Luke Ives Pontifell: A devotion to handcrafted books


Luke Ives Pontifell, president and publisher of Thornwillow Press Ltd., poses for a photograph at the business' newest location, Thornwillow at the St. Regis Washington, D.C. Pontifell began Thornwillow Press, Ltd. in 1985. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
November 11, 2011

Luke Ives Pontifell carries a BlackBerry. He owns an iPad and writes a blog. He harbors no aversion to the bytes and tweets that whirl through the modern world.

He has also devoted his life to the production of handcrafted books that will be around long after he’s gone. Pontifell, founder of Thornwillow Press, a small Upstate New York publishing house, bookbinder and bespoke stationer, is convinced that in an increasingly ephemeral and expendable society, those things that are tangible and permanent become only more valuable.

“For certain moments, you want to actually touch something,” says Pontifell, a dapper man with 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 St. Regis Hotel. His hope is for it to become a place where the bustle of daily life will retreat long enough for visitors to pause over a tea or whiskey and admire the beauty of a leather-bound book or thumb through revealing correspondences between Abraham Lincoln and his family.

Pontifell, the son of a sculptor mother and advertising executive father, spent much of his childhood in an 18th-century farmhouse near Stockbridge, Mass., that was home to his parents’ meticulously culled furniture collection. There, among the estate’s thornwillow trees, 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, though he was always able to see perfectly up close. As a result, he became a devoted reader, captivated in equal parts by the stories and the “minutia of spacing and letters.”

A detail of books produced by Thornwillow Press Ltd. seen at the business' newest location, Thornwillow at the St. Regis. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

As a high school student in New York City during the mid-1980s, he regularly copied verses by Rilke and his other favorite poets by hand and stitched together small books. At a Latin teacher’s suggestion, Pontifell took a course in letterpress printing when he was 16 and volunteered to print copies of a book that a family friend had written for his grandchildren.

A year later, William Shirer, author of “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and a family friend, gave him a manuscript he’d written about the dropping of the atom bomb. Pontifell printed it on the kitchen table and brought copies to a handful of bookstores that 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-books library, his hobby had grown into a small business.

He established a relationship with pen company Montblanc and for a while ran a small paper mill in the Czech Republic. Six years ago, he bought an old coat factory near the Hudson River in Newburgh, N.Y. There Pontifell began building what he envisioned as an “artisanal village that brings all the related crafts of the book and the written word together under one roof.”

Thornwillow now operates two factories, where crafts workers create custom book bindings, publish new works and engrave specialty stationery.

One of the company’s earliest and most ardent supporters has been the White House Historical Association. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton gave Thornwillow books as state gifts. And the White House library contains a large collection of Thornwillow’s historical publications, which include 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 of communicating ideas — of saying, ‘This is something that matters,’ ” says Pontifell, 42. “This is something that you should keep and save.”

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

Thornwillow was hired to cull and restore the library of the St. Regis in New York City and wound up establishing a retail space there last year. The company’s corner at the Washington hotel will house cases of its own publications, stationery 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 both stores into cultural gathering places.

“It is craft, but it is also a business,” he says. “And it’s often a tough business. But it’s beautiful. It’s something you can be proud of — when you look back at how you spent your time, it was worthy.”

Ellen McCarthy is a feature writer for Style.
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