Ping says, “It is a really basic thing, we both write quite a lot and we also like making things so we thought, why not make books. A book is only a machine for content – it is a very efficient machine, it travels well, you can carry it around, they are very hardy. If you make a book well it can last for over a hundred years possibly a thousand years.”
A book is only a machine for content – it is a very efficient machine, it travels well, you can carry it around, they are very hardy
They recently published a book, written in collaboration with other authors, entitled, ‘The Erroneous Disposition of the People’, which was inspired by Sir Thomas Browne’s 1646 book called ‘Pseudodoxia Epidemica’ – a work designed to refute common misconceptions.
David says, “We took his (Browne) contents page and wrote the book in poetry and prose inspired by each of his ideas. As a group we were also criticizing the way knowledge has been reduced to facts, the ‘QI thing’, basically giving something people can say at work the next day. Knowledge is more than just knowing facts, it is much broader than that which is something Thomas Brown would appreciate.”
As well as books they are also keen to make their content in different forms such as screen printing, which they make, cabaret style, at live events accompanied with music and games. David says, “We put on a night at St. Barnabas church in Dalston where we worked with a musician called Half-Handed Cloud. People were given a blank piece of paper as they came in and throughout the show we printed a poster. The whole gig was structured around this printing. A group of us were dressed like cinema ushers. But gradually, all the people you thought were ushers turned into the band.”
At many of their live shows they make a book from the prints in the same evening, binding it in concertina fashion. This means you can turn the pages of the book normally or open it up like a fan to see all the prints at the same time.
Ping says, “At an early show we bound this book and a master bookbinder was in the audience. He was watching me do it, and at the time I was okay but not quite a master and he looked at me and said, ‘let me help you dear’ and he was brilliant, he just took over. Then we got the audience to sit on top of it, in place of a nipping press, to press down on the book while it was gluing.”
A large amount of their work consists of commissions by public institutions. One of their most recent creations is for the poetry Parnassus at the Southbank Centre as part of the cultural Olympiad. Poets from around the world have been invited to participate. The Henninghams have made a Solander box that will house the work submitted by the poets.
It appears you don’t need much by way of equipment to make a hand bound book. Looking around the small study at their home in Hackney I note an old embossing press, a guillotine and a large inkjet printer. But while this hand-made process may imply their proclivity for the old, the Henninghams are keen to stress they are not attempting to return to some pre-industrial idyll. William Morris has been a great source of inspiration, who they believe is erroneously associated with the Arts and Craft movement that flourished in the latter half of the Nineteenth century. David says, “William Morris was always obsessed with the future, he wasn’t really an arts and crafts person. He used to criticize them for not knowing enough about machines.”
A group of us were dressed like cinema ushers. But gradually, all the people you thought were ushers turned into the band
Ping adds, “The reason why he spent his days elbow deep in indigo wasn’t because he was trying to go back to the good old days, he just couldn’t get good enough dying done by anyone else. Similarly, with publishing we are trying to move the whole concept forward.”
In one sense the Henninghams are setting the tone for a radical new approach to publishing by showing that writers and artists aren’t beholden to traditional publishing houses. Of course, this doesn’t open it up to everyone as the majority of aspiring writers will not be equipped with the skill and dedication to design and bind books as beautifully as The Henningham Family Press. Still, you can look on and admire.