Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

The Art of Book Sculpture

Surgical typography, a beautiful ghost, and why the reading of art is the new art of reading.

We’ve already seen artists make magic out of materials like paper, cardboard and even toilet paper rolls. One related creative trend we’ve been seeing lately is that of book sculptures. (We wonder if it has to do with the speedy demise of print as artists try to find new ways of engaging with these analog cultural artifacts whose core function digital platforms are deeming obsolete.) Today, we spotlight five of our favorite book sculptors.


Artist Nicholas Galanin‘s What Have We Become? series offers incredible, haunting 3D portraits hand-carved out of several-thousand-page tomes.

A North American indigenous artist, Galanin’s work is inspired by Native American culture and reflects a certain layered authenticity difficult to capture in words.


Paul Octavious takes the concept of book sculptures quite literally — his typographic creations, sculpted out of piles of books, are a brilliant example of richness in simplicity.

Both playful and sophisticated, defying the laws of physics, the sculptures are a wonderful celebration of everything a good book stands for: imagination, balance, and delightful escapism from the constraints of reality.


For the ultimate meta-conceptual book art, look no further Royal College of Art graduates Hanna Nilsson, Sofia Østerhus and Markus Bergström, a.k.a. Bygg Studio, who have created an entire alphabet out of stacked books.

As bonified typography geeks, we’d love to see the series turned into an actual, usable font.


The great gift of literature is its ability to make incredible scenes spring up from the barren black-and-white landscape of the printed page and come to life before your eyes. British artist Su Blackwell does pretty much the same.

From Pandora’s box to Alice to Margaret and Marjorie, Blackwell’s brand of storytelling plays on stories we know and love but tells them in infinitely imaginative new ways.

The intricate, whimsical scenes reconcile serenity and urgency in a palpably delicate way, almost as though they set free the characters and settings trapped inside the books for centuries.


Brian Dettmer is a surgical sculptor with a penchant for the esoteric, obscure and near-obsolete. His remarkable book sculptures are meticulously carved into vintage volumes using a variety of tools — Xacto knives, surgical clamps, pliers, tweezers — and are painstakingly cut away one page at a time.

From atlases to dictionaries to paperbacks to encyclopedias, his artistic ingenuity — as well as his scalpel — knows no boundaries.

An intersection of pop art, ancient craft and scientific fascination, Dettmer’s creations are the epitome of architectured whimsy, precisely measured to tell a story yet artfully flamboyant in a way that makes the story wildly captivating.

Rather than trying to subvert things and impose his own message, Dettmer aims to play on and reveal hidden undertones of the books themselves through his sculptures.

I try to reveal some of the undertones and unconscious stories books tell. If I’m working with a book that was full of information, the book becomes a sculpture and the information can become concrete poetry within the sculpture. With certain books like medical books, the text itself can become a metaphor for love and relationships rather than strictly the physical body. A lot of images and different types of field-specific language can be exposed in different ways to make it more universal.

Print may be dead, but its ghost is a thing of beauty.


Published April 9, 2010




Filed Under

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated