David Bourbeau

David P. Bourbeau, 67, bookbinder, book designer, and Smith School trustee, died peacefully at home on August 22, in the company of family and friends.

Born January 3,1942, he grew up in Holyoke, the ninth of ten children.  At age eleven he became intrigued by the shapes of letters while watching a sign painter apply gold leaf to a store window. After taking a correspondence course in sign lettering he went on to study fine and applied arts in Provincetown and New York. His arts education was greatly influenced by his older brother, Arthur, a painter who had studied with Matisse in Paris.
In 1965 David moved to Northampton, where he and his first wife Nancy Cowen opened a successful craft gallery called Faux Pas. He was introduced to the art of the book by Leonard Baskin, and in 1972 he sold his business and took a two-year apprenticeship with master bookbinder Arno Werner. In 1975 he established the Thistle Bindery, located at various times in Northampton, Easthampton, and Florence, and in 1977 he took on the first of his many students and apprentices.

A consummate bookbinder, he designed and constructed strong, innovative bindings for fine press books while also working in book restoration and art conservation. Having coined the word “bibliotect,” or book-architect, he  observed that a binding “is not merely a fancy cover, the facade, but all of the elements, seen an  unseen, that form the foundation and structure of the book.”  This is borne out in his many organically unified editions, among them Poe’s The Raven, with graceful wing-like forms emerging from a raven-black binding, and Robert Francis’s  posthumous collection Late Fire, Late Snow, whose handmade paper cover contains gold-tooled lines representing the shape of the title poem.  Both of these books were bound using fine papers, a bookbinding material championed by David.

Working in close collaboration with other bookbinders, as well as printers, designers, and artists, he organized local and national book exhibitions, including, in Northampton in 1987, “Form & Content: The Art of the Book in the Pioneer Valley,” a two-week series of lectures, readings, workshops, and demonstrations covering every aspect of book arts in the region. David was also a founding member of the New England Chapter of the Guild of Book Workers, serving as chapter president for two terms, and was chair of the Hampshire County Historical Records Advisory Board. His craftsmanship, generosity, and friendship enriched the entire book arts community in this area and far beyond.

David devoted much of the last twelve years of his life to Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, serving on its Board of Trustees for six consecutive terms. As a tradesman and artisan, he was passionate about vocational education. His vision for the school was based on its original purpose-to produce well-educated tradespeople and well-educated farmers- and on his concern for the future directions of its agricultural programs and the use and protection of its land. Believing that the school farm should be a model for future generations, he helped the school refocus its resources on contemporary issues such as the importance of locally grown food and agricultural sustainability.  Thanks to his efforts, the state of Massachusetts recently approved the school’s application for a new agricultural complex.

In 2002 David was diagnosed with adrenal cancer, but after a year-long period of treatment and recovery, he was able to able to continue working almost until his decease. Surrounded by his family, colleagues, and friends, he was buried Monday in Mount Cemetery in Chesterfield.

He is survived by his wife of twenty-one years, Marie Waechter, daughters Anja Waechter-Bourbeau and Jennifer Bourbeau Joyal, brothers Richard Bourbeau and William Bourbeau, and sisters Joan Hart, Norma Raftery, Ellie Moriarty, and Carol Burrows, and many nieces and nephews.

A celebration of David’s life will be held at 1 pm on Sunday, September 27th at the Unitarian Society, 220 Main Street, Northampton. Memorial gifts may be made to Smith Vocational Building Fund and mailed to Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, 80 Locust Street, Northampton MA 01060.

This obituary appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Northampton, MA, on August 27th.   Here is some more information:

An image of Poe’s “The Raven” can be found at:

David also wrote an essay on Clarence and Ruth Kennedy and their Cantina Press:
http://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/rarebook/cantinaad.pdf  and a personal essay about Leonard Baskin and the Gehenna Press in the 2004 publication, “Paradise Printed and Bound: Book Arts in Northampton and Beyond”  (available from Collective Copies, Florence MA)

His work was featured in many GBW exhibitions, including the NE chapter 2008 exhibition “Inspired Design”:

Please excuse any multiple postings.

Submitted by
Rare Book Specialist, Mortimer Rare Book Room
Neilson Library, Smith College

1 thought on “David Bourbeau”

  1. I was a student at UMass in the mid 60’s majoring in art. I got to know David through a mutual friend-Neil Homestead, and the Faux Pas was a place I visited many times. Today- 47 years after I purchased it- a leather belt with “The” brass buckle which everyone had to have- finally came apart in a critical place. It cannot be repaired- but my memories of David’s keen eye for the beautiful, his engaging conversation, and his strongly-held views on just about everything will never have to be. I shall have them forever. So it is with sadness and a sense of irony that when I went to look up his address I discovered the news of his passing. I was going to mail him the belt with a note that said “well done”. But now that affirmation shall be for his whole life.

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