The Kulturforum is a wonderful cluster of art and culture, offering exhibitions for various interests. The different galleries are all housed in one building making it the perfect destination if it is raining. If you are a bibliophile exploring Berlin, make sure to visit the Kunstbibliothek.

During my time in Berlin, the Kunstbibliothek was holding an exhibition that intermingled antiquarian books with works of a contemporary artist, Henning Wagenbreth. This juxtaposition was beautifully executed and clever. When I first walked into the gallery space, a large extravagant sculpture commanded my attention. Expecting the focus to be on books I was taken aback by this structure comprised of vibrant colors and chaotic elements. At first I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Once I began to discern its individual details, I understood that this was a complex sculpture of mixed messages and imagery meant to be loud, maybe even confusing. Books are merely vessels to hold information, this sculpture challenges what a book can be. Even the bottom of the structure seem indicative of opened books although abstract.

Henning Wagenbreth, The Tobot Tower,2008 ff., wood, acrylic © Henning Wagenbreth / Nikolaus Brade

The next piece I was drawn to in the gallery was an antique book opened to a print of the Tower of Babel. This directly informed the sculpture across from it. Completely different in design and style both tell the story of a tower built on dissonance and a cacophony of language. I enjoyed this modern work laced between antique images and how this told a new story and invoked alternative perspectives.

Turmbau zu Babel, Druck, 1550

The rest of the exhibition consisted of work in this format. There were antique books, playing cards, and posters paired with their contemporary companions. Wagenbreth’s colors and imagery were stunning. As someone who’s passion and profession revolve around rare, fine, and antique books, this exhibition was pleasantly different from my expectations. 

Henning Wagenbreth, JazzFest Berlin, 2010, poster, silkscreen print | Johann Hanias, Schmuckstücke, darunter kleine Landschaften, 1654, ornamental print © Henning Wagenbreth | Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek

I hope to return to Berlin in the near future and catch a new exhibition at the Kunstbibliothek. For now I will just have to follow from afar.


Below are a few more books (personal favorites) featured in the exhibition.

Bernard de Montfaucon, Mains Votives, Paris 1724
Patricio Tricasso, Enarratio Pulcherrima Principorum Chyromantiae, Nuremburg 1560
Jörg Wickram, An Entertaining Little Book of Fate, 1671

Monday, Monday

Illustrated By Domonique Alesi

The name “The Leaky Coffee Cup” was inspired by a conversation my former fellow employees and I had in the conference room before our morning meeting. Each of us seemed to be having trouble starting our day right, from difficult commutes to rude encounters and other miscellaneous problems. Coffee seemed like the communal answer to all of our problems. We had all gotten coffee from the cafe attached to our place of work. Each of us were fiddling with our lids and dabbing the tops of our paper travel cups with napkins. As we all discussed our morning woes an employee shouted “and these damn leaky coffee cups!”

For those of you who are as addicted to morning java as I am and run busy lives know the camaraderie of the leaky coffee cup. It is a part of our daily routine that becomes a distant problem until your day is not going quite right. It is then the breaking point from bad to terrible as hot coffee dribbles down your arm. I write this post with my leaky to-go cup beside me as I spill my personal tale of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

My Sunday had set me up for the Monday I was to have like a cosmic joke and I the butt of it. The day before I fell down my stairs jamming all ten of my toes into the wall. Thankfully, I walked away from my tumble with a few brush burns and swollen toes. My cat must have been in on the joke that was set in motion because he uncharacteristically decided to take his aggressions out on my arm. 

