Paul Bonet, “Essayist of Bookbinding”

The French graphic designer and artist Paul Bonet (1889–1971) was active for more than forty years, designing covers for books on art, literature and philosophy. His practice developed alongside, and was inspired by the main artistic currents of twentieth-century art in France (Art Nouveau, Cubism, Art Deco, Surrealism, Geometric Abstraction). Bonet, who called himself an “essayist of bookbinding”, is renowned for the 550+ bindings he created for French publisher Gallimard between 1941 and 1967. An artisan and bibliophile, Bonet was probably the most influential French designer of bookbindings of his day. 

A little-known French bookbinder, who died in 1971 and specialized in small editions of books by authors from Balzac and Baudelaire to Valéry and Malraux. Bonet subordinated text to complex geometric or biomorphic linear networks that feel less limned than breathed onto paper. His style can suggest unravelled Art Nouveau verging on understated Art Deco. But, really, it’s sui generis, expressing a sensitive, searching, and first-rate visual intelligence, quietly audacious and hauntingly fine.

– The New Yorker

Bookbinding began as a hobby for Paul Bonet. His earliest work as a bookbinder was in 1920 and the practice remained something of a hobby for him until 1925, when he showed some of his designs to Henri Clouzot, the curator at the Musée Galliera, who was organizing the exhibition L’art du Livre Français for the following year. A number of Bonet’s designs were included in the exhibition, while in the same year others were shown at the Salon d’Automne.

The critical success of these works encouraged Bonet to become a professional designer of bookbindings. He made his debut at the Salon of the Société des Artistes Décorateurs in 1926, and soon gained a major patron in a Parisian bibliophile and collector called R. Marty. When Marty was forced to sell his collection at auction in 1930, it included fifty-two Art Deco bindings by Bonet, which caused a sensation. A second major client was an Argentine collector of bindings, Carlos Scherrer, who commissioned most of Bonet’s major works of the 1930s, while the artist also worked for the Belgian collector René Gaffe. His output suffered during the economic recession of 1933-1935, however, commissions rebounded after his work was shown at the seminal Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris in 1937.

Influenced by the bindings of Pierre Le Grain, his early work of the 20’s was refined with linear or geometrical gold fillet design. His later creations, in contrast were wildly radical and considerate of the spirit and theme of the book being decorated.

“The design of a binding should be a decorative synthesis of the book, on the verge of abstraction and concreteness, borrowing from the former its essentially spiritual nature, but mitigating it with concreteness so as to avoid impersonality.”

– Paul Bonet

With access to the best bookbinders and gilders in Paris, he concentrated on the contrasting textures of leathers, wood, and even metals, with surfaces sculptured and pierced, achieving nearly mathematical repetition of linear forms and even surrealist effects produced by collage and photography. Bonet designed three-dimensional sculpted bindings, all metal and pierced bindings; he incorporated such materials as ivory, lacquer, eggshell, nickel, steel, palladium, gold, platinum and duralumin in his work, and his own preoccupation with the letters of the book’s title as a central force of his designs was profoundly influential on the field. With his radical designs and the use of new techniques and materials, he dominated the field of bookbinding in the 1930s.

His techniques of the 1930s naturally lent themselves to surrealism, and he designed numerous Surrealist bindings including those for Pablo Picasso’s Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu and Buffon.

Bonet often bound the same book title in several unique and innovative ways, for different clients. As a contemporary scholar noted of him, ‘He stood before the complete work each time as though it were a newly discovered book; he studied it anew, and each time he found in the work he had already bound, five, ten, fifteen times, a new emotion, a virgin idea, an unused decorative commentary.


Encyclopedia of Art Deco: An Illustrated Guide to a Decorative Style From 1920 to 1939

Alastair Duncan [Editor]

Audrey Friedman [Contributor]

Jennifer Toher [Contributor]

Janet Zapata [Contributor]

Michael Meek [Contributor]

Jody Wilkie [Contributor]

Published by E.P. Dutton (1988)

ISBN 10: 0525246134 ISBN 13: 9780525246138

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s