Man at His Best

Designer Profile: Adelene Koh, the bookbinder

We trace Adelene Koh’s journey from dissatisfied creative to designer bookbinder

BY WAYNE CHEONG | Dec 1, 2015 | Design

Photograph by Louis Kwok

Adelene Koh’s impasse echoed the myth of Theseus trapped in the labyrinth, following the thread that he had trailed before him. Despite be-ing buoyed by youthful optimism after designing a much-talked-about ad, she found herself walled in by clients’ whims and long work hours. “Flexible time meant they expected you to drop every-thing and return to the office to work, even on a weekend,” she rues. Koh thought she would find her calling in ad design, but after a disheartening internship and freelancing gigs at two major ad firms, she freed herself to the skies as a flight attendant.

It was a much-needed respite. The dim ember of creativity was kept aglow by her travels to faraway lands, but it became a pyre when she met a book-binder at a New York book fair. Poring through his handmade books and their different bindings, Koh realised she had found her true calling.

Koh had bound a book when she was a kid, and when she returned to the craft, it was like treading familiar waters. In February 2012, she posted on her blog a series of small book pendants with handwritten notes inside. Her friends started placing orders, and encouraged by the response, she delved further into the craft with a hunger. At that point, however, there were only so many YouTube bookbinding tutorials and books that she could learn from. She knew she had to find someone who could teach her. So after much research, in December 2012, Koh flew to Japan, where she tutored under Yamazaki Yo and Nishio Aya. She would later train under Mark Cockram in London. Her Japanese mentors taught her the hows of bookbinding, and Cockram taught her the whys.

Her reputation started to build, brick by brick, after she began participating in bookbinding competitions. She knew she was a tyro in the industry and needed accolades in order to stand out. Among her achievements: seeing her work for Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám exhibited alongside the prize winners in the Bookbinding Competition 2013, and being awarded a Highly Commended Certificate for her binding of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s in the Bookbinding Competition 2014.

Like other designer bookbinders, Koh mulls over the contents of a book before interpreting it through the execution of her designs. During an evaluation, she’ll sit with a client and go through an estimate of the restoration cost and process. “Sometimes, the price gets so high we decide that it’s better for the client to buy another book,” she says. If well taken care of, her work is destined to outlive her, her story writ within the pages.

She not only makes a bespoke book to a client’s specifications, but also restores books that come to her with broken spines, flaking covers and loose pages.As a moving line, Koh sees no sense in retreat. You will never see the same aesthetic in another work. Her bound books are one-offs and no amount of coin will force her hand to duplicate it. “If it’s sold, it is gone,” beams Koh. “I want the person who buys my book to be the only one to have it. That item becomes priceless.”Theseus escaped the labyrinth, as did Koh, and she looks back on the long line trailing from her clew and marvels at her point of origin. She recalls the first time that she showcased her work, at the Public Garden Flea Market, where curious hipsters fawned over her handmade notebooks. They wondered out loud how she made them, oblivious that the answer could be found in the hand-paint-ed banner stretched above the stall, with the following quote by Roald Dahl: “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

First published in Esquire Singapore's December 2015 issue.