Phantom Books

Amidst a quiet wooded region of Northern California, a small press turns out highly refined limited edition books that are often subtly influenced by the natural surroundings.

The pavement ends abruptly and turns to gravel and rutted dirt, and after a mile, when it seems like your struggling car is not going to make it any farther, you see the gray-brown barn and behind it the wooden house and cabin. You can’t help but wonder: Does FedEx really deliver up here? They do, and nearly every day trucks come and go carrying shipments of handprinted books, packages of metal type, ink, or paper. Paper from all over the world from small mills in Italy, France, Germany, even Bhutan and India all the way to this remote mountain valley in Covelo, California.

Twenty-five years ago, James and Carolyn Robertson loaded their van and began a four-hour journey north from the metropolis of San Francisco. They had decided to relocate their commercial design pursuits to Covelo, and to commemorate the move they renamed their business after the Yuki Indian words for the wilderness to the north. The Yolla Bolly Press was born.

Though the wooded land on which their press is located may be serene and quiet, Yolla Bolly has made a resounding impact among admirers of fine books and others who share a passion for literature and letterforms. The press has also earned recognition among commercial designers who appreciate its combination of letterpress craft, tactile design, and publishing savvy. In addition to exquisite limited editions, the press accepts commissions from a variety of corporate clients, as well as from a number of local wineries and restaurants.

For proprietor James Robertson, the careful choice of printing surface—whether it is paper imported from Europe or ordered from commercial mills in the U.S.—is the starting point of any book project, the first step in the evolution of what he calls the “phantom book.” “Book design is a series of decisions that are all in your head until you can test them in the real world and put them on paper,” Robertson explains.

“From there, the size of the press, the length of the manuscript, the typeface, it all comes together.” At Yolla Bolly, decisions about typography, artwork, and ink colors are determined by collaboration as much as content. Both James and Carolyn work closely with the writers, artists, and even apprentices. “The interesting thing about designing books is that if you read the text, and especially if you enjoy it, the writer will assist you,” James says. “If you don’t like what you’re reading, it’s more difficult, but it’s still possible.”

The suggestive nature of the manuscript is evident in John Steinbeck’s Zapata, which the press published in 1991. Steinbeck wrote the novel-length account of the Mexican Revolution and its martyred hero, Emiliano Zapata, as a first draft of his script for the film Viva Zapata. “The treatment was used to acquaint people working on the film with the story, and once the shooting was over, it was put away and forgotten,” says Robertson. The movie made a strong impression on him as a young man, and when he learned of the existence of Steinbeck’s unpublished manuscript, he was intrigued by the possibility of putting this lost text into print.

After nearly two years of sleuthing, research, and negotiations, Yolla Bolly recovered the text from a library storage vault at the University of California at Los Angeles. Robertson commissioned artist Karin Wikström to illustrate the book. Her expressive, primitive woodcuts are similar to the illustration style popular in Mexican newspapers and broadsides during the time of the revolution (1910-1940). “There was a great deal of photographic evidence of the revolution,” says Robertson. “Karin studied the images very carefully and her woodblocks are based on these photographs and her own intuition.” To accompany the illustrations, Robertson chose the typeface Veronese. “It’s a little heavy, slightly clunky, and it went well with the illustrations.” The edition of 230 copies took nearly three months—and 600 pounds of lead foundry type to produce. The lengthy production schedule is typical of editions printed at the Yolla Bolly Press, which publishes two titles each year, one in the fall and one in the spring.

Yolla Bolly’s 1999 spring edition was Two Kitchens in Provence, M.F.K. Fisher’s eccentric memoir of her forays into the food markets of southern France. The press worked with illustrator Ward Schumaker, who created nine brush-and-ink drawings to complement Fisher’s evocative essays. For Schumaker, with his longtime interest in the handprinted books of the Arts and Crafts movement, the collaboration with Yolla Bolly was an ideal project. His artwork was overprinted in delicate shades of olive and orange ink selected by Carolyn Robertson. Schumaker (who also contributed illustrations for the spring 2000 title Paris France by Gertrude Stein) remembers the first time he saw color proofs of his drawings as they came off the press. “I realized that the colors she had chosen were slight variations on my idea, but they fit the paper and the texture perfectly,” he says. “Carolyn has an uncanny color sense I think that part of it comes from where they work.” Carolyn’s refined sense of color is evident in all of Yolla Bolly’s titles, even when imagery is sparse. In a page of densely printed black type, for example, her choice of a rust-brown or vibrant blue as an accent color enlivens the page.

James Robertson’s phantom book finally manifests itself when the printed pages are gathered together and bound, and the press puts as much attention into the covering of their books as they do with the interiors. In The Nature of Nature and the Tree, an edition of essays by British writer John Fowles, beige boughs of leafless trees emerge from a coarsely textured cloth cover. Roan Stallion, Robinson Jeffers’s poem about a cabin that is abandoned when its owner is killed by a stallion, is bound with a supple gray leather, and the scent of it lingers on the pages of the book.

Growing up in his hometown of Alameda, California, Robertson did odd jobs for a commercial printer throughout high school and college, where he studied painting at UC Berkeley. “But I was too much of an entrepreneur to be an artist,” he muses, “so I started to do graphic design work.” After a diverse career that ranged from environmental graphics to educational films, Robertson focused on book packaging. In 1968, he hired his to-be wife Carolyn as an assistant, and six years later they made the move to the woods, continuing to do trade book development (what he refers to as “midwifery”) for publishers in New York, Boston, and San Francisco. In 1983, they also began to publish limited-edition books, a shift in focus that combined James’s lifelong interest in printing with his background in art.

The first step was building Yolla Bolly’s workshop—a large barnlike structure that is suffused with natural light. The building is a working museum as well as a design studio and publishing office aside from the fax machine and computer, much of the printing equipment is from the early 1900s. The barn was expanded 12 years ago to accommodate more presses—Yolla Bolly’s collection includes a Colt Armory from the 1920s, a modern cylinder press, and a cast-iron Albion handpress from the 19th century. Now we have plenty of equipment, but we always need more type,” James says, gesturing to a row of oak type cabinets. “You can never have enough type.”

Three years ago, the press ceased packaging commercial books to work full-time on its limited-edition projects. “We’ve come full circle,” says Robertson. “We’re doing graphic design and letterpress printing for small companies. In a way, I’m doing what I was doing when I was a kid— job printing—but along the way, I’ve refined my skills.” Yolla Bolly has released 25 books in editions of between 75 and 250 copies.

Publishing handprinted books may not be as lucrative as commercial work, but Robertson feels it is far more rewarding. He explains. As the book becomes more of a mass-produced commodity, the book that is produced as a craft/object/work of art is going to become more valuable, not less.”

Equally valuable has been the experience of living in the woods, six miles from the nearest town, and the influence this natural environment has had on the work that Yolla Bolly creates. Living on forty acres of land in the middle of nowhere allows us to focus on our work,” says Robertson. “And we love what we do.”

This article was originally published in Print Magazine. © Philip Krayna.