One Great Reader, Series 3, No. 12: Julie Peeters
Brussels-based graphic designer Julie Peeters first came to my attention last fall when I flipped through LINDERISM, a career retrospective collection of punk collagist Linder Sterling's work, which Julie designed. My favorite part of it was/is Julie's grid and collage-effect layouts of Linder's pieces filling page after page with no accompanying texts or captions (all information is elsewhere in the book). Julie lets the edit of the images do the work and it works superbly. Plus the book feels so good in the hand with the coated paper they chose and the deep flaps used for the cover. It's readily available and I strongly encourage getting it.
Shortly after (so, earlier this year), an IG account I really like called RareBooksParis posted that they were collaborating with a magazine called BILL. I had never heard of BILL so was immediately intrigued for that reason, but doubly so when the picture they teased was of a page of a grid of unfamiliar images with no text. Of course with the ease of social media I quickly found BILL on IG and online, started digging, and found it's the creation of Julie and that's exactly what the magazine is all about: compellingly-edited pages just of images. This collaborative issue is number three and I've actually not seen it yet—distribution of it is taking forever to arrive in the states—but from the spreads I've seen on IG and online, the trust I have in Julie's vision, knowing the taste of RareBooksParis, and the fact that the fabulous Roma is publishing it, I have zero doubts that it'll be as special as I'm anticipating.
How'd it get the name BILL? It's a cute story and here's Julie telling it:
"I was initially thinking to call it Pelican (or Pelikaan, in Dutch), based on a bar in Antwerp that had a great neon sign of the word "pelican." It was pretty random and every time someone would ask me about my magazine I was slightly embarrassed to reveal the name. In the meantime I had already created the logo which is an abstraction of a pelican’s beak. A few months after, I was visiting a friend in upstate NY and staying in a room that had a huge library on bird-watching books. I started to go through them and kept on reading the word “bill,” which I then realised was another word for a bird’s beak. The word “bill" has so many different meanings and connotations which I thought would be great for a magazine without any text in it. When people encounter the word "bill" it generates an array of visual images, ranging from a person, a pet, a money bill, an invoice, a playbill, and of course the bird one. I like that it’s a word that keeps people guessing/visualizing."
I hope you get a copy—it's a bill you'll be happy to pay! -Wes Del Val
WDV: When do you care about book design and when not when deciding what to bring into your home?
JP: Inevitably it always comes into play when I’m bringing books into my house. I consciously and subconsciously take design into consideration in every object that enters my home, from a book to a spoon.
But there must be a lot of books you have, such as novels and poetry, where you wish you liked the design more but you have to own it nonetheless because you care most about the content, no? I know that is the case for me. Let me also ask when is the last time you did really like the content but did not end up buying a book because the design was just too poor?
Ultimately what I would consider a poor design usually has to do with an “over designed” book. I gravitate towards simple and timeless publications, rather than ones that have a super defined graphic esthetic. When the experience of a book is defined by too many design decisions it becomes so self reflective as an object, which in most cases takes away the attention from the content.
My friend Jason Dodge has a beautiful and very simple poetry publication series called Fivehundred places. On the cover of each book is a dead scissor by Paul Elliman. The books are unique in their simplicity and size, they can fit in any coat pocket and are great to pass on to friends to share poetry.
Most of the books that I buy are secondhand, I’m actually a lot more critical of printed matter that is made today. If I buy a new book, it’s often a facsimile of an existing publication or one that seems to put the content first, rather than the design. Books that I often pass on, but actually would like to own in terms of content are exhibition catalogues. After seeing a great exhibition I usually drift to the museum bookstore in the hopes of finding an amazing catalogue that augments my experience and gives me the opportunity to bring some of the material home. But 90% of the time I won’t buy it because of it’s all-encompassing nature which is also reflecting in the design. Often the tendency is to make the catalogue as accessible as possible for a wide audience. This results in an object that is not radical enough as a book, but rather tries to be a version of the exhibition in book format, lacking an identity of its own. It either takes a very smart and critical graphic designer (Julia Born, Scott Ponik, Mevis & Van Deursen to name a few) or an artist that takes over most of the designing of the book themselves (Mathias Poledna, Lutz Bacher, Christopher Williams...) to make the book an experience that goes beyond the idea of “cataloging” an exhibition. On the contrary, I appreciate that the Walther König bookshops that are part of many European art institutions and museums are always putting a focus on the artists that are in the current exhibition(s), by presenting all the books that are still in print (or even out of print) by the respective artist(s), and so I usually end of buying artist’s monographs instead. I remember the amazing selection of Darboven books at the Walther König store at Haus Der Kunst in Munich when her exhibition was on view.
