‘A craftsman at heart’

The School of Art's Ken Botnick is concerned with a book's cover, not just its contents

Breathing lessons with Allen Ginsberg. Blowgun practice with William S. Burroughs. Ken Botnick could tell some stories. But in many ways, Botnick, professor of visual communications and director of the Nancy Spirtas Kranzberg Studio for the Illustrated Book, has dedicated his career to facilitating the stories of others.

Over the past 25 years, Botnick has published everything from trade books on art and design to handmade, limited edition volumes by some of the world’s foremost literary figures.

Ken Botnick instructs students in the Nancy Spirtas Kranzberg Studio for the Illustrated Book, with the help of Wilson the dog. Botnick is a renowned publisher and book designer, in addition to being professor of visual communications in the School of Art.
Ken Botnick instructs students in the Nancy Spirtas Kranzberg Studio for the Illustrated Book, with the help of Wilson the dog. Botnick is a renowned publisher and book designer, in addition to being professor of visual communications in the School of Art.

“Ken is a very influential figure in the American fine press movement,” said Anne Posega, head of Olin Library Special Collections. “His work is elegant and innovative, but with a strong focus on publishing significant texts. For Ken, the content of a book is as important as the way it looks.”

Since coming to the School of Art in 1997, Botnick has continued to design both trade and small-press books while pioneering new directions in the visual communications curriculum.

Just last week, he received a Fulbright Grant to India for spring 2006.

“I’m a craftsman at heart,” Botnick muses, “drawn to the play of material, technique, design and soul, whether it’s in a poem, a painting, a bridge or a ceramic pot. Craft is one of the defining human characteristics. For me, the book has been a kind of path toward that humanity.”

Growing up in Akron, Ohio, Botnick didn’t consider himself a particularly artistic kid and frequently spent summers working construction with his father.

A high school field trip to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater outside Pittsburgh proved a turning point. Botnick was thunderstruck by the small, multi-tiered residence, which dramatically straddles a mountain waterfall.

“It was a pivotal moment,” Botnick recalls. “I woke up to something called design.”

At the University of Wisconsin, Botnick befriended renowned book artist Walter Hamady, who ran The Perishable Press from a nearby farm. He also began working with classmate Steve Miller, who had just launched Red Ozier Press.

“(Hamady and Miller) were dedicated to literature in ways I’d never confronted,” Botnick says. “Making these books — literally starting with paper fiber; setting and printing type; binding the thing — felt very authentic to me.”

After graduating in 1978, Botnick completed a one-year graduate program at the Conway School of Landscape Design in Massachusetts, then worked with earth sculptor Nancy Holt on a park outside Washington, D.C.

Yet all the while he continued working on book projects with Miller.

In the fall of 1979, the pair decided to take Red Ozier from Wisconsin to New York. The muses smiled, in the form of $10,000 literary grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Botnick found a loft in lower Manhattan and soon Red Ozier was up and running, one of the few letterpresses in the city. Early projects included Robert Bly’s Mirabai Versions (1980); Burroughs’ The Streets of Chance (1980); and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s One Day of Happiness (1982). Larry Rivers illustrated Ned Rorem’s Paul’s Blues (1984); Nancy Spero illustrated Antonin Artaud’s Chanson (1985).

Other coups included previously unpublished works by Ginsberg, Guy Davenport, William Faulkner and Octavio Paz.

“We had a very particular slant,” Botnick explains. “We’d get things that weren’t really commercially oriented, things that were more personal in nature.”

Editions were small, perhaps 150 copies, and typically sold for about $100 — inexpensive for handmade books. Bartering helped control costs. Authors took a portion of the print run; a local foundry cast type in exchange for help on other jobs.

By the late 1980s, Red Ozier had published more than 60 titles and emerged as one of the nation’s premiere book studios.

But after almost a decade in New York, Botnick — newly married and starting a family — was ready for a change. In 1988, he and Miller sold Red Ozier’s archives to the New York Public Library.

Miller went to the University of Alabama as director of book arts, while Botnick joined Yale University Press as head of art book design and production.

“I wasn’t really qualified for the job,” Botnick says. “These were trade publications, printed in Hong Kong, Milan… I’d only done small letterpress books. But I had this notion that I knew what a book was supposed to look like. How different could it be?”

Botnick designed *Three Essays: Reflections on the American Century* (The Press at Washington University, 2000).  Edited by Wayne Fields, the book paired essays by Arts & Sciences' Gerald Early, William H. Gass and Naomi Lebowitz with illustrations by the School of Art's Michael Byron, Patrick Schuchard and Denise Ward-Brown.
Botnick designed *Three Essays: Reflections on the American Century* (The Press at Washington University, 2000). Edited by Wayne Fields, the book paired essays by Arts & Sciences’ Gerald Early, William H. Gass and Naomi Lebowitz with illustrations by the School of Art’s Michael Byron, Patrick Schuchard and Denise Ward-Brown.