I woke up Monday morning in a Judy Moody kind of tudey funk. I had a gnarly bandage on my leg right below my brush burned knee, my forearm looked as tho it had championed barbed wire and my toes were swollen oddly shaped grapes. Emerging from my bed like a champ I was ready to weather the figurative storm that surrounded me as well as the literal one outside. I felt childish with all of my scrapes, bruises, and bandages which may have guided my hands to pull my ponytail on top of my head. This was a classic Domonique look from the early pre-k/kindergarten years and I was ready to rock it as an adult. I put on a black sad sack posed as a dress and a matching pair of rain boots to meet my rainy Monday. I walked halfway to the book repair studio when my stomach growled at me that I had forgotten the food I had packed in my fridge. I lowered my head in defeat as I twirled 180 degrees to trudge back to my house. With an umbrella in one hand, two heavy books wrapped in plastic cradled in the other and a bag hanging from my shoulder I walked back on my swollen toes. I spilled half of my tools into a puddle as I searched for my keys at my front door. Yes folks, this was a Judy Blume kind of story I was in and I was the main character.

In my house I rearranged my priorities fitting my books into the bag with my tools to make room for a cup of caffeine. Take two. I started on my journey to work and saw the bus parked at the stop ahead. With my umbrella and my bags disheveled in my hands, my travel mug dribbling coffee down my arm, I ran toward the bus. Flat-footed avoiding my puffy toes that were now throbbing I almost reached the bus when it closed its doors and drove away. I lost all dignity and began to yell. I wasn’t quite yelling at the passive aggressive bus as much as I was yelling at the world. I won’t tell you the words that were flying past any filters I have in place, I will leave that to your imagination. I will tell you that like a fool, I continued to shout these words as I ran after the bus. The bus stopped at the next corner to pick someone up. This bus was mocking me. I was so close to catching up when the bus closed its doors again. It began to move then stopped. The world may not have been on my side that day, but the timing of the traffic lights were because the blaring red light begged the bus driver to show me mercy. I banged on the bus door. 

When I got on the bus I thanked the driver for opening her doors and explained that I was having a bad day to which she replied,

“I don’t know why, it’s only rain.”

I hobbled on my throbbing toes to find a seat, put my head in my hands and cried. I didn’t mind that my mascara was now trailing down my cheeks, it just added to the theatrics of it all. After I gained some composure, I did what any grown up lady does when put in these kind of predicaments- I called my mom. Through small sobs I told her what had happened. At first my mom was sympathetic to my situation, but then began to laugh. This day was so ridiculous I laughed with her. Circumstances chose to add more comic relief by dropping my call periodically. This would prompt my mom to call me back with a quick summary of what she heard to inform me of where in my story the line cut out. So not only did I relay the story of my day but I had to repeat the parts I had thought I was telling her but in reality I was speaking into an inanimate phone. 

When I finally got to work, I felt the shrug of rain brush off my shoulders. I was safely surrounded by boxes of books in various states of disrepair. I felt an unexpected reciprocation as I mended the book waiting for me on my bench. I reflected on my series of unfortunate events as I pared a leather bandage for this book’s broken spine. Like a Russian doll I enclosed the childish part of me that was pouting at her rainy Monday in the angsty teenage me, where I found a quote nestled in my 90’s gothic heart shaped box,

“It can’t rain all the time.”

I smiled to myself and then tucked this nesting shell away into the exterior that I now wear. I had pulled myself together and out of my own personal storm to be present as I performed surgery on objects that had seen much worse days than I was having. My leaky travel cup winked a drop of coffee that now welled in its lid to remind me of the obstacles I had triumphed to be there.

“Do not be angry with the rain; it simply does not know how to fall upward.” Vladimir Nabokov

A Book Binder’s Tale

   There is more to being a bibliophile than just the love of a good story. It is the entire experience of a book. It is the warm feeling that consumes you as you step into a bookstore flooded with the possibilities of where your next book will take you. Little precious portals sitting on neatly stacked shelves, they are unassuming as your hands brush over their satin smooth spines. When your book searching spider fingers pause at a title and pulls it from the shelf, it comes alive in your hands. You feel the smooth covers, the texture of the paper sticks to your fingers and an aroma of ink and glue fills the space between you and your next adventure. Books are the closest invention man has come to perfection. They were a concept that brewed for thousands of years, yet their design has not changed much. I believe that is part of their magic. When you hold a book you are holding an item that has held relevance for so long and connects us to our past. 