A big yes to Walther König’s dedicated buying philosophy of pulling backlist titles! That’s one of the reasons they’re easily amongst the best in the world.
What do you read to refresh after a long day mired in design minutiae?
Most often I will be listening to radio instead of reading as I spend a lot of my day reading while designing.
I also read a lot of visual books, so reading images rather than text, which is the basis of my magazine BILL.
Two points of interest: Can you explain how and what you read as you design? I’m intrigued as about the last thing every designer I’ve worked with gets to do is focus on words while they’re designing. And how do you specifically read visual books?
I usually read all the texts that I will put in the layout of a project beforehand to understand what I’m working with, but often read them again once they are implemented to check how the text is flowing into the design. Aside from that I’m constantly researching certain topics or artists during the day, which feeds into my practice as a designer and teacher.
Reading images in books means engaging with an image in a printed form. So much of how we engage with images these days is screen-based, so I actively try to read images on pages. What comes into play here is also a lot related to how the image appears on the page: its size, the way it’s printed, the paper, the physical experience of the book it’s presented in, and of course its relation to other images in the same book. I’m extremely fascinated by all of these aspects and have been since I started studying graphic design. Making a magazine that doesn’t have any guiding text in it has been the way for me to research this further and put my thoughts around the reading of images into a concrete (and ongoing) project.
What elements of a book do you look at first to see if you’re impressed with the design?
The physical aspects of a book are very important to me, the size, paper, weight, how it holds in your hands, how the pages flip, how it lays flat. Secondly I look at typography and the interplay of text and image, how those two types of content are interwoven and played out throughout the book. A cover obviously also is an element of design that comes into play but I would never judge a book solely by its cover!
So essentially the entire thing. Perhaps more revealing to ask you what parts do you care least about?
Ha. A dust jacket? I very often take them off which results in finding randomly displaced dust jackets in my library.
Often? Can I ask why?
I care about all the aspects of a book, it’s hard to deconstruct it, without losing the connection to the experience as a whole. I will take off a dust jacket when it feels too forced and the book is easier to handle without it. So mostly I think it has to do with the physicality of it, rather than the design. By removing it, it starts to lead a life on its own, which in some cases will surprise me, and I rediscover a book by finding its lost jacket.
Thinking of adding a protective layer to books, in the case of James Lee Byars’ 1/2 an Autobiography, the book is wrapped in pink tissue paper which you have to open (rip) to be able to read the book. Karel Martens also wraps his Printed Matter books in a similar thin paper with silkscreened pink text on it. I think these are interesting examples in which the idea of protecting a book by wrapping it is more literal and utilitarian and plays with the design. In these two examples it’s an interesting dilemma whether or not to keep the wrapping. (I did...)
Who are publishers with content you really like but the design is generally pretty weak?
Publishers with a lot of capital and access to amazing content like Taschen, Phaidon, Rizzoli... often make books that from a design perspective lack a soul. I was recently at a stock sale at the Taschen shop in Brussels and found myself really confused. The prices were extremely low (the shop was moving and selling everything -75%), the books are mostly enormous formats, pompous coffee table books in several volumes, and although a few titles really appealed to me (I doubted for a while about Kubrick’s archives) I felt a bit grossed out by the situation so I walked out empty-handed and relieved.
