Perhaps you’ve heard of bibliophiles, but today I’m talking about bibliophobes with Marianne Dages, owner of the letterpress studio Huldra Press. The word bibliophobe is fancy pants talk for people who are scared of books, or for my purposes, people who might be a little intimidated to make that first mark in a blank notebook or journal.
Dages is an artist, printer, bookmaker and authority on the subject. She’s been making custom notebooks for the past seven years.
“I started making books like this because I was always kind of afraid of starting a perfectly white, blank book,” she said. “So, my idea was to make it a little bit more welcoming to start with, and already kind of started with different paper to inspire you to use it in whatever way you wanted to.”
Blank book bullies
Dages’s notebooks are unique creations with interiors sourced from vintage paper. The pages don’t always match and they’re not always blank. One page might be graph paper. The next might bear the crisp blue-lined grid of an accountant’s ledger or library check-out card. Occasionally, there’s a page with a photo or illustration taken from science, natural history or even vintage children’s books, to fill in an otherwise intimidating blank.
The elegant leather-bound and hardcover journals have an artistic quality that customers are sometimes reluctant disrupt with writing and sketches, but Dages encourages them to do just that.
“It’s a little handmade thing in your life, but that doesn’t mean it has to be treated preciously,” she said. “People say, ‘I don’t know what to write in my book. I feel like I have to think of something amazing,’ but I encourage people to use them for anything. I mean, I use them for grocery lists.”
The paper hunter
A grocery list on such hallowed paper? It’s actually not so hallowed. Dages scours thrift stores, used bookstores and other secondhand haunts to find the material for her notebooks.
“Everybody basically knows I’m looking for paper,” she said, noting that friends sometimes drop by her studio at Globe Dye Works in Frankford with sheets of scrap.
Dages has only had her studio space for a year-and-a-half but she’s been making journals, letterpress stationary, cards and art prints for the past seven years. The studio houses a Platen press from the 1920s and two antique turn-of-the-century paper cutters acquired from retiring printers and print shops closing their doors.
Having the studio space has helped Dages to dedicate more time to her business. Initially, she was working two part-time jobs in addition to running Huldra Press, but an increase in business has allowed her to leave one of those jobs behind.
She still currently works as a letterpress tech at the University of Pennsylvania, but it speaks directly to her profession by allowing her to teach others the techniques of setting movable type and creating plates to produce printed images.
A press is born
To see her now, you’d never guess that Dages wasn’t born with printer’s ink in her veins. Her letterpress business actually grew out of a whim. After graduating from the University of the Arts as a photography major, she took a class in bookbinding and fell in love with the process.
Shortly thereafter, she took a letterpress class and continued to explore the two mediums. Making books became an outlet for her artistic inspirations, which include natural history, mythology and folklore. The influence of folklore is reflected in the name of her company and the philosophy behind her work.
“I found the name Huldra in Scandinavian folklore. It’s a woman with a fox’s tail, and it also has the meaning of hidden people,” she said. “I kind of like this idea of hidden hands working on things, that idea of overlapping worlds, people we can’t see that are helping us.”
Hidden helping hands
As a bookmaker, Dages functions something like those hidden people of folklore. When customers purchase her work, they’re taking home something made by her unseen hands.
It’s not always so mysterious, however. You can find Dages at local craft fairs, like the upcoming Crafty Balboa on Saturday at the Broad Street Ministry, and online.
Dages has found a way to conquer the bibliophobe’s fear of a blank page with notebooks that she has “already started” with repurposed illustrations and vintage lined paper. She’s created a space that anyone can fill in, adding to the beauty of her creations.
“The thing I love about [journals],” she said, “is that they become more interesting as they’re used, as they’re worn.”