Moneeza Khan apologises and says she’ll have to work and talk to me at the same time. “I’ve got a few orders going to America so I’ve just got to get them all out.”
She’s wrapping a watercolour journal that’s been bought by someone in New York. “I put in a bit of Yorkshire lavender that’s grown in my auntie’s garden. I like to think it’s a nice little touch.”
Moneeza runs Lotus Blu Book Art, which specialises in wedding guest books, photo albums, scrapbooks and art journals. She runs the business from her studio at her home on a windy hilltop outside Bradford with her mother, Farida, and aunt, Parveen.
The books are exquisite and all handmade. Moneeza designs the covers with reworked paintings by long- forgotten artists or her own paintings and artwork. They hark back to the ancient skills of bookbinding and papermaking and reflect Moneeza’s fascination with the past and the old storytelling art of miniature Mughal paintings and frescoes. “I’ve always been drawn to nostalgia and collecting things with a bit of history, when I’m on holiday I like taking photographs of tiles and ancient-looking walls, all sorts of things. My style of art reflects my dual British and Pakistani heritage.”
Moneeza, who is self-taught, produces everything from a small, paintable letter writing set that costs less than £10, to one-off custom made books or journals that might cost a couple of hundred pounds.
Many of her books are hand-painted or gilded and she tries to use sustainable materials wherever possible, such as hemp paper or watercolour paper made from recycled takeaway cups and cotton rags. “Hemp paper is hand-burnished with a mineral stone to give it a smooth finish so when you write on it with a calligraphy pen, or use watercolour paint, there’s no bleed through or feathering.”
Some book covers have block printed patterns, others are adorned with paintings or photo transfers. But they all have a shimmering, tactile quality. “My designs are all inspired by artwork from the past, not modern art. I like to use pigments that would have been used hundreds of years ago.”
Each stage is a slow and involved process. Farida shows me some of the handmade paper for the watercolour journals. ‘’After folding the paper into signatures, I sew each one together using linen tapes or hemp cord and then I make the covers, Parveen does most of the forwarding work, which begins with rounding and backing the spines,” she says.
“I do the nitty gritty bits…” “That’s because she has the most patience,” Pareen points out affectionately. “Everything’s done by hand… it’s actually quite meditative.”
And I can see why. There’s something inherently relaxing watching the three of them working in quiet harmony. It’s what life coaches would probably call ‘mindfulness’. Or perhaps it’s just a simple appreciation of the skill and dexterity that goes into handmade gifts like these, an appreciation that seems to be growing.
The story of how Moneeza got started begins in Karachi, in Pakistan, where she spent her teenage years. “My father was a flight engineer and we used to come to England for holidays every summer. Whenever we came the first thing I wanted to do was go to WH Smith’s and buy little stationery kits or journals. So I’ve always had an interest in keeping a journal and hand printed papers.”
She worked for a textile firm in the early 1990s that involved travelling around South East Asia buying products, during which time she learned the art of block printing. “I also used to make handmade stationery for the company and that’s where I developed an interest in book binding. I learned how to bind simple books such as single folios and other more complex bindings by taking old books apart and trying to put them back together again.”
In 2001 she moved back to Bradford where her mother and extended family lived. She stayed there for a couple of years before moving to Belfast with her husband Brian.
For the next 11 years she worked in a bank (to help pay the mortgage) and put aside her creative aspirations. Then came the financial crash which led to her being made redundant. “That was probably the best thing that could have happened,” she says.
Using her redundancy pay out she set up a little studio and started making journals, wedding guest books and photo albums for friends. “I was doing it for nothing and it was my cousin who said I should start selling them. So in between applying for jobs that I had no real interest in, I opened an online shop on this platform called Etsy.
“I put up a couple of books and nothing happened and then a few weeks later somebody in America bought one, and I thought ‘wow’ – somebody actually wanted to pay for something I made.”
This was in 2012 and over the next couple of years her online business steadily grew. Everything was going well until Moneeza was diagnosed with cancer in 2014. Two years later she moved back to Bradford to be closer to her family. She continued working while she was being treated but was struggling to keep up with the orders, at which point her husband and mother stepped in to help. “Some days I wasn’t well enough to go to the studio so I taught them how to do all the prep work and the days I was well I’d go up and finish the work,” she says.
“Working was part of the healing process for me because it took my mind off things and allowed me to focus on something creative and positive.”
It’s been a difficult few years but she is well, feeling stronger and clearly enjoys working with her family. And the orders are picking up again. “Winter is usually my busiest time of year because a lot of people get engaged at Christmas or on Valentine’s Day.”
It’s not just couples planning a wedding who buy her work, her hand-bound photo albums have been used to document other milestones in people’s lives and her sketchbooks bound with handmade paper are popular with artists.
Most of her customers are in the United States, Canada and Australia (she’s even had some from Russia and Japan) – she once had an order from a 75 year old Australian surfer who wanted a memory album all about surfing.
Moneeza’s now hoping to attract more interest in this country. “I’m trying to get people to go back to the old-fashioned way of printing out photographs and putting them into proper albums. We’re taking more photographs now than ever before but we don’t see them, they’re not a tangible thing. Whereas a photo album is. You can pull it off a shelf and sit down with someone and go through it, they become a point of conversation.”
It’s true. How many of us have holiday snaps or family photos stored on mobile phones and computers that never get looked at?
The advent of Kindles and the rise of e-books appeared to sound the death knell for traditional book binding skills and yet it hasn’t happened.
Moneeza believes there’s a growing appreciation for the kind of personalised books and journals she produces. “Customers tell me our books are like heirlooms in a sense, something you can share with your children or grandchildren. Imagine finding one in a dusty old attic 50 years from now, you can’t say that about photos in cyberspace. I like the idea that they evoke memories, that they’ll be passed on from one generation to the next.”