I don’t disagree, especially regarding the general lack of soul. Since you brought them up, a particular design peeve I have about Taschen is anytime they place English, German, and French texts all in the same book. I get why they do it cost-wise, but god it’s unappealing. I consistently bag on those three (and a few others), but the fact is that I do have some very good books by all three that they’ve produced over the decades and I’d be surprised if you didn’t as well. Is that in fact the case?
I definitely agree on the language issue (also very often the case in exhibition catalogues). I’m glad you asked me more specifically about these publishers because I noticed that maybe my criticism is more specifically directed to Taschen, not so much Phaidon or Rizzoli, I just find that their current books are quite commercial and all look the same. From Phaidon I enjoy their artist monograph series, like Maurizio Cattelan’s version which he scaled down to a tiny format, or the Fischli and Weiss one. I love many Rizzoli books from the 80’s and 90’s focusing on fashion, design, architecture, and I have many of them which I cherish a lot: several Sottsass books, Memphis Milano, Gae Aulenti etc.
Now, who most effectively and consistently marries content and design?
I like books that have proven their worth, in a sense that the design stays relevant over time. I strive to design printed matter in a way that doesn’t employ strategies or design elements that refer to a certain time or era but ideally want my work to be timeless. For that reason I would say Primary Information because I find it incredibly important that books that were made decades ago and are completely impossible to find get redistributed in the world, in their original form. I’m really in awe of how they achieve to make their books look almost identical to the originals, while there have been so many shifts in production methods for making books in the last 50 years.
Oh we know PI here at OGR! ;)
The topic of book production doesn’t often come up in this series so can you tell us about your current thoughts on any aspect of it? Are you nostalgic for any parts, has it never been a better time to be making print productions, where is it lacking or struggling, etc?
I very much believe that a lot of the design of a book has to do with the way it’s been printed and bound. I spend a lot of time thinking about this when I make BILL. It’s definitely quite unusual to combine around 15 different paper stocks in one magazine. I’ve been working with one particular printer for the last few years and I don’t see myself changing that very soon. They are based in Munsterschwarzach, a tiny town in Bavaria, Germany. The business is connected to a monastery, which has a guest house, a bakery, a butcher and a printer. The whole operation and work flow is so small that I’m often still able to make adjustments on press (I try to go there when I can), not only in color and density of printing (which is pretty standard when doing a press check), but also in the paper or ink choices. They are willing to think along with me and experiment, which is so much of what BILL is about. This personal relationship with a printer has definitely helped my practice enormously, I’ve been more than ever very inspired by the process of offset printing. As mentioned, there have been a lot of changes in the printing business and so much work is being outsourced to China for example. My opinion is to be able to really work with the production of a book as a designer and to use it as part of your design concept the closer you can be involved in the process of making the book, the better. If you think about it, it’s very strange to just send off a pdf file and get a book back after a few weeks without even being involved in any of the steps. Paper is another aspect of book design that I research a lot on, and it’s definitely been challenging in the last few years with a lot of paper companies merging or going bankrupt. I love cheap, thin, unassuming papers, and I’m usually looking for existing paper stocks that will probably disappear in the future. A wood containing coated paper is one of my favorites (nowadays coated paper is made without wood, which makes it last longer, but feels a lot more artificial) but there are only three or four stocks left in Europe that are produced like that...
Could the situation in Munsterschwarzach sound any more idyllic...
Are you currently the reader you want to be?
Great question! I never thought about this. I feel that the older I get and the more I use books in my teaching, I’m starting to use my own reference library in a very active way. When I think of one book, it always links to a few others. I create narratives between books and constantly am surrounded by stacks, piles and small book constellations, both in my home and my studio. It’s a tool in my work but also a constant form of research. So I’m not sure if I am where I want to be yet, I obviously always want to know more!
What are key moments in your life when you’ve been completely amazed and revitalized by book design you came across?