Botnick thrived at Yale, designing Andrew Stewart’s definitive Greek Sculpture: An Exploration (1993), Maud Lavin’s Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Höch (1993) and other important projects.

He even played a role in acquiring titles, particularly design books such as Dan Friedman: Radical Modernism (1994), and also began teaching typography at the Yale School of Design.

In 1993, Botnick was appointed executive director of the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, one of the nation’s premier craft centers.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to become immersed in the international craft education movement and have some degree of influence over curriculum and program,” he explains. “Design and craft are interesting fields because knowledge is often transferred non-verbally. Watching the hands of a master potter, listening to the silence in the room… that to me is fundamental.”

Yet as an administrator, Botnick found his own studio time severely curtailed. Then, in 1997, a new opportunity arose when Washington University announced plans to form the Kranzberg book studio.

“It was a perfect fit,” Botnick recalls. “The chance to build the studio and configure program goals was really interesting. There also was a lot of talk about publishing — people had projects but no real way to get them done.”

That, of course, was Botnick’s expertise.

Since coming to St. Louis, he’s designed and produced a series of trade publications focusing on campus authors, artists and architects.

Highlights range from Three Essays: Reflections on the American Century (The Press at Washington University, 2000); to Literary St. Louis: A Guide (Missouri Historical Society Press, 2000); and Modern Architecture in St. Louis: Washington University and Postwar American Architecture, 1948-1973 (School of Architecture, 2004).

Other books include Selected Poems by John N. Morris, professor emeritus of English in Arts & Sciences, and Morris’ memoir Then: Essays in Reconstruction (both 2002).

Botnick continues to publish small, handmade editions under his own emdash imprint.

Recent releases include Clarence Morgan: Sketchbooks (2000); Kavya (2003), a series of classical Sanskrit poems collected by Octavio Paz; and In Defense of the Book (2001) by William Gass, Ph.D., the David May Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Humanities in Arts & Sciences.

These days, Botnick is preparing for the Kranzberg studio’s fall 2006 move from West Campus to Earl E. and Mrytle E. Walker Hall, now under construction. The complex, 2,500-square-foot studio will house multiple presses, paper cutters, silkscreen facilities, type storage and digital workspaces.

At the same time, he’s begun working with students and faculty from other campus areas to bring a new element — cognitive science — into the visual communications curriculum.

Ken Botnick

Titles: Director, Nancy Spirtas Kranzberg Studio for the Illustrated Book, professor of visual communications, School of Art

Family: Wife Karen Werner; daughter Claire, freshman at Mount Holyoke College; daughter Molly at Crossroads School; dog Wilson, shop maintenance engineer

Selected grants and awards: National Endowment for the Arts (1984); New York Council on the Arts (1985-88); Best of Show, Triennial Broadside Competition, Fine Print Magazine (1991); Fulbright Fellowship (2006).

Selected exhibitions: Fine Printers, Finely Bound, Watson Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1987); Private Presses, The Gutenburg Museum, Mainz, West Germany (1988); Red Ozier Press: A Retrospective, The Cooper Union, New York (1993).

“It’s important for designers to understand how the mind receives information,” he explains, noting that the move follows a national, first-of-its-kind symposium on “Visual Design for an Aging Population,” which Botnick — a member of the Center for Aging executive committee — organized last spring.

“There are real, physiological foundations underlying traditional graphic principals governing perception. The brain does a lot of the work of design, and it sees a lot that isn’t there.”

Botnick points to a phenomenon known as lateral inhibition: “Basically, intensity heightens when one fields of color meets another,” he says.

For example, when a light color abuts a darker color, the light color will appear much lighter at its edge than it does at its center. “How that edge is perceived has powerful implications for graphic design.”

Botnick also is preparing for his upcoming Fulbright, which he’ll spend helping to develop a new curriculum for graduate-level graphic and information design at India’s prestigious National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad (an institute begun, ironically, by WUSTL Architecture alumnus Charles Eames).

“India is a designer’s dream,” says Botnick, who has visited NID twice before as a lecturer. “There’s ornament everywhere; it looks like the birthplace of color.

“It’s the most innately design-conscious culture I’ve ever witnessed.”

Yet as India industrializes, “all that’s being abandoned, traded-in for technology. The kids being trained as designers today don’t make things with their hands.”

Botnick also plans to make a book, and has already been in contact with a potential partner.

“There’s a group of temple-cloth printers in Ahmedabad who work with these incredible, 100-year-old woodblocks that have been handed-down for generations,” Botnick explains. “They have dozens of blocks for any given cloth and are open to letting me use some for book printing.

“I don’t know what exactly will come from the trip, but I know it will be fruitful.”