I’m often asked how and why I started Portfoliobox. People assume that I went to art school and majored in 3 dimensional design or, conversely, that I came from the business community and was looking for a niche that needed to be filled. Neither, of course, is true. The origins of Portfoliobox can be found in books, especially old books.
I was a graduate student in English literature and I loved buying old books at flea markets and used book stores. Being a grad student in lit requires a lot of time sitting at a desk in front of a typewriter – I know, I’m dating myself – and I needed something else besides writing in my life. A friend suggested that I learn to restore the old books I was accumulating. A little research led me to Dan Knowlton, a longtime bookbinder at Brown University. I studied the basics with Dan and quickly discovered that I loved working with my hands and bringing these wonderful old tomes back to life. One of the basics he taught me, almost as an aside, was how to make a lipped clamshell box. I still have that box today.
When I finished graduate school I decided to become a bookbinder rather than a college professor. I opened The Hawthorne Bindery in Wakefield, RI, named after the subject of my thesis, Nathaniel Hawthorne. I spent my time restoring books, binding thesis for local colleges and making portfolios for artists. I’ll always remember my first famous client, the wood engraver Fritz Eichenberg. I was so honored that he trusted me to make his folios that I wouldn’t take any monetary payment. We traded my work for his prints.
A little over a year later I entered the next stage of my training. I traveled to NYC for a few days every month to study fine binding and decorative gold tooling with Gerard Charriere. Gerard is a Swiss bookbinder, known throughout the world for his imaginative contemporary bindings. He really opened my eyes to the design possibilities of both books and boxes. He taught me how perfect a hand crafted object could be and the ability to recognize when it is perfect.
In the spring of 1978 I was looking for someone to help me with my ever increasing workload. I was approached by John Romano, owner of the Sign of the Unicorn Bookstore, a used book emporium in Peace Dale, RI. John held degrees in sociology and was a kindred spirit when it came to books. We talked about old books and how neither of us wanted to pursue the careers for which we had spent so many years preparing. We made an arrangement where I agree to take John on as a paid apprentice and teach him the craft of bookbinding.
Sometime around early 1980 I decided to close my bindery and go to work for a box and display company. They were starting a new division, Museum Box Company, to manufacture archival quality boxes for the art market and they wanted me to head it up. The experience was an eye opener. We still made all the boxes by hand but instead of one box we would make many hundreds at a time. I had to learn how to design for a production environment where every box needed to come out exactly the same while retaining the high quality workmanship of the singly made prototype. I spent a lot of time out on the shop floor observing the workers.
I soon became aware that one particular woman, a young mom in her early 20’s, was clearly the star of the crew. Carol Lajoie seemed to work instinctively, her fingers flying and her scissor cuts almost always perfect. Although she was the youngest on the team, the other women clearly respected her skills. I started asking her opinion on design/engineering options before I discussed these things with the customer. I had come to realize that when I am trying to work out how to bring a customer’s vision to fruition an important step is to go out into the shop, asking the very people who make the boxes. Carol would often offer suggestions on how we could simplify the production of a complicated box while improving the results. Some 15 years later our box making paths would once again come together.
During my time at Museum Box I never gave up bookbinding. I spent many nights and weekends working at my home studio restoring books or collaborating on portfolio projects with John. We both had home binderies and between the two of us we managed to make quite a few boxes and folios. I worked with the clients and came up with the design and then took the materials to John’s house in the woods where we set up production. I still remember going over that one lane wooden bridge in the snow and the dark of night heading over to his house. We both worked our “day” jobs but spent evenings and weekends binding books and making boxes. Although yet unspoken, I think we both knew where our future’s would lay.
In the next chapter of this blog I will share those seminal moments in the life of our company.