Introducing Emily Juniper, writer, designer & bookbinder

Shining a light on Cornwall’s creative pioneers, Seasalt has always celebrated flourishing local talent. Each month in support of their creativity, we share their inspiring stories.

We met Emily Juniper, founder of Juniper Bespoke, at her studio in Falmouth.

Emily makes beautiful handmade books for a range of clients. A writer, illustrator and designer, she collaborates with artists to create books which perform their content. Her artistic practice is linked to live theatre, and she is an Associate Artist of the Faction Theatre Company (London), writing original scripts and adapting classics.

What drew you to bookbinding? Was it always something you always wanted to do?

My professional background is in theatre, and I arrived at bookbinding the long way round. Growing up in a house where the walls were lined with books, I was always interested in writing. My first written works were play scripts, which eventually led me to think about the book itself as a performance space. I got to thinking, “How can I exploit the book form, through material and design choices, to end up with a kind of ‘book theatre’”?

Emily Juniper from Juniper Bespoke

Tell us about Juniper Bespoke: what do you focus on and how did you get started?

Juniper Bespoke was a long time in the making. A few years ago I started to illustrate my writing and make books for my friends. One day I showed one to my brother, on the train home for Christmas. I asked whether he thought I could do this for a living and he asked me to read one out loud to him. By the end, after reading this book I’d written for a friend, there was a group of about five children sitting around us in the carriage. My brother said: “I think that’s your answer, you’re probably okay!” So, I changed careers, retrained and undertook an apprenticeship.

In a digital world, why do you think that books are still so popular?

With the rise of digital media, books have had to raise their game. Print’s no longer the default, when it comes to disseminating information. A book, even a magazine, has to prove its worth, which means publishers are more inclined to take risks. The extra cost for a nicer paper or an interesting binding are nominal when set against the digital alternative. An interesting use of material, design, or binding seduces the reader to take the book from the shelf. Recently, in bookshops and libraries I’ve noticed more and more interesting things happening: coptic stitches, French folds, painted fore-edges; even within the commercial world of bookbinding.

I also think there is a larger craft movement underway. People are increasingly interested in how things feel and the provenance of a piece of work.

Juniper Bespoke hand bound book

Tell us about the most unusual project you’ve worked on for a client

I work to commission, so I work with an artist or a client one-on-one. Every time I do a project it’s my favourite project. I work to the theory that if I want to keep the book at the end of the process, then I’ve done the job well, so it’s hard to pick.  Although, I did once make a beautiful book that was someone’s way of proposing to their partner. I wrote and illustrated a story about how they met. It ended with an illustration of the clock at Grand Central Station, where he gave her the book. She said yes, and they’re now very happily married!

Bookbinding is at once highly creative and mathematically precise. I love when clients come to me with something I haven’t done before, and I think, how am I going to do that?

Juniper Bespoke - Printing Press

Who or what inspires you?

I am always influenced by theatre. It forms a framework for how I approach any project. I’m often thinking about the opening of a book like the raising of the curtain. Choosing a font feels like selecting an actor based on their tone of voice. I’m using the language of performance as I’m working.

Day-to-day, If I really can’t really concentrate, I find nothing more inspiring than popping to one of the little antiques shops on the Old High Street and finding something made of paper. I look for ephemera with a history; that’s been touched; that has flaws, or long-lost handwriting. Touch inspires me.

Juniper Bespoke handmade book

What drew you to Cornwall, and does living here have an influence on your practice?

I’d been in London for ten years and I wanted to do an MA. The MA Illustration: Authorial Practice at Falmouth was an obvious choice, with its links to authorship and publishing. I always imagined I’d come to Cornwall for the MA, before returning to London. Within six months I felt so happy here that I reassessed how I’d been living in London. I decided to stay. There’s something wonderful about the sea. I make sure I go every day: I might not always swim, but the way it changes soothes the soul. And, as an artist, the light here is as amazing as they say. My old studio in an industrial corner of Camberwell just couldn’t compare.

Book printing tools

Can you summarise your creative process – how do you get started on a project?

