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Interview with Lars Müller

The AR talks to this heavyweight publisher of books on art, architecture and design – about self-publishing, saying no, and commitment to the book

Peter zumthor works 60 61 tc

Peter zumthor works 60 61 tc

You mentioned when we met in São Paulo that you do not understand any of your books as isolated projects, but are instead constantly weaving threads through publications. How does one book give birth to another?

The simplest, and perhaps more modest way to put it, is that it’s all me. We are currently working on a facsimile of Sigfried Giedion’s Befreites Wohnen (Liberated Dwelling) as well as the English translation. It was Giedion’s first book on Modernism, published in 1929, advocating that new technologies and aesthetics can liberate buildings. This book is part of history: it is shown everywhere and people are familiar with the cover, but actually have no idea what’s inside. André Tavares dedicates his ‘Modern Clumsiness’ chapter to it in The Anatomy of the Architectural Book, as part of a wider narrative. I want to pause, show readers what he is talking about, and offer the full experience of Giedion’s original, capturing a sense of its authenticity. I have a soft spot for the precision and accuracy required by reproductions. It is about being contemporary without being trendy in my commentary. 

We are also working on a big Bauhaus book, for next year’s centenary. These facsimiles are part of a series called ‘the century of print’. During the 20th century, every silly manifesto or statement was presented on paper, some of which have survived and made history – for good reasons. It was an amazing century, for good and for bad. It changed the world we live in now and I just want to present some of its treasures.

‘I don’t trust any of the digital archives. I’m super sceptical. When you publish a book, no one can get a hold of the whole’

Could the 21st century also be a century of print, perhaps in a slightly different way?

Yes, that is what I am working on – and you too! I doubt if there is any reliable memory for visual content except for books, so I think we still have a responsibility. I don’t trust any of the digital archives. I’m super sceptical. When you publish a book, no one can get a hold of the whole. Who knows what will happen to the ‘cloud’ if someone gains power over it, or if there’s a digital overkill. But I think there will still be books around then.

Is it a question of authority – because when something is printed, it can’t be altered or manipulated?

Printed errors cannot be corrected. I get upset when I read odd things or spot mistakes on our website, just as upset as I would if it were in a book, and my team says ‘don’t worry, we’ll change it tomorrow’. In a book, someone made a selection, and put the right information in the right order so it can be understood and stored. Even with little contextual knowledge, people should be able to understand it 50 years down the line. Authors, editors, designers and publishers ought to act as the advocate of the reader: their work needs to be honest and careful.

From the production of publishing giants to the self-published works of architects, what do you think of the books that are being made today? How do you position yourself within the printed world? 

We all occupy small niches but over the last few years, Gestalten more recently and Taschen for a little longer now, are trying to widen the niche. Once I identify my niche, I can see unlimited growth within that niche, while they seek to create growth by widening it. It’s a very different model. But I don’t want to compromise. 

I was a sharp critic of the early self-publishing movement, which became popular in the late ’90s, when people thought ‘how great, we don’t need a publisher any more’. And that meant they could cut costs in half. But the money saved equates to the erasure of the editing process. It was completely technology driven. The first generation of self-published books was literally about throwing things into a layout software and sending it to the printer – it was absolutely awful. I was furious for quite a long time, but I changed my mind slightly and now think maybe I can give some advice. The software doesn’t provide constraints. You must set limitations and parameters for yourself. This is what editing is. And it is never about yourself, but about pleasing your audience.

‘My default is no – saying no is about protecting ideals and values’

What are your thoughts on architectural monographs? 

Every architect has the right, and eventually the ambition, to talk and reflect about architecture. But when architects want their monographs and they ask for my label, I refuse – I don’t give it to them because it’s not meaningful for me. When an architect offers you his book, he will always give you some explanation. Without that background information, if you look at the book how it is, you might wonder what you are supposed to do with it. The most critical point is becoming aware of what content a reader will understand and absorb without you standing behind him. That’s my main advice to them.

The most beautiful title I found is What Anchors a House in Itself. As a project it proves a concept. It is about putting an idea on the table, developing a thesis as starting point, and illustrating the argument with the architects’ work. It serves perfectly as a monograph – it is even better. We did three print runs. People don’t even necessarily care about the architects, but they care about the title, and the question raised. 

