Interview with Expert Bookbinder, Scott Mullenberg

scottie Scott Mullenberg is the owner of Mullenberg Designs and Portfolio Design Studio. He is an expert book builder who specializes in custom portfolio structures, receiving high praise from the numerous photographers who have worked with him to create their custom portfolio books and cases.“The beauty of having a custom portfolio created is you have the opportunity to choose materials that reflect you and your work.”

Mullenberg Design is a hand bookbinding studio specializing in custom portfolio fabrications for the visual artist. “The goal at Mullenberg Designs is to exceed your expectations for design and craftsmanship, and to provide you with the highest level of personal service.” In addition, the Portfolio Design Studio, an arm of Mullenberg Designs, offers the “D.T.K., Dressed To Kill” line of portfolios and slipcases in 5 sizes and 8 fabric styles with optional name/logo debossing on both the portfolio and slipcase.

I recently had the opportunity to ask Scott a few questions about his process and thoughts on portfolios.

Scott, please tell us a little bit about you and your business? How did you get into this type of work?

I completed a bookbinding apprenticeship with William Streeter in Northampton, Massachusetts in the early’90’s and returned to Portland, Maine to open up shop with friend and colleague, Susan Holland. The bulk of our work at that time was restoring leather and cloth-bound books, along with a spattering of what I would call new work; a portfolio here and there, working with book artists to assist in actualizing their vision from content to fabrication, photo albums for wedding photographers. When Susan moved to Washington a few years later I opened up shop under the moniker, Mullenberg Designs. The direction of my work began to change at this time, as I became less interested in restoring books and more interested in working one-on-one with a variety of different book artists, visual designers and photographers. Something clicked! Now, in 2010, the majority of my clients are photographers who are looking for a custom portfolio structure to house their work for presentation. It’s a collaborative process that I find dynamic and stimulating and I’m continually grateful to be able to work with such talented, driven entrepreneurs.

As the title of our book indicates, my co-author and I believe a unique portfolio book represents a photographer or designer far better than a generic portfolio case. Since you’re in the business of making these books, what do you think the benefits are to a hand crafted custom book?

Here is a quote of mine from the book “How to succeed in Commercial Photography”, by Selina Maitreya, that seemed to answer your question:

“A custom portfolio communicates to the prospective client that you have thought about your work beyond the images. The housing reflects thoughtfulness and care, and says that you are a photographer who is serious about your work, on every level, from collateral materials to web site, to portfolio. The custom portfolio reflects the photographer in that it personalizes their introduction and takes it beyond the status quo found in most commercial options.” Pg 116

I also say earlier on the same page: “The beauty of having a custom portfolio created is you have the opportunity to choose materials that reflect you and your work. There’s a broad array of materials available, from leather, linen, silk, and synthetic that can be used to create a portfolio that makes it solely you.” And I might add further, “a portfolio that exemplifies and is consistent with your own brand identity.”

And also: “Your portfolio housing should reflect and complement your work, not distract from it. It should be seen as an introduction to your work, easy to access and easy to read. There is a hierarchy here and your work stands at the top. The structural part of the portfolio, or the house, should never rival the content, only accent it.”

On that note, I have seen portfolios that are custom but complicated to figure out how to get inside or the craftsmanship is not impeccable and in both cases distract from the work itself.

What do you think is a good size for a portfolio book? What type of binding and/or construction do you recommend?

As far as what size the portfolio wants to be depends on what works best for the images themselves. If you shoot both landscape and portrait you may find a square format works best for you. The smallest square book that I’ve made is 10 x10, and the largest was 13 x13. If you mostly shoot landscape then that will dictate the orientation of your book, and again the size of the paper and final image size. Full bleeds, borders, landscape images crossing over the gutter……let your work dictate what size and orientation. That said, it is not altogether unusual for a photographer to approach image size from the perspective of what will fit in their shipping case, particularly if it’s an established photographer and they already have shipping cases that they would like to utilize for their new portfolios. The variables are many here, and each photographer needs to establish the order of what takes precedence. Needless to say too, BUDGET tends to reign supreme in these times and is a consistent reference point in this process.

I think it’s crucial if you are going to work with a book builder that they have a breadth of knowledge to ask all the right questions, so when those portfolios finally arrive at your step, no beats have been missed and you have hit all the right notes, from design, to deboss placement, to shipping case.

Some portfolio books are much more branded than others. Do you think that it’s important for a photographer to brand their book?

Yes, I do. It’s very important on both the portfolio and accompanying case (e.g. slipcase and/or clamshell box). Not only does it make sense as identification so the portfolio is returned to you or your rep, the brand/imprint/debossing sets the whole portfolio off and is a crucial part of the final book design. I often view the actual cover of the portfolio like a canvas and the content/painting is the branding or imprint. When I work with clients I emphasize this point, because you can choose cover materials that are consistent with your brand/look but once you brand the portfolio it completely changes it, and focuses the attention squarely where it needs to be, which is you and your work.

Do you have any advice for someone (especially a student) who’d like to make there own custom book?

If you are planning on making your own portfolio, and also planning on presenting this portfolio, I would take great care when doing so, and recommend taking a workshop or class specific to that project. A diligent attentiveness to craftsmanship is needed and some knowledge of fabrication when working with the materials that go hand-in-hand when making a portfolio. I have taught many classes over the years and watched students lose control of the materials, e.g. glue on surfaces that should not be there, crooked pastedowns. David Wagner is a perfect example of someone who was driven to build his own portfolios, but took the necessary next step of connecting with a professional binder who could guide him through the process to a more than satisfactory end result.

There’s nothing ultimately wrong with a commercial portfolio, but think how you can make that portfolio unquestionably you. For example, find a bookbinder who’s willing to deboss/imprint your name on the portfolio or output a nicely designed label and mount it on the cover. I would emphasize here that in the end function is everything, and if you are showing your portfolio to prospective clients/reps/industry and want to be taken seriously, you must take your portfolio seriously, whether constructing yourself, buying a commercial book, or having a portfolio made for you. More alternatives are out there than before so try and find something that fits you in the moment. Either way you are making an investment in time and/or money, and the investment is ultimately in you.

The following are portfolio books Scott has recently built. *Click images for larger view.

Courtesy Duncan Pollard,

Courtesy David Stoker,

Courtesy Tracy Toler, &

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Courtesy Poul Ober,


Add yours
  1. Wayne Nagy

    Very informative and helpful article. I appreciate the level of detail in the interview and response. And of course I have to say, though I’m sure he’s heard it before, Scott Mullenberg’s work is absolutely incredible. One of what I pray is not a dying breed.

  2. Denise Froehlich

    I’ve had a couple opportunities to collaborate with Scott Mullenberg on book jackets for two of my photography portfolios. The end result was beautiful and meticulous -we chose black calf skin. The images were collected and I’m certain the attention to presentation is what did it. I would recommend his talents.

  3. L. Leedberg

    Really informative. I’m just starting to make my own books and the information you provided will be really helpful. Thanks!

  4. D.A.Wagner

    Thanks for the kind comments, Scott. Now that I’ve completed my project I have new found respect and appreciation for this arcane craft. Anyone choosing you as their book builder will find the artistry is second to none.

  5. Harry

    Really stunning design of Bookbinder. I loved to bookmark it forever for inspiration and conceptual object oriented work too. I found your article informative and helpful too. Thank for sharing it.

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