It’s different every time. First, and most importantly, I establish a relationship with the client. They can become quite intimate, because I’m talking to someone about the most important parts of their life . This is a book they want to treasure, they’re going to keep it forever.

I remember working hard with one client. His enquiry was “it’s for my girlfriend, she likes squirrels”. We ended up having several meetings that weren’t working, so we moved to email. He responded to one of the questions I’d asked with “it’s just that she’s my perfect happiness”: I thought, ‘there you go, that’s it, that’s the message that you want to give. You don’t want to give her a book about squirrels, you want to give her a book that lets her know that she’s your perfect happiness’. The process of working with someone is about being able to build up a relationship with someone who is a total stranger, so they can open their heart to you and you can be their voice.

Emily Juniper's handmade books

Tell us a bit about how you work with different fonts and typefaces

Last year I won a book binding competition. The prize gave me the opportunity to study something. I picked letterpress and loved it. I started collecting letterpress equipment and I’ve fallen in love with the process. Typography is so key every time I design a book. I think about what a font sounds like, or its history, the era of design and the setting of the book. I cast actors as voices in books I’m reading. Those subtle choices you make with typography become really physical when you’re doing it in letterpress. It’s this wonderful, methodical process. Everything is tangible and you look at the forms so differently.

Letters for book printing press

What can you tell us about the different papers that you use to make your books?

I can spend three days choosing paper for inside the book – and it’s normally white paper, that no one else would have an opinion on! But, I know it’s got certain quality, weight, or even a name (I used a paper called Electric Blood for a play text about a murder) that’s right for the work.

I also love vintage papers. There are fantastic bookbinding communities and they have markets where I’m like a kid in a sweet shop. I found an absolutely beautiful vintage marbled paper that I still can’t bear to use – there’s only one sheet left in the world. But, when I need to match something like that there’s an amazing paper marbler called Jemma Lewis. I once asked her if she could make me a marbled paper that looked like the spikes of a porcupine. She provided me with an exquisite paper that looked exactly like what I’d asked for!

Emily Juniper selecting paper to make books

How do you actually bind a book?

There are an infinite number of ways to bind a book. I like when clients come to me with something I haven’t done before. I have to think: ‘how am I going to do that?’ A lot of people in the bookbinding community are ex-engineers. They’re people who like having a problem to solve. It’s mathematical and you have to be precise, but you also have to be very creative. There’s not always an immediate, obvious solution.

One of my favourite stitches is Coptic stitch. I learnt it early on and the more you do, the better you get. It’s a nice stitch because it allows a book to lay flat. It’s great for recipe books – you don’t want to be fighting with your book to see how much butter to add!

Emily Juniper creating hand-bound books

How do you finish a project and how important is the presentation of the final book?

An MA tutor told me a great story about illustrator John Vernon Lord. Whenever he handed an illustration in to a client, instead of posting it, he would arrive at the client’s desk with an envelope. He’d open the envelope and pull the picture out with reverence. I like ceremony – it’s important to me to give something value by presenting it beautifully. It lets me stage the book the way I want. It gives me the power to put you into a certain state of mind, and then surprise you into another. I often make boxes for my books, choosing cloth that subverts what’s happening on the inside, or complements it, or enhances it.

Juniper Bespoke handmade book

What sort of clothes do you choose to wear when you’re in the studio?

When I’m getting dressed in the morning, I choose a character for myself. If I’ve got meetings I’ll try and be quite smart, but if I’m going to have a making day, or if I’m doing any printing then I’m going to be in overalls  – I get very messy and covered in glue!

Office dog at Juniper Bespoke

What does your perfect day look like?

It’s hard not to have a perfect day in Falmouth. It’s got to start with coffee, and a swim if I’m brave. My favourite days are when I’m in right in the thick of a project. I’ve got fire and drive and energy pulling me forward. It feels nice when you really concentrate on something, when you’ve done all the preparation and research, and then it’s finally happening: you’re making.

Emily wears: Sailor Shirt,Waterdance Trousers and Rocky Shore Boots


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