfield's bold modernist style of bookbinding as seen on Ulysses by James Augustine Joyce. Auckland Museum, PR6019.O9U4 JOY

Crafting Aotearoa 

This article is part of a collection of 52 essays that form an online companion to the book, Crafting Aotearoa. Spanning three centuries of making and thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider Moana (Pacific), this book looks at the artistic practices that, at different times and for different reasons, have been described by the term craft. Crafting Aotearoa tells previously untold stories of craft in Aotearoa New Zealand, so that the connections, as well as the differences and tensions, can be identified and explored. This book proposes a new idea of craft – one that acknowledges Pākehā, Māori and wider Moana histories of making, as well as diverse community perspectives towards objects and their uses and meanings.

Edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner

Hardcover book published by Te Papa Press

RRP $94.00

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Searle, Chloe. 'Bookbinding in Aotearoa', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11 11 2019.


Obituary for Edgar Mansfield by Trevor Jones 

Margery Blackman, 'Leaves and flowers of gold: The art and craft of Eleanor Joachim, 1903-1914'

Website for the Association of Book Crafts, New Zealand 

Website for Michael O’Brien, bookbinder 

Modern design in bookbinding : the work of Edgar Mansfield