   When I was younger I read the book, “Inkheart” which sunk my heart into this love of books. As I read this story I could feel my brain swirl around it like a drain, slowly being pulled into its vortex. It was my rabbit hole, the one I fell into and flipped my world inside out yet right side up. Cornelia Funke spoke to every part of my love of books, 

   “If you take a book with you on a journey… an odd thing happens: The book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it… yes, books are like flypaper—memories cling to the printed page better than anything else.”

― Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

   “There was another reason [she] took her books whenever they went away. They were her home when she was somewhere strange. They were familiar voices, friends that never quarreled with her, clever, powerful friends — daring and knowledgeable, tried and tested adventurers who had traveled far and wide.” 

― Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

   In this book the main character’s father is a book binder. After reading the description of this character’s profession it danced in my head like a song playing on loop. I wanted his life more than anything. This passion waltzed in and out of my dreams and filled my heart with an ache. I was ten years old with an Alice kind of curiosity and a creativity that had just been lit in a new way and was ready to explode. I collected used materials from my last school project: foam board, construction paper and Elmer’s glue, and a piece of fabric from a miscellaneous craft drawer. I took the very book that inspired me, a book I carried around and read like a bible, with covers that were barely holding on and rebound it in fabric and foam core. Surprisingly, it worked! It wasn’t perfect but it looked kind of right so I considered it a success. I was so pleased I rebound three more books in this fashion.

  When you are young, adults are always asking you what you want to be when you grow up. My go to answer was, “I want to go to Yale University and be and Architect,” this was something I had copied from another girl who had said it and sounded like a good plan. The pleased reactions and small chuckles I received told me this answer was a crowd pleaser so I stuck to it. When I finally came to know what I truly wanted to be, I was filled with a feeling of accomplishment. I could answer this very complex question posed by so many with conviction. Before I could announce my discovery to the world I wanted to double check my work to make sure this answer was correct. I poked around and asked questions about how books are made today and came to the sad conclusion that there was no business for a book binder in modern society. I put this dream I had next to the books I had rebound on the bottom shelf. 



   In grade school, I was not the most social animal. I avoided most school events and spent most of my time skulking around the hallways like a melodramatic cat. I spent a lot of time in the library and the art room. I loved to read fiction and history, I would read about a time when books were bound by hand and about the groundbreaking invention of the Gutenberg Press. I loved to read stories of magical things, ancient histories and the Grimoires that kept these secrets. I also spent a lot of time creating things in the art room. These places were my sanctuary in a noisy school of people I couldn’t relate to. 



   When it came time to choose what I really wanted to be, because I was now grown up, I chose the closest thing to book production I believed I could do. If there was no place for book binders in the production of books I could at least design the images that brought books to life. I attended University of the Arts to study Illustration. I soon found that my University had bookbinding classes and that fire that had simmered to a small flame ignited again. I took all of the bookbinding classes I could and put one hundred percent of my energy into these elective courses. When I left school I was slightly lost again. It was no surprise that shortly after I entered ‘the real world’ I did not find happiness in a nine-to-five job. I was in the process of shifting from one job to another when I met someone who told me about a bookbinder in Philadelphia. If I was a dog my ears would have shot straight up, alert, my posture erect and my tail swinging pinwheels. My world spun around before my eyes and I was walking through the looking glass with no reservations. My childhood dream profession was real and there was someone in this modern world who was doing it. I reached out to the man who was living the life I so desperately wanted and begged him to let me apprentice under him. The stars were aligned for me the day he responded yes. This was the most wonderful gift happenstance could have given me. I live half of my life in books and the other half, surrounded by them. My house is filled to the brim as well as the studio in which I now work. Books that are old, new, antique, rare, fine, and sentimental surround me as I live the life I had once only thought existed in storybooks.

   “Books have to be heavy because the whole world’s inside them.” 

― Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

I still like to look back at the precious book that started it all…