The Origin of the (Book as a) Work of Art

Midway through a party for Thornwillow Press at the St. Regis Hotel last night, a book publicist brought up Heidegger.

The artist David Foote, right, with models at the St. Regis.

Midway through a party for Thornwillow Press at the St. Regis Hotel last night, a book publicist brought up Heidegger. “It’s all about the thinginess of the thing,” he said gloomily, sipping champagne, after a discussion about why Montblanc pens was sponsoring a book party. His point was that nice pens, small letterpress books, the St. Regis, fine stationary – these are all formerly rather ordinary objects that have now become rarified.

The book in question was It Happened Here, a history of the St. Regis Hotel by Lesley M.M. Blume, the first in a series of “libretti” by Thornwillow Press that intends to transform books, as Van Gogh once did with a peasant’s shoes, into art (by emphasizing the books’ beauty, their status as “limited edition,” and by charging $40 to $400 dollars for them.) As the press release for Ms. Blume’s book put it, “the Libretto Library is dedicated to the belief that physical books – tangible, aesthetically pleasing, letterpress printed and beautifully bound – have a new and even more important place in our lives: as repositories of permanence in an increasingly ephemeral world of letters.”

Thornwillow is not the first publisher to treat the book as a thing divorced from its more equipmental characteristics. The most recent example would be James Frey, who avoided a traditional publisher in the United States and printed only a limited run of the physical edition of his book, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, through Gagosian Gallery (along with a $6.99 e-book). And the representatives of New York publishing who are involved in the Thornwillow series – Andrew Wylie, the literary agent; Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of FSG and Lorin Stein, the editor of The Paris Review are themselves men who have distinguished themselves by maintaining a certain decorous ideal of literature, life in New York, and dapper dress. (They are joined by Henry Finder, editorial director of The New Yorker, Michael Shnayerson, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and Ms. Blume.)

The inspiration for the series was described as “the early works of Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, The Yellow Book magazine, and the early days of The New Yorker.” A suitably nostalgized party therefore had to be thrown to celebrate the book, under the dimmed chandeliers of the St. Regis. There was champagne in a bathtub of ice, heavy-lidded women in silent-movie era costume lying across chaise lounges to have poetry written on their backs and an old-time orchestra whose tuba provided a steady bass soundtrack all evening.

“It’s the band from Boardwalk Empire and The Aviator,” someone said, then giggled, adding, “I almost said ‘the atavist.’” As a willowy woman in a gauzy white dress with a harlequin mask affixed as her hairpiece swanned past a man in silk tweed with gold-rimmed glasses and a straw trilby and a ghostly child who appeared to have materialized from a Rococo portrait in a white brocade dress and pearls, we found ourselves wondering how these people managed to conceal themselves so well on the other 364 days a year.

Dali, Moet.

The stars of the evening were Luke Ives Pontifell, Thornwillow’s publisher, who wore a black pinstriped suit with a gray silk tie tucked into the high waist of his trousers, and Ms. Blume, who described herself as very “Merchant and Ivory oriented,” and wore a black satin dress and a bejeweled scorpion brooch she said was inspired by Salvador Dali.

“I collect vintage books, I throw dinner parties, I have not one but two record players in my house,” said Ms. Blume, when asked about her nostalgia (she is also the author of the how-to guide Let’s Bring Back: An Encyclopedia of Forgotten-Yet-Delightful, Chic, Useful, Curious, and Otherwise Commendable Things from Times Gone By.)

“I reply to fan mail on the typewriter – I know that sounds creepy but it looks good. I send telegrams to my friends when they have babies. And it has never felt like affectation to me, it’s… it seems natural to write about these kinds of things.”

Mr. Pontifell, for his part, published his first Thornwillow book 25 years ago as a 16-year-old young fogey, printing leather bound first editions on a yearly basis until he had a full-fledged business. Asked about his suit, he said it was produced by tailors in Prague. “I have to wear a high waist,” he said. “It’s just better for me.”

A speech was made by Jan-Patrick Schmitz, C.E.O. of Montblanc, the Josiah Wedgewood to Ms. Blume’s Wordsworth, and someone in a corner noticed another thing that appeared to have returned to the world of books: the Medici model.

“It’s the return of patronage,” he sighed.

The Origin of the (Book as a) Work of Art