The AR talks to the Dutch graphic designer and specialist bookmaker about the relationship between books, buildings and architecture, about the value of print in a digital world – and reading in bed.
Skærmbillede 2018 12 14 kl. 09.24.35 tc
You compare building books to building buildings: in what ways are they similar?
I make a lot of scale models, 50 or so for a single project. It’s all about scale, and proportion: it’s three-dimensional. In a way, there is space inside. You can also look at typography as architecture. You can create a space on a page. That is where you can find a similarity with architecture, although architecture is much more complex, there are many more decisions you have to make.
Is there a difference for you in making books about architecture and making books about other things? Is there a meeting of disciplines?
It’s not architecture books that I prefer, maybe it’s Rem. I very much like to make books with Rem. I appreciate his architectural work very much – I think that’s very important – as well as his way of thinking. Of course, he’s an architect but he’s also a thinker. He has a vision about what a book is. For Chanel Livre d’Artistes for example, I did all the content and design, but that’s different. If I do it all myself, I go even more crazy. If I work with Rem, it’s collaborative.
You have said ‘I don’t build villas, I build social housing’. What is the ‘social housing’ of the book world?
I like books that are not ‘one-offs’, such as the so-called artist book where you only have a few copies. If you make books, it should be in a production-line, industrially made. A book should share information. For me, that is crucial. Not all books should be precious. That’s what I mean by ‘social housing’ because it is for everybody. The book is a democratic medium.
as Metaphor (2006) is now held by MoMA, is that now a ‘villa’ book? Would you prefer that your books did not appear in galleries and museums?
I love that my books are at MoMA and other museums, because making books is culture.
Some paintings are at MoMA, and so are some books. Although it is an old medium, I try to keep it vital by using different structures, either structures in the making of the book or the structure of the text or content. Within the limitations of what a book is, I try to take it further. The book is not fixed. That is essential. If I go to a bookshop, I always get very depressed. There are always books made with no love. If you make something, if you use resources like paper and everyone’s time, it should be good: well-made and have good content. A book lasts a while. These resources are the most valuable things we have. It may only be turning pages, but it’s more than that. Making books is definitely not an art, but it is an integral part of our culture.
‘If I go to a bookshop, I always get very depressed. There are always books made with no love’
Books have a longevity in the same way as buildings. The SHV Think Book was designed to last 500 years, like a cathedral constructed in stone with robust, durable details.
We have no way to prove it, but the paper of the SHV Think Book is made with only natural components. Twenty-two years on, the book is unchanged. It is as it was first made, and that is because of the paper and the glue. Everything is made for the next 500 years. The CEO of the company I worked for wanted the book to be available to his family for future generations. You never know what will happen to a book over the next few hundred years. Maybe it’s gone, maybe it’s still there.
The cover of a book is like a front door, on the threshold of the read and unread, inviting the reader inside. What makes a good front door?
The front cover is really difficult and for each book it is something else. The Sheila Hicks book has a white cover – I had a lot of problems with the publisher, because he said a white cover wouldn’t show up on the internet and it has no visibility. They said, ‘We won’t sell any books because there’s nothing on the cover’. The funny thing is, the book has sold a lot online. It’s in its fifth run. You see a book as a whole, as one big piece. The edges of the Sheila Hicks book are so exciting. You see it in a shop and as soon as it is in your hands, you don’t put it down.
‘Not all books should be precious. That’s what I mean by ‘social housing’ because it is for everybody. The book is a democratic medium’
What parallels can be drawn between the commission of a book and a house?
I think designing a book for someone is similar to designing someone’s house. They say, ‘We want four rooms, we want a garden’, but they have some limitations too. If I make a book, I always listen very carefully on our first meeting. I always want to meet the owner. Talking on the phone doesn’t work. I really want to see the face. After the first meeting, I already know what it should be.
We know you well as the book maker but less well as the editor or the writer. Do you like to write?
I always write in my own books. I’m a slow writer but I really like it. I realise that putting words on paper is different to speaking. That’s what I also like about the book, when it’s black on white it has another value. It takes me a long time to really find the precise words to express something. It’s important.
Michael Rock says that the way he designs books is more as an author or an editor. I am a book maker, boekmaker in Dutch. That’s better than a ‘book designer’ – that’s a bit flat, ‘designer’ is a bit stupid. I cannot make a book where somebody says, ‘Here’s the text, here’s the images, put something together’. That’s not what I do, I never work like that. It’s always that people come to me and say, ‘Let’s think about making a book, what shall we do?’, and then I say, ‘Let’s start with this, let’s ask this writer’. Together we make a book.
Where’s your favourite place to read?
It may be a cliché, but I really like to read in bed because there are no distractions. I have a library of my own, which I paid for with the €100,000 I received from the Johannes Vermeer Award in 2014. I already collected books – two specific types of books: books from the 1960s when they had freedom to do what they pleased, and books just after Gutenberg, so from the 1500s and 1600s. These two types of books I have in my library in Amsterdam, above my studio. And it’s amazing to see them together. The hippy and free ’60s and these almost minimalist 16th-century books. They are really beautiful together.
‘I think the slowness is what we need, in this time when everything is coming from everywhere’
We are accelerating deeper and deeper into the digital age, in which many people believe the book will soon dwindle into redundancy – does this excite or terrify you?
I can tell you this is not true. I really believe in the necessity and the relevance of the book. For example, when the Sheila Hicks book came out she was in her seventies and had been in the art world 50 or 60 years. She had always had a website, you could see her work everywhere on the internet, but her work was not valuable before the book. Suddenly her career took off. The book did that, nothing else. That is the power of what the book can do: the book is a tool.
When we were commissioned to make the SHV Think Book in 1991, the internet was in its infancy. Our first thought was to make a CD-ROM. We went to a company in New York and checked out how it worked, because we thought, ‘let’s make something modern’. But then we realised that we were at the very beginning of the internet and the digital age, and in five years, technology would be unrecognisable. The moment the CD-ROM would be published, it would be old-fashioned and obsolete. So we decided it would be interesting to work on a book which has the qualities of this very new internet. We had no idea exactly what it was, but web browsers existed, and you can browse through a book in the same way. The SHV book doesn’t have page numbers, to allow you to browse.
What does the book of the future look like?
I think that with the rise of the digital, the book becomes more relevant, because there is a need for edited information. We have all these loose bits on our phones and laptops, but to put it together you have to have a mind. We all want context. We want to form an opinion on something. It’s good that somebody can bring it together, and say ‘OK, I think that’s a good idea’, and argue something. It’s all about the editing.
We have gone full circle: originally books disseminated information, but now that we’re flooded with data on a daily basis, we need books to edit this for us.
And flooded with what? Ninety-nine per cent we don’t need. I spend a lot of time looking on my phone, and it is really a waste of time. Sometimes it’s relaxing to do it, to scroll. But it’s nice if you have a book, and it has a specific subject that you can read, have a look at it. That you think, ‘That’s an interesting thought’. It’s slower of course, and I think the slowness is what we need, in this time when everything is coming from everywhere. At the Vatican Library where I am working at the moment, you are not allowed your phone, and time stands still. There is concentration and it is amazing.
It is addictive.
This piece is featured in the AR December 2018/January 2019 Book issue – click here to purchase your copy today