The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Gerhard Steidl is Making Books an Art Form

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Photograph by Mark Peckmezian for The New Yorker

Rebecca Mead’s long profile of publisher Gerhard Steidl for The New Yorker is a wonderful, fascinating read:

Each Steidl title is unique, printed with a bespoke combination of inks and papers. But to the informed eye, and the informed hand, a Steidl book is as distinctive as an Eggleston photograph. Unlike another German art publisher, Taschen—which is known for reproducing risqué images by the likes of Helmut Newton in enormous formats that would crush most coffee tables to splinters—Steidl produces books that invite holding and reading. Steidl dislikes the shiny paper that is often found in photography books, and prefers to use uncoated paper, even though it takes longer to dry and thus makes a printing cycle more expensive. He opts for understatement even with projects that would tempt other publishers to be ostentatious. “Exposed,” a collection of portraits of famous people by Bryan Adams, the rock star turned photographer, has no image on its cover. Bound in blue cloth, the book looks as if it might be found on a shelf in an academic library. Steidl wants his creations to satisfy all the senses. When he first opens a book, he holds it up close to his nose and smells it, like a sommelier assessing a glass of wine. High-quality papers and inks smell organic, he says, not chemical. To the uninitiated, a Steidl book smells rather like a just-opened box of children’s crayons.

I love this part about the attention to the detail:

Designing a book’s packaging is a process Steidl particularly relishes. “He wants to pick the cover, he wants to pick the endpapers,” [Robert] Polidori told me. “He treasures this limited one-on-one time with the artist. It’s almost a love act.” Sometimes Steidl indulges in a brightly colored ribbon for a bookmark, like statement socks worn with a formal suit. He pays attention to elements that barely register with most readers, such as the head and tail bands—colored silk placed where the pages attach to the spine. “It’s a tiny bit of fashion,” Steidl said. “With Karl [Lagerfeld], it is the buttons. With me, it is the head and tail bands.” For Gossage, he chose black bands and black endpaper, to contrast with the colored ink on the pages. The endpaper was made from cotton, and would cost thirty cents per book, as opposed to the seven cents it would cost if he used offset paper. “Using the cheaper one saves significant money for the shareholders,” he said. “But I am the only shareholder.”

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