Luke Ives Pontifell: A Devotion to Craft Books

Luke Ives Pontifell carries a BlackBerry. He owns an iPad and writes a blog. He has no aversion to the bytes and tweets swirling around in the modern world.

He has also dedicated his life to producing handcrafted books that will exist long after he is gone. Pontifell, founder of Thornwillow Press, a small upstate New York publishing house, custom bookbinder and stationer, believes that in an increasingly transient and expendable society, tangible and permanent things only become than more precious.

“There are times when you actually want to touch something,” says Pontifell, a dapper man in a pocket square and wire-rimmed glasses who was in Washington last week to preside over the opening of Thornwillow’s second retail store. , in the lobby of the Hotel St Regis. His hope is that it will become a place where the hustle and bustle of everyday life will retreat long enough for visitors to stop over a tea or a whiskey and admire the beauty of a leather-bound book. or an inch through revealing correspondences between Abraham Lincoln and his family.

Pontifell, the son of a sculptor mother and advertising father, spent much of his childhood on an 18th-century farmhouse near Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which housed his parents’ meticulously selected furniture collection. There, among the estate’s thorny willows, he learned to appreciate the coupling of sturdy construction and thoughtful design.

As a young boy, he had glaucoma, which required a dozen eye operations, although he was still able to see perfectly up close. As a result, he became a devoted reader, enthralled in equal measure by the stories and the “minority of spacing and lettering”.

A detail of the books produced by Thornwillow Press Ltd. seen at the company’s new site, Thornwillow at the St. Regis. (Matt McClain/FOR WASHINGTON POST)

As a high school student in New York in the mid-1980s, he regularly hand-copied verses from Rilke and his other favorite poets and sewed up little books. At the suggestion of a Latin teacher, Pontifell took a class in typography when he was 16 and volunteered to print copies of a book a family friend had written for his little ones. -children.

A year later, William Shirer, author of “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and family friend, gave him a manuscript he had written about the dropping of the atomic bomb. Pontifell printed it on the kitchen table and took copies to a handful of bookstores who agreed to sell them.

Then Pontifell began cold calling others, eventually persuading recognizable names such as Arthur Schlesinger and Walter Cronkite to let him publish their works. By the time he graduated from Harvard, where he spent much of his time in the rare book library, his hobby had grown into a small business.

He established a relationship with the Montblanc pen company and for a time ran a small stationery business in the Czech Republic. Six years ago, he bought an old coat factory near the Hudson River in Newburgh, New York. There, Pontifell began to build what he envisioned as an “artisanal village that brings together all trades related to books and writing under one roof”.

Thornwillow now operates two factories, where artisans create custom book bindings, publish new work and engrave specialty stationery.

One of the society’s earliest and strongest supporters was the White House Historical Association. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton presented books to Thornwillow as state gifts. And the White House Library contains a large collection of historic Thornwillow publications, which includes leather-bound volumes of letters and artifacts documenting the lives of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.

“When everything is disposable, it’s a powerful way to communicate ideas – to say, ‘This is something that matters,'” says Pontifell, 42. “It’s something you should keep and save.”

Thornwillow’s brand of craftsmanship, however, doesn’t come cheap: Each book on early presidents, for example, costs $1,500. Personalized wedding invitations start at $1,300.

Thornwillow was hired to tear down and restore the St. Regis library in New York City and ended up establishing retail space there last year. The company’s corner at the Washington Hotel will house cases of its own publications, stationery items evoking various Washington neighborhoods, and a full-time “librarian” who can explain the old-world printing process. .

Pontifell, who will split his time between Washington, Newburgh and New York, also plans to host literary salons and book signings, turning the two stores into cultural gathering places.

“It’s craftsmanship, but it’s also a trade,” he says. “And that’s often a tough business. But it’s beautiful. It’s something to be proud of – when you think back to how you spent your time, it was worth it.