The Alcuin Awards: Celebrating Canadian Design Through Beautiful Books

Post Punk Art Now, First Prize in “Limited Edition” category. Designed by Anouk Pennel (Studio FEED). Published by Pesot, organisme de création. Written by Sébastien Pesot, 2016. Cover photograph by Bruce Law.


The esteemed 19th century German concert pianist and composer, Clara Schumann, once posed the question: “Why hurry over beautiful things? Why not linger and enjoy them?” The Alcuin Society Awards for Excellence in Book Design in Canada 2016, an exhibition now on view in the Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada, brings to mind this quote. Featuring winning books from this year’s Awards, the exhibition celebrates the impressive work of book designers and encourages visitors to slow down and appreciate the beauty that can be found inside and outside Canadian books.


À l’abri des hommes et des choses. Third Prize in “Prose Fiction” category. Designed by Nathalie Caron. Published by Québec Amérique. Written by Stéphanie Boulay. Cover photograph by Bruce Law.


What is the Alcuin Society? Named in honour of Alcuin of York (c. 735 to 804 A.D.), who was the Minister of Culture during the reign of Charlemagne, the Alcuin Society was founded in 1965 by Geoffrey Spencer as a way of promoting a wider appreciation of beautifully produced books. The first Alcuin Awards were given in 1981. Grant Hurley, this year’s Catalogue Project Manager for the Alcuin Society, explains in an interview with the NGC Magazine that the exhibitions started in Vancouver shortly after the Awards began and they have since grown to include locations in every province. This cross-Canada reach is largely thanks to the efforts of Leah Gordon, a longstanding Alcuin Society board member, who believed that the national scope of the Alcuin Awards should be reflected in its exhibition locations.

Each of this year’s thirty-five winners—a fitting coincidental number, seeing as this year marks the 35th anniversary of the Awards—were selected by a jury of three judges. Judith Poirier, Matt Warburton, and Robin Mitchell-Cranfield each hail from different parts of the country and bring with them valuable expertise in a variety of fields, including illustration, typography, and graphic design. This year, the judges were tasked with selecting winners from eight categories: Children, Limited Edition, Pictorial, Poetry, Prose Fiction, Prose Illustrated, Prose Non-Fiction, and Reference. A ninth category, Comics, was also added this year, acknowledging the impressive design work that is being done with graphic novels and comic books.


Big Kids. Second Prize in “Comics” category. Designed by Michael DeForge. Published by Drawn & Quarterly. Written and Illustrated by Michael DeForge, 2016. Cover photograph by Bruce Law.


One of the Alcuin Award winners, Ottawa Cooks, has been proudly displayed in cafes, restaurants, and bookstores throughout the nation’s capital over the past year. Hurley says that this cookbook is a highlight of this year’s awards for a number of reasons. Not only is it beautifully designed, it’s the third winner in a row from this series of cookbooks: Montreal Cooks won last year and Toronto Cooks won the year before that. “There’s clearly something special about these books that brings a wide variety of judges (nine of them over three years) together,” Hurley remarks.


Ottawa Cooks. Third Prize in “Reference” category. Designed by Jessica Sullivan. Published by Figure 1 Publishing. Written by Anne DesBrisay, 2016. Cover photograph by Bruce Law.


The 1,014 Alcuin Awards presented over the past thirty-five years are a fascinating reflection of Canadian publishing history. All of the winning books are the result of a creative collaboration between dedicated designers, authors, editors, photographers, illustrators, publishers, printers, and readers. The Alcuin exhibitions make great design “accessible and relatable,” Hurley explains, because “you [can] walk down the street and buy many of these books at your local bookstore.”

The winning books of the 2016 Alcuin Awards can be appreciated on a number of levels by fans of both books and art alike: as examples of award-winning design, books for personal enjoyment, and standalone works of beautiful art.

The Alcuin Society Awards for Excellence in Book Design in Canada 2017 is on view in the Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada until October 1, 2017. For more information about the Alcuin Society and Awards, visit:

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