Ulli, or Klaus as he is also known, was born in Leipzig, East Germany, a decade after World War II and lived there until the age of twenty. First, a little reminder of what East Germany was like in those days is in order. East Germany was one of the most controlled and secretive of the “Iron Curtain” countries until 1989, when the Berlin Wall— which had effectively separated East from West— was torn down. The central government exercised firm control over every aspect of society, the ubiquitous Stasi or secret police (estimated at one police for every 166 citizens) kept an eye and ear on everybody so that citizens led schizophrenic lives, never able to trust anybody and watching every word they spoke. The economy was subject to central planning, the effect of which was that there were scarcities in almost every commodity (except cheap beer). For example, bakers were subject to a limit on flour, etc, so that when they ran out, they couldn’t make any more bread. The result was that people lined up for hours before the nine o’clock opening to get their allotment before the supply ran out a short time later. A lot of time had to be spent by some member of each family to gather together the few available products to keep life going. Public spending on housing and development was capricious and largely non-existent except where the central authorities saw some benefit for themselves or their cronies. The overall effect on Ulli growing up in this environment was a pervasive discomfort and a constant effort to get ordinary things done, very often through non-official means, and in surroundings drab and without much hope for change. Ulli was lucky that his father was a physician and his family had a large apartment. Both his parents worked, but his grandmother, who lived with them, was able to spend the essential time gathering food and other essentials to keep daily life going in the collectivist state. Primary education was carefully controlled by the central government, and included obligatory student work in factories. And since this was serious labor designed to help fulfill government industrial-plan targets, there was no fooling around—speed and accuracy were mandatory. Ulli remembers learning welding, pipe threading, and other industrial skills. He hated the repetitive, dull work and the smelly, dirty factories and found the people who worked in them also dull and uninteresting. As he was about to finish secondary school, Ulli had no clear idea of what he wanted to do. Though he loved working with his hands, he was determined not to work in an industrial factory, so his father suggested he apply for training as an apprentice bookbinder. He would need to enroll in a technical school and find a place as an apprentice, one week at school and alternate weeks at practical work for two years. Ulli’s father knew a bookbinder who was the master of his own shop in the back of an apartment building with two employees. In the late 1960s, the government had decreed that companies with fewer than seven employees could operate somewhat independently, without most state regulations, and this was one of them. According to the central planning scheme, however, the shop was short one apprentice. The apprentice was supposed to be a female, but as it turned out, (possibly with an assist from his physician father) Ulli had arthritis in both knees and this counted as an official disability, and bookbinding was an eligible craft for the disabled. Ulli was given math and color tests—even his hands were examined to determine that they were not sweaty (not desirable in a bookbinder!)—and then he was allowed to try out for three weeks during summer vacation. The boss pulled a few strings and promised that Ulli could sit part of the time at his work, so he was allowed to take the position and enter training to become a journeyman bookbinder.
This bindery produced various high quality gift shop articles like albums, bookmarks and frames and also produced the parchment panels used on the walls for the Leipzig Opera House. Interestingly, money was not in short supply in East Germany at this time. Wages were reasonable, but there were very few goods to buy. (There was an 18-year wait to purchase a car, so parents signed up when a child was born. The car was available just about when the child could get a driver’s license.) Thus, this shop had a brisk market for their fine products. The apprentice had to supply his own tools. Fortunately for Ulli, his mother worked in an import-export firm and had contacts in West Germany. Good West German tools could be brought into East Germany during the semi-annual trade fairs in Leipzig. Ulli saw that the others wore white lab coats so he got one of those too. Apprentices weren’t really supposed to have the honor of wearing a white coat, but he did. All the work was performed as a three-man production team. Ulli was of course low man as the third apprentice, and he was assigned all the hardest jobs—cutting, folding, and gluing components for the two senior employees who expected to be working at full speed, and always under the watchful eyes of the master. They used mostly potato starch paste, which arrived in a bucket and had to be thinned to the proper consistency. Hot hide glue was of such poor quality and needed so many dangerous additives as well as a complicated gluing set-up to make it workable, that it was seldom used. He had to work furiously from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon. As one of the other employees waited for a part, he would knock his bone folder against the bench top impatiently—a sound Ulli still remembers vividly. Speed and efficiency were of paramount importance, and perfection was assumed. His industrial training early on helped to prepare him and he learned to cut extraneous motions and work faster and more efficiently. German traits, to be sure, but hard work at which Ulli excelled. Fridays he had to thoroughly clean up the shop and scour and polish the glue pot. He thought often of quitting, but his mother encouraged him to continue, and as a result, he learned how to do everything, and to do everything well. The test for journeyman designation involved making several assigned books and an original work and to fit them all into a custom-made box. He also wrote his thesis on The History of Perfect Binding. Ulli gained his certificate. He continued to work at the same establishment because by now his parents had divorced mother was to marry a West German. Ulli knew that eventually he would obtain an exit visa, so he bided his time until he accompanied his mother to West Germany with her new husband in 1976. Ulli was happy in the more prosperous and freer atmosphere of West Germany, but money was in short supply. Seeking a job, he looked in the German equivalent of the yellow pages for bookbinders and found one in Frankfurt who hired him, knowing that with his training and East German background, he could work hard and probably for low pay. Ulli commuted one hour by train and a further 40 minute walk to work, 8AM to 5PM every day. At first there were four employees, then the staff was reduced to two—producing the same amount of work. After two more years of this grueling labor, Ulli’s mother encouraged him to apply for his master’s degree. The course at the Munich Academy of Applied Arts was two years, and openings were available only every two years. With luck, Ulli applied and was accepted, fulfilling the complicated age and experience requirements which included an apprenticeship of two years, four years work as a journeyman, and a minimum age of 25 years at completion. A family acquaintance rented him a studio apartment outside Munich. He had to pay for his own materials and feed and house himself. He often existed on pasta with ketchup, and many times went hungry. He was always thrilled when his mentor invited him for a real meal! The curriculum for the class of twenty-six students was rigorous and comprehensive, aimed at preparing the students for any and all work in the field. It included management, banking, accounting, estimating jobs, artistry and the history of bookbinding—and of course, all aspects of bookbinding by hand and machine. Typography studies included a thorough knowledge of the equipment, type setting, offset printing and silkscreen. Two degrees were available, industrial and hand bookbinding. Ulli completed both, passing rigorous written and oral exams involving realistic work situations including how to set up folding and sewing machines, and estimating a complicated production schedule factoring in all aspects of the work including possible employee sickouts—all in a limited time. In addition, he had to bind three assigned book blocks in the French style, considered the most complicated and sophisticated bookbinding style at the time (although he had to accomplish all the steps himself): half leather, full leather, a slipcase and one binding of his own design; both hand and machine gilding were requirements as well. At graduation, Ulli received the award of the Master of Bookbinding. This beautiful diploma in hand calligraphy hangs prominently in his shop in Berkeley. Ulli was fully prepared but also owed the state the costs of his schooling. Before completing his studies he had read about a bookbinder in San Francisco who was looking for a German bookbinder. Ulli felt confident he would soon have his diploma, and wanted to visit San Francisco, so he applied for the position. The firm was Schubert Bookbindery, and the German founders wanted to keep the firm in German hands with German standards of craftsmanship. A representative came to Germany to interview ten applicants and Ulli got the job. Ulli left with his new Masters Diploma and a debt to the German government which was eventually paid through grants from the German government he received after working for some time in California. Although when he came to California he did not intend to stay forever, a six-month trial at Schubert developed into six years of employment. Without any English, Ulli took nearly three years of night school learning English, and got his high school diploma and GED. During this time, Ulli got to know many of Schubert’s customers and they got to know his work. He was also married and his wife was pregnant with their second child; Ulli thought of buying the Schubert firm. But his boss wanted to maintain too much control and presence in the business. Concurrent to his work at Schubert, he worked on his own at home. At one point, Julie Holcomb commissioned an edition of 26 books which Ulli completed at home at the kitchen table. Julie was working as a printer at the back of a stationery store and invited Ulli to join her as a binder. He had established many other contacts through the fine work he produced, and decided to open his own business on January 1, 1987. He borrowed money to buy cutters, presses and other various binding equipment in Germany and began to produce fine books and boxes for photographers, printers and designers in the Bay Area. In 1988, Schubert sold their business, and several of their customers sought Ulli out to do work for them because they knew his work. Ulli rented a space in the newly opened Print Center (established on Third Street in the old MJB Coffee headquarters). This was a very big step, but the word was out that he was the man for high end quality binding, and he was always busy. At one time he had four employees including John DeMerritt. Ulli is proud that he taught John skills and that John eventually surpassed him and now operates his own successful bindery. Ulli was working long hours and commuting one to one and one half hours to his home and family in Martinez. In the meantime, Ulli regularly had a booth at the Antiquarian Book Association of America’s biennial book fair in San Francisco and the annual Printers’ Fair at Fort Mason, sponsored by the Pacific Center for the Book Arts (PCBA). He kept in touch with Hand Bookbinders of California and other book-related organizations in the Bay Area such as The Colophon Club. After the Bay Area earthquake in 1989, Ulli had already begun to think that he ought to be nearer his family in case of another such emergency. In 1991, the U.S. economy tanked. High end, quality bookbinding was not rebounding well, and in 1993 Ulli learned that the Pettingell Bookbindery in Berkeley was for sale. However, the owner, Theodore “Ted” Hirschberg, wasn’t ready to sell until after his wife died the following year. Ulli bought Pettingell Bookbindery as its fourth owner, and started work on April 1, 1994. Hirschberg, who had the reputation of being a difficult man to get along with, stayed on with Ulli for six months. Ulli was very fond of him and they worked well together. All of Ulli’s life he has been a high-energy, hard working taskmaster. Shortly after his 50th birthday in 2005 he suffered a serious heart attack. During his convalescence, he was advised to get an assistant. He had several employees who stayed for varying lengths of time. Diane Newell came to work and has been at Pettingell for about four years. Ulli’s daughter and son have graduated from UC Santa Cruz and are both working in the Bay Area, so he has much to be proud of. With his mother and brother in Germany, and his roots firmly in Germany, Ulli has visited many times. He finally gave up any idea of returning to live in his native country a few years ago when he became an American citizen. He finds it somewhat irritating that his German friends complain about reductions in government benefits when compared to the American system, they have it “very easy.” Ulli remains a prominent member of the Bay Area book arts community. He served as president of Hand Bookbinders of California from 2008-2010 and presently serves as an officer of The Colophon Club. He continues to run a thriving bindery, and finds more and more pleasure in creating his own work. Perhaps that early dislike of repetitive work has finely caught up with him.
Author’s note: Dear friend George Kane introduced me to Ulli in 1991 when I was looking for a way to bind my first book, an edition of 13 of a family trip album based on family diaries and pictures. I have been at it, more or less, ever since.
This article was written by Signa Houghteling for the Gold Leaf Newsletter, Photo Credit to Melati Citrawireja