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The art of the facsimile movement: A conversation with Designers & Books founder, Steve Kroeter

February 26, 2017 / By By Brenda McManus + Ned Drew

History. Design History. Graphic Design History. On our perpetual quest forward to define and redefine the designer of the future, history can often be overlooked, relegated to the nostalgic or dismissed as antiquated theories and ways of seeing. We’re all aware of programs that seem to value the future at the cost of the past. Often conversations can be limited because of this lack of understanding and curiosity about where we’ve been, circumscribing our understanding of where we’re going.

In addition to this sometimes-narrow perspective, teaching the history of design can have its own problems and limitations because reproduced images are never an equal representation of the real object. The documented image becomes an interpretation, severing the personal experience from the artifact.

A designed artifact is often designed to be experienced. Choices of fonts, materials, proportions, and scale as well as production methods are a vital part of the communication. Without tangible experience these components are negated, minimizing the narrative of the artifact.

The recent rise of the Facsimile movement seems to be a response to a community united in its desire to complete the narrative and reconnect the artifact to its experience. We recently talked to Steve Kroeter, founder of Designers & Books, to delve deeper into understanding the foundations and energy of the Facsimile movement.

N+B: Can you give us some background information about yourself, your publishing company and how you started with books?

SK: When I was in grade school, the library in my town was a wonderful 1888 Romanesque Revival building that had open stacks. I spent hours roaming those stacks looking for the spines of books that beckoned. My first job in New York was working for George Plimpton, which was a great place to learn about the worlds of writers and publishing. In a later job I had the chance to spend a lot of time in designer studios and noticed that in almost all studios—whether architecture, fashion, or graphic design—the dominant visual feature was books. Books everywhere. I learned that they were used as sources for creative inspiration, and that gave rise to the idea for Designers & Books. We ask esteemed designers to list the books that have been most important to them, and then we publish the lists, with comments about why the designers selected them. We now have over 200 lists that recommend over 2,000 books.

N+B: Designers & Books seems more than just a “Reading List…” and you’ve described it as a “community”, can you elaborate?

SK: One of the particularly enjoyable characteristics about book people is that they not only are passionate about books but they generally like to talk about them, too. So we like the idea not only of passing along book recommendations but also providing sharing and conversation opportunities. We’ve done this offline with book fairs, festivals, and special events in New York. We’ve also now embraced the idea of Kickstarter—which we see primarily as about facilitating connections and creating communities for people with common interests.

N+B: How do you envision Designers & Books evolving over time? What is your long-term vision and aspirations for this amazing venture?

SK: We have evolved from publishing online book lists to presenting offline programming and events and recently we’ve had the chance also to be involved in launching books. We are now beginning to focus on the idea of community-based book launches—which I think is a more accurate and appropriate descriptor than “crowd funding.” We have done two facsimile editions of out-of-print titles and one original publication. We see this approach to connecting books and their audiences as an important development now and one that will take on increasing importance in the coming years.

N+B: For the future, what would be a “dream” project for you and Designers & Books?

SK: In general we always want to be about doing things that can provide some sort of inspiration about creativity. There are a small number of out-of-print books that we feel could be important facsimile editions that we are trying to coax along. But I am also attracted to the idea of new books that might suggest new approaches. Danny Meyer’s book Setting the Table is a terrific example of a monograph that doesn’t focus on “what I did” but rather on “what I learned.” This is important because it means the audience for the book isn’t those interested in restaurants (his field), but rather those interested in launching businesses that have long term potential (what he has learned how to do). I’d like to do a series of “what I have learned” books like that, that provide a sharing forum for particularly thoughtful designers.

N+B: How large of a role does technology play in your success with Designers & Books? Would this be possible without the ability to crowdsourcing (Kick Starter)?

SK: Ideas first, then technology in service of the ideas. But is there a business these days that isn’t some how reliant or improved with technology advances? In a way, it seems to me that Kickstarter is basically Gutenberg’s 600-year-old subscription model of selling books—but supercharged with 21st century technology to overcome the distance between book publisher/seller and book buyer that didn’t exist in the 1400s.

N+B: When we last spoke, you touched on the relationship (or lack there of) of traditional avenues of marketing and publishing? Why do you think there is such disconnect? You mentioned that general “media avenues are less and less effective”, how so? Why is it harder for these traditional avenues to get our attention?

SK: I think there are two factors. First, most publishers don’t have a direct connection to those who buy their books. They sell their books to some other entity that sells their books. And in some cases there is even an additional layer between the publisher and book buyer. This is the definition of “disconnect.” Another factor now is the array of communication that book buyers receive and how they receive it. We are bombarded from all sides with messages and now we view those messages on a three-inch screen. We are looking for ways to address these challenges and we think community-based book launches can be important in forging a direct, dynamic connection between those writing and publishing books and those who want to buy them.

N+B: We have been hearing for over a decade now that “print is dead”. Why do you believe “print won’t die”? What is it about the printed, tangible object that technology can’t replace?

SK: I think it is accurate to say that print won’t die for everyone. It seems to me that we are now safe in concluding that there is an ongoing audience of some size that values quality of image reproduction and thoughtful, tactile-focused book design so that pixels will never completely wipe out paper. This interestingly raises the bar for book designers to design more intelligently and more innovatively when the decision is made to opt for paper rather than pixels.

N+B: So what is the Facsimile movement and how did you get involved? Why do you care so much about this type of movement and how do you think it contributes to the design community and/or others?

SK: A while back I read about a Japanese fashion designer who collects vintage textiles because he finds fragments from the past that to him resonate with the present. Whether because of materials, pattern, color, or production process. I think the same holds for books. Our first facsimile project was Visual Design in Action by Ladislav Sutnar, which we did with Steven Heller and Reto Caduff. This book had a following but was unavailable. Those who knew of the book were convinced that above and beyond the content there was value in Sutnar’s design decisions, which were understood best by having a copy of the book. To illustrate this, in the back of his book Sutnar has one page that addresses “The role of paper and printing in graphic design” and another page titled “On the selection of paper in this book.”

N+B: We have witnessed the recent evolution of this facsimile movement and we are familiar with Unit Editions and your work, are there others we should know about? Other projects coming that will add to this movement in a significant way?

SK: Letterform Archive is launching a facsimile program. I am sure we will be hearing more from Jesse Reed and Haymish Smyth. The RIT Press is preparing to launch a facsimile of Vignelli A to Z.

N+B: We would imagine the process in creating a facsimile of such iconic texts would be quite complicated and a daunting task with a lot of moving parts. Can you talk about that process, how you first choose a title? Could you speak to the actualization of reproducing the facsimile?

SK: Lars Muller produced the Sutnar and Laura Lindgren is now doing the Depero for us. These facsimile projects are a like small scale architectural restorations. You need to do the research on what the original materials were; then you discover they are no longer available so you need to find acceptable alternatives. Or, as in the case of the bolts for the Depero, you need to find someone to re-fabricate the original. It can be daunting. Laura is going to write about the process in the Reader’s Guide to our Bolted Book facsimile.

N+B: “Community” seems to be a large part of this movement. Finding and tapping into a shared passion, does this extend to the production end? Is there a shared community in all aspects of the project? Ideation, design, production, and consumer?

SK: Yes, and you are wise to point this out. In fact, we think of the “community in full” as consisting of: authors, designers, individual readers, students, faculty, organizations, libraries, booksellers, critics, and editor/publishers.

N+B: Can you provide some details about the process? Where did you get a copy of the book (The Wolfsonian)? How did you get high quality images—scan the original, access to the object, reproduction rights, copyright requirements, etc.?

SK: Laura Mattioli is the founder of the Center for Italian Modern Art, which is a partner in the project. Her father was one of Depero’s most important patrons. In appreciation, Depero gave him three copies of the book. We used one of those copies for the scans. Our other partner on the project is the Museum of Modern and Contemporary art of Trento and Rovereto, Italy—which houses the Depero archives.

N+B: During this process, how do you find experts/resources in the different areas needed to reproduce the object accurately? Can you give us a description of an interesting example?

SK: Our team includes design historians, Depero experts, book designers, book production experts, printers, and manufacturers. For the bolts, Laura Lindgren “micro-measured” the originals and confirmed the material (aluminum). She then coordinated with our printer, Graphicom (in Vicenza), to find a vendor in Italy that could exactly replicate the original bolts to bind the book—which, just like the original, will be able to be removed so the book can be disassembled and the pages pinned up exhibition style.

N+B: Why is the physical object so important to those who interact with this book and to the experience of reading the book? Why not a simple PDF or online site?

SK: We do feel there are certain elements of learning this book provides that can be successfully communicated in two dimensions. So we put up a website that shows every spread from the book. However, that is not all the book is, is it? Let me try to think of an analogy. Reading the lyrics to a song isn’t the same as listening to the song performed. A poster reproduction isn’t the same experience as viewing a painting in person. The weight of the book; its size; the different feel of the six different types of paper; setting the book down so it doesn’t damage your coffee table or bookshelf. All these considerations make some people understandably opt for wanting to own the physical object.

N+B: How do you think this project could be used within an educational setting? A Design History class seems logical but are there others? How do you see this project affecting students and practicing designers?

SK: The book was published 90 years ago but it has implications for today—for students and also established artists and designers. Depero and his fellow Futurists were about ideas and action and consistent with that, there are social and political manifestos in the book. Depero also exhorts his fellow artists to take responsibility for promoting and explaining their work. You can make the case that the Bolted Book is one of the very first examples of an artist book—and was a further innovation by being a “portable museum.” A lot of grist for the mill here.

N+B: What is your “best case” scenario for this facsimile project and what effect would you like it to have? Who would you like it to impact, change or enlighten?

SK: Depero was active in architecture, fashion, graphic design, interior design, product design, painting, and sculpture. We hope that all of these audiences will have the chance to become familiar with the book and what it stands for. We certainly like the idea of individuals having the chance to own their own copy, but we have been particularly pleased that over 40 libraries and research centers have committed to buying copies for their collections.

N+B: How can interested individuals and institutions obtain the book?

SK: Through the end of the day on February 28, copies of the book can be pre-ordered at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-bolted-book-facsimile-art-design#/

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Brenda McManus is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at Pace University. McManus is the co-author of George Giusti: The Idea Is the Heart of the Matter. McManus is also a founding partner of the multi-disciplinary design firm, BRED based in New York City (www.brednation.com).

Ned Drew is a Professor at Rutgers University-Newark where he heads the Graphic Design Program. Drew is the co-editor of Design Education in Progress: Process and Methodology, Volumes 1, 2 and 3, and co-author of BY ITS COVER: Modern American Book Cover Design, Purity of Aim: The Book Jacket Designs of Alvin Lustig, and George Giusti: The Idea Is the Heart of the Matter. Drew is also a founding partner of the multi-disciplinary design firm, BRED based in New York City (www.brednation.com) and the founding Director of The Design Consortium, a student/teacher run design studio that focuses on non-profit, community-based projects.

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