Do you say ‘no’ to a lot of projects?

I am a passionate no-sayer. I have taught myself that ‘yes’ should be the exception. And it’s wonderful, because you suddenly free yourself of this burden, of feeling guilty. My default is no – it means people are even more surprised and pleased when I say yes! I very much believe in authorship so I try to identify individuals who are passionate about what they do, what they observe and find out, and what they want to share with the world. As there is so little money in what I do, in my product, I must enjoy the process. I try to stay away from corporations and from big institutions – unless I have a very reliable relationship or connection there. It is not about snobbery, it is about insisting on eye-to-eye conversations.

‘Half our work gets paid with money, the other half is about passion’

It’s about integrity. And almost about survival?

Yes, absolutely. I don’t feel the need to defend or justify myself as much any more but you know, I did the first book with Peter Zumthor, I did the first book with Zaha Hadid, I did the first book with Steven Holl, one of the most important early books of Herzog & de Meuron. I’m there for the first, but I’m not interested in the 10th. I did those books because I was convinced. It was not a request from the audience, or even from anyone else for that matter. Nobody knew Zumthor, nobody cared about him in 1997. But Switzerland is tiny, we both loved jazz and we had friends in common. It ended with fights and lawyers because his ego took off, but I think the book made his career and my career, so it’s OK.

Do you use a different part of your brain for your different roles –  as editor, designer, publisher?

I am very much visually driven. The big shift in media perception is that everything is so image driven today that we need to create order within that visual chaos. The designer claims he made the image of the publishing house, and that is probably fair to say. It took longer to train my mind to become a publisher. Now, the final decision should be a rational one. That’s when the brain comes in. Is it worth the time, the money, the paper?

It becomes a question of viability at this point.

Exactly. For the past 15 or 20 years now, the publisher is able to affirm that the designer only exists thanks to him. At the beginning that wasn’t such an issue. I was designing books, and it was relatively safe to make money. As soon as the market gets in trouble, the publisher becomes the troubleshooter. His responsibility is to create the conditions that enable the designer and the editor to thrive. I used to say I’m a designer and publisher. Today it is probably fair to say I am a publisher and a designer. It is very unfair that capitalism is cheating our business. The product is appreciated, but the system is not willing to pay the price. That makes us suffer. Half our work gets paid with money, the other half is about passion. The brand value of Lars Müller Publishers is much, much, much higher than the business value. I see no way of changing that, because the market is against us. But that’s about freedom and the space you create for yourself. Saying ‘no’ is also about protecting ideals and brand values.

‘This man did not care enough about the book, he obviously had not read it, so he wasn’t a reliable shareholder’

In what ways is the market against us?

Consumers have been trained to think that things are outdated if they are more than three months old. We have several long-sellers, which is very out of fashion. But I am very proud to have books on the market that have been around for 12 years. And they are still bought, but not in masses, so it is questionable whether they are profitable.

Should a book aim to be timeless, even if its function changes over time? Can it gain new relevance?

That is what book lovers believe! When you gain a good portion of your knowledge through books, you develop a new appreciation for the medium. Once time passes, people and surroundings change, but you know you can go back and read them again. The Face of Human Rights is probably the one that does best what I believe is important for a book. This book is an instrument. When it came out I used to say it is heavy enough to knock down Iraq’s defence minister; 14 years later, the instrumental value has diminished, while its documentary value has increased.

You refer to your readers as shareholders – what do you mean?

I once bought one of my books back from a dentist’s private home: the book was out of print, but his was still wrapped in film, so I offered him the full price. He did not care enough about it, he obviously had not read it, so he wasn’t a reliable shareholder – I now use ‘dentist’ as a synonym for an unconscious book-buyer. I like observing people who browse through our shelves, pick up books, put them back. I may not influence the masses but I can contribute to the knowledge and beliefs of opinion-leaders.

Lead image: Lars Müller’s seminal 1998 monograph on Peter Zumthor 

This piece is featured in the AR December 2018/January 2019 Book issue – click here to purchase your copy today