Tiramisu Press

Published in Wisconsin Week, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Aug. 30, 2000, written by Jeff Iseminger

By Jeff Iseminger

They do a dance together, they do. It’s a dance of paper and ink and type and words, a dance that melds message with form. Out on the floor they whirl and spin until they blur…into books.

These books are beautiful, striking and, above all, whole. They are not just words plopped in a pretty house, but a form of art that communicates through the sizzle of synergy.

These dancers are husband and wife: Ivan Soll, professor of philosophy, and Marta Gomez, acting director of book conservation at Memorial Library. Apart from their positions but tied to the same professional passions, they own and operate the Tiramisu Press, which they founded in 1985 to produce letterpress books in limited editions. (Tiramisu is a Tuscan dessert, literally meaning “pick-me-up.”)

More than anything, intimacy and integration characterize their creations. The ties between Gomez and Soll and their books are intimate indeed: He writes the text; she sets type, prints and binds; and together they design the visual aspects. She used to make the paper but now buys it, mostly from Japan, since papermaking consumes so much time.

But that rough division of labor doesn’t do justice to the complexity of their collaboration. “Sometimes I propose a book structure to Ivan for his ideas of appropriate text, and sometimes he shows me text for my ideas of a structure,” says Gomez. “Then we talk back and forth about everything as we produce a book.”

A book, unlike a painting, demands collaboration. But most often that merely means a writer hands words to a publisher, who then pays people to build a house (book) for it. And the house often looks like a plain three-bedroom ranch, compared to the abodes Tiramisu builds.

“We like to produce books that open up to readers in surprising ways as they discover the content,” says Gomez. Pages may fold out, for example, or the covers overlap, and each book nestles in its own custom-designed box.

In fact, everything about a Tiramisu book is up for creative grabs, including the binding, size and shape of pages, and placement of text. One book, “What goes around, comes around,” has its pages radiating out from a binding of vertical copper rods fixed in a wooden base. And another, “Colombo/C:o:l:o:n/Columbus,” reveals itself through a triptych construction.

“The book itself is part of the message,” says Soll. “It is more than just a means to the meaning of words.” In turn, Soll’s words take on new meaning because he integrates them into the book’s design.

In “Tryangulations,” a triangular book, he delights in playing with words and exploring parallels between geometry and life: “Brought to despair by the confines of the pair, some try triangles. But trying triangles often results in trying triangles.” In that book, Gomez prints Soll’s text in a square, rectangle and parallelogram.

Soll incorporates ideas from great philosophers in Tiramisu books, but not in an academic way. On the contrary, a prominent American poet has called his texts “lyric philosophy.”

“I work in a field of hyper-rationalism where I have to be very analytical and clear,” says Soll. “So it’s a great feeling of freedom to express philosophical ideas without academic constraints.”

Make no mistake, this is book art, not puttering with paper. Tiramisu books have been shown in solo-press exhibitions in Germany and Hungary and can be found in the collections of the Library of Congress, La Bibliotecca Nazionale Centrale in Florence, Italy, and the Kohler Art Library at UW-Madison. (To see some Tiramisu books, call Kohler’s director, Lyn Korenic, 263-2256.)

Gomez and Soll taught the art of the book this summer at the famed Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine.

When you come down to it, they have done well for a simple reason: They are head-over-heels in love with the book.

“You can experience a book on so many levels – visually, tactilely, intellectually,” says Gomez. “Even paper alone can be so sensual.”

And every once in awhile, their love of the book leads them to a place or zone or state of mind where they forget about even their limited editions, which range from four to 60. Instead, they decide to produce a one-of-a-kind, like “Peeramids,” a gorgeous book of walnut-stained paper that recombines images with each flick of a page, a book that exists nowhere else.

After all, says Soll, even in a world awash in electronic information, “the book is an end in itself.”