Libraries and museums are two of the world's most treasured places, housing rare objects and books of beauty. Just inside New York’s bustling Fifth Avenue, within The Metropolitan Museum of Art, lies the Thomas J. Watson Library, an intersection of these hubs of knowledge.
We recently spoke to Holly Phillips, Collections Manager for Acquisitions and Mindell Dubansky, Museum Librarian for Preservation, who both have the privilege of working at the Watson Library. For our collaboration with The Met, designers took inspiration from book covers found in treasure trove of tomes, crafted by twentieth-century designer, illustrator, and author Margaret Neilson Armstrong. With sinuous lines and fluid florals, these covers create worlds of their own, reflecting the freedom of the Art Nouveau movement.
Holly and Mindell shared insights from their experiences working at one of the world’s most impressive art libraries, shedding light on the new collection and the timeless beauty of books.
On The Met’s Thomas J. Watson Library
MINDELL: The Watson Library is a miraculous, open and engaging place, filled with a tremendous variety of old and new treasures from all over the world. It is primarily a world-renowned art research library with a collection that complements the encyclopedic art collections in the Museum, and it has over one million books collected over the past 150 years.
On a typical day as a librarian
HOLLY: I wear many hats in the Acquisitions department. On a typical day, I might be reviewing lists of potential rare book acquisitions from booksellers; opening an unsolicited gift in the mail [from rare books to artist donations]; greeting library patrons at the circulation desk and assisting them with varied research questions; meeting with Mindell's Book Conservation staff to determine best housing for each special collection acquisition.
MINDELL: Last September, I celebrated my fortieth anniversary at the Met! Activities on any given day might involve repairing and rehousing books, working with vendors, contributing to exhibitions, working on grant projects, giving tours and more. Since 2017, I have been engaged in one large endeavour – the creation of the Watson Library Paper Legacy Collection. This has been an effort to document and collect the work of a generation of American decorated paper artists working from the 1960s to today.
On Art Nouveau
HOLLY: Art Nouveau was an international art movement which developed in the 1880s. Like the Arts and Crafts Movement which emerged at the same time – with the motto of finding beauty in everyday objects – Art Nouveau sought to elevate decorative art from craft to fine art.
Characteristics of Art Nouveau book cover design include muted cloth colours – many dark greens, greys and browns appear at this time – with floral motifs composed of organic, sinuous curves and an overall simplified design distilling floral forms to their essential elements. Many of Armstrong’s early designs embody these Art Nouveau principles.
On the Watson Library’s collection of Margaret Neilson Armstrong book covers
HOLLY: Margaret Armstrong (1867–1944) was a celebrated book cover designer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. She was also an author, book field collector, and botanical illustrator. She was among the most influential designers of her time and a source of inspiration for other female book cover designers including Amy M. Sacker, Lee Thayer, and Marion Louise Peabody.
The years 1892–93 were groundbreaking for women book cover designers. As Armstrong’s career as a book designer progressed, her designs became more fluid and individualized, reflecting the books’ subjects. With her increasingly colourful, striking book covers, she was in demand as a designer and worked for twenty-one different publishers, producing approximately 270 book cover designs. Watson Library has seventy five Margaret Armstrong bindings dating from 1892 to 1927. Our collection highlights themes of her work including designs that invoke the patterns of stained glass and designs featuring flowers and plant forms.
On favourite books in The Watson Library
HOLLY: Every day, with each new acquisition, I have a new favourite. Especially loved by the staff and researchers is an early twentieth-century trade catalog of actual glass samples by the French manufacturer. One of our most charming publications – and another favourite – is a 1934 trade catalog of Art Deco inspired baby carriages, strikingly modern tubular steel prams and strollers.
MINDELL: The Watson Library collection includes over one million books and we acquire approximately 10,000 books per year. There are so many I appreciate. Naturally, as someone who is fascinated with the book as an object, I am partial to artists’ books, books about books, and those with interesting formats, materials and bindings. There are two collections I have purposefully built, the publishers’ bindings designed by Alice C. Morse and the Paper Legacy Collection.
“The expressive illustrations also had an impact – from an early age I saw the transporting power of art bringing you to another place.”
On what they’re reading now
HOLLY: Steven Heller’s new autobiography, Growing Up Underground: A Memoir of Counterculture New York. My father was a celebrated graphic designer in New York City in the seventies, a contemporary of Heller’s, so it is fascinating learning more about my father’s field.
MINDELL: I have always loved how-to books and I read them whether or not I plan to make what they describe. Right now, I’m reading The Art of Shirret, and I’m glued to it as I’m making a shirred rug. I love this book because it is a multi-generational endeavour, originally published in 1968 by Louise McCrady and later reissued with lovely, clear illustrations and instructions by her daughter, Lady McCrady, who is carrying the Shirret torch.
On the first book that made an impact
HOLLY: The first book that my mother read to me, Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey. Through this lovely book, I was introduced to the idea of atmosphere, in this case the relaxing countryside of Maine; how environments and atmospheres can be so vivid and varied. The expressive illustrations also had an impact – from an early age I saw the transporting power of art bringing you to another place. It was powerful.
MINDELL: Pippi Longstocking was my first favourite book. I was intrigued by Pippi, because she lived independently with her horse and monkey, and she had wonderful adventures, and a strong sense of justice.
On books that have shaped them
HOLLY: Dan Wakefield’s New York in the 50s. I was fascinated by Beat Culture in my early twenties when I read it, and the history of Greenwich Village. The open-mindedness and freedom of artistic expression during the conventional 50’s was inspiring as well as grounding. As a native New Yorker, I was also interested in learning more about my roots.
MINDELL: A book that shaped me a great deal in my youth is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I read it as a freshman in college. The stories were wonderful, and it made me realize for the first time that there didn’t need to be a reason for everything. Somehow that was an epiphany.
How does the work of Margaret Neilson Armstrong make you feel?
HOLLY: Empowered, inspired.
MINDELL: Elated, inspired and awestruck. Her beautiful designs are magnetic and so very beautiful. This is why they are still popular today and collected widely.
Describe a working day at The Met in three words.
HOLLY: Exuberant, joyful, learning.
MINDELL: Beauty, collegiality, educational.
Your reading habitat: subway, desk, bath, bed?
HOLLY: My favourite is poolside.
MINDELL: Anywhere cushy.
One thing you should know about librarians:
HOLLY: They love helping people.
MINDELL: You can count on them to be punctual.
Best thing about being a librarian:
MINDELL: Being surrounded by beautiful and informative books every day, it’s bliss.
What book title would you give the chapter of your life at The Met?
HOLLY: A Love Affair.
MINDELL: My chapter has lasted 40 years, so it’s pretty much the whole book. I’d need a few months and a lot of conversations with friends to determine a real title. At this moment, Cupid’s Arrow: My Love Life with Books sums it up.