A Young Harvard Craftsman Makes a Book You Can Tell by Its Cover

updated 11/14/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. received an audacious letter last fall from an 18-year-old Harvard sophomore named Luke Ives Pontifell. Identifying himself as the founder and proprietor of Thornwillow Press, Pontifell explained that he had already published two handprinted, hand-bound, limited-edition books and that he wanted to bring out a volume commemorating the 25th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death. Did Schlesinger, the chronicler of Camelot, perhaps have a suitable manuscript Thornwillow could print?

Enclosed with the letter was a slender little book, its title and author—An August to Remember, William L. Shirer—printed in rust-red ink on a cover of Japanese bark paper that was woody and beige and soft as felt. Whatever skepticism Schlesinger might have harbored disappeared as he turned the creamy, deckle-edged pages and cast his eyes over the elegant Baskerville typeface and crisp letterpress printing.

"When I saw what he had done with the Shirer book, I knew he deserved my support," Schlesinger says. "Besides, no commercial publisher would ever be capable of printing a work of mine with such quality and care."

This week 425 handmade copies of J.F.K. Remembered—a 1983 essay that Schlesinger updated and adapted for Pontifell's 25th-anniversary edition—will go on sale at Rizzoli bookstores around the country. Wanting "a classic American look that would support and propel the text," Pontifell chose a dark blue cover with the title hand-stamped in gold. Inside, the title page features an engraving of a swooping bald eagle, which Pontifell commissioned from wood engraver Michael McCurdy. "The type is very large for the size of the page," Pontifell says, "so that you can really see all the shaping of the letters. If you run your hand across the page, you can feel the imprint of the type. It's beautiful."

John Brancati, vice-president of merchandising at Rizzoli, agrees. "We know how to tell great handmade books from merely good ones," he says. "Luke's books are works of art. When his Shirer book sold out in four days, we decided to distribute his next project exclusively by buying the entire print run." Most of J.F.K. is hardbound and priced at $80, but 60 copies, covered in lustrous Moroccan goatskin and individually boxed, with a different pattern of marbled endpaper in each copy, will sell for $250 each.

To produce the 52-page book, Pontifell worked 10 hours a day last summer, feeding 2,000 sheets of French rag paper, one by one, into the clacking cylinder of a 30-year-old Vander-cook letterpress. He paused to re-ink every 10 or 15 pages to avoid printing some pages lighter than others. The young artisan rented the press from engraver McCurdy, whose shop is near Pontifell's parents' summer home in West Stockbridge, Mass. (Thornwillow Press is named for the trees surrounding the house.) When Pontifell made the Shirer book in 1986, he was only 17 years old. He and his mother stitched the pages together on the kitchen table. This time Pontifell carried his finished sheets by station wagon to a custom bindery in Upstate New York.

Pontifell is particular about every aspect of his work-and life. He often wears a shirt and tie when he operates a press. Striving to complement the ambience of his Georgian-style Harvard dorm room, he removed all the standard furniture and replaced it with a Turkish Oriental rug, a glass-front walnut bookcase, a marble washstand and a green leather armchair. "There is a compulsiveness in him," says his mother, sculptor Irena Martens. "He had a lot of patience as a child. He was always proud when he made something and it came out good."

Born in New York City to Martens and advertising executive Jack Silverman, Pontifell—who took the name of his father's Polish family when he turned 18—developed infantile glaucoma when he was 3 months old. Seven operations were required, and for a time the disease threatened to blind him. "Because his vision was so distorted, he became very focused on how things were done," says his father. "Without any training at all, he would copy calligraphy or figure out how to take things apart." He also learned to play the accordion and the harpsichord.

Though his eyes tired quickly, Pontifell not only loved to read—there was no television in the house—but he was fascinated by books as finely wrought objects. At 16, two years after taking his first course in printing, he started Thornwillow with money borrowed from his parents and published a children's story, Hello Sun, by Barbara England. When Pontifell showed his effort to Shirer—a neighbor and family friend—the historian and former foreign correspondent gave him as a 17th-birthday present An August to Remember, a memoir of the day the U.S. bombed Hiroshima, to print.

Backed financially by friends and family members, Pontifell turns a modest profit, with no regrets. "If I wanted to make money," he says, "I'd work at Merrill Lynch for the summer." Next year he is planning to apply his old-world craftsmanship to a space-age subject, the 20th anniversary of the first moon landing. "I'm thinking," he says, "of asking Tom Wolfe if he has anything he could adapt for me." In Pontifell, certainly, the author will see the right stuff.

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