Getting introduced to the books of Hans-Peter Feldmann (early ones, examples here: http://artistsbooks.info/AB_Feldmann%20Hans-Peter.html) made a huge impact on me when I was studying graphic design in my early twenties. Later I discovered the magazine Ohio (only using found photography) which he co-edited and it has inspired me ever since, BILL is definitely heavily influenced by it.
I was shocked when I discovered Isa Genzken’s book I Love New York, Crazy City. I think it’s one of the best designed books ever made, all coming from her hand. In this case the pompous format is required and absolutely part of the experience!
Hans Hollein’s MAN transFORMS, the catalogue for his exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt Museum is a book I can’t live without. There is also a second volume which reflects on the exhibition afterwards which is a very important reference to me that I keep coming back to.
Yes, I see Hans-Peter’s influence on BILL. What and/or who else has their touch upon it as well?
– Re-Magazine (edited by Jop van Bennekom)
– Here and There magazine (edited by Nakako Hayashi)
– File magazine (edited by General Idea (A.A. Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal))
– Early issues of Purple magazine (Elein Fleiss and Olivier Zahm)
– Ryuko Tsushin magazine (when designed by Kazunari Hattori)
– Nest magazine (edited by Joseph Holtzman)
– Le point d’ironie (edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist)
– Seasonal Comme des Garçons publications
– Terrazzo magazine (edited and designed by Ettore Sottsass)
And more specifically from Hans-Peter Feldmann:
– Ohio magazine (edited by Uschi Huber and Jörg Paul Janka, until 1998 together with Stefan Schneider and Hans-Peter Feldmann)
– Cahier d’Images (Hans-Peter Feldmann & Celine Duval)
What famous books do you wish you could redesign?
Redesigning would imply I want to change the design of the book, I was thinking rather that I would like to work on certain books just to be able to handle and distribute the content. Books with a lot of images such as Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, Learning from Las Vegas (the oversized original) or Let’s Take Back Our Space by Marianne Wex are books that come to mind.
How do you define the word “book”? Am I reading a “book” if it’s a pdf of exactly what is in the physical version?
I definitely very rarely read pdfs of books, I always prefer a physical experience with a book over a digital one. I would call a book a book when it’s a bound volume of pages.
So for you a book has to be physical to qualify? I certainly feel that an ebook is a book, and it doesn’t bother me including a finished pdf in that category as well. I’m just always interested in how people who work with these things define them.
I’m not sure if I have such a set view on whether a pdf should be called a book or not… I notice with my students that there is a tendency to want to create a physical experience, so they often will layout, print and bind the research texts they are gathering rather than keeping them in a digital format. I think maybe especially during this time when we’re indoors, it’s comforting to surround oneself with books at home. For me personally when I’m working as a designer I’m constantly using books from my library. They help me shape ideas which I try to incorporate in the design projects I’m working on. I’m not sure if pdfs would be able to keep me engaged in such a way. That said I’ve never worked on an ebook before so maybe this is an experience that could change my view!
Which book designers from any period, including the present, deserve monographs of their work?
I’m usually more interested in book design done by artists rather than designers. So I would love a monograph on the book design of Richard Hamilton, Alighiero Boetti, Hanne Darboven, and Jef Geys, just to name a few.
Your five favorite book cover designs are...
I find it incredibly hard to make a top five but these are some covers I like a lot, but not by any means a top five...
— Claes Oldenburg: Skulpturer och teckningar 17 Sept.- 30 Okt.1966 (Moderna Museet)
— New Order Untitled (New Order’s US “tour book” by Peter Saville)
— Clear Sky (Bruce Nauman)
— Collected Words (Richard Hamilton)
— Italy, The New Domestic Landscape, Achievements and Problems of Italian Design (MoMA original edition)
I think the graphic design of that last one is fabulous as well. Wish I could say the same about its physical design as mine is so brittle from age and exposure that it might actually be my least favorite to hold. But I don’t remove my jackets and am afraid if I took this one off it would crack to pieces. Knowing the cheeky sensibilities of the Italians featured in the book that may very well have been the point...Thanks Julie!