You were born in Oslo, Norway. You moved to the Netherlands and worked in Wim Crouwel’s studio for one year, and finally you migrated to Switzerland. Why did you choose Switzerland?
I was born in Norway and am still a Norwegian citizen, visiting the country frequently and having friends and family there. Moving to Switzerland was not a choice. My mother married a Swiss architect when I was eight years old. I had little say then, whereas my move to the Netherlands and working with Wim Crouwel was a conscious decision. As a young designer, I admired his work. He was in line with the Swiss modernists — even more radical and somehow playful. Wim introduced me to book design and to the secrets of the medium. He allowed me to browse his library; I made discoveries I had never dreamed of. The history of the avant-garde movements of the 1920s and 1930s especially caught my interest.
When did you publish your first book and what was it named? Where does the idea of publication come from?
I initiated and published my first book in 1983. Die gute Form (Good Design) documents and analyzes Swiss industrial design in the 1950s and 60s. Wim Crouwel nurtured my interest in modernism, and I was curious to discover its roots in Switzerland.
You have more than three decades of experience in publishing and have brought out a wide range of design books. Could you explain this diversity?
As you have noticed, design is one of five categories of my publishing program. However, it is the strongest thread aside from architecture. This topic certainly plays a dominant role due to my background in graphic design, but also due to the outstanding international reputation and influence of Swiss graphic design after 1950. Documenting the roots and principles of our discipline seemed as much a duty as it was a pleasure. I learn a lot while researching the content for our design books and discussing the content with editors and contributors. Over time my interest in design grew, both towards history and the avant-garde of the 20th century, as well as towards contemporary graphic and product design. I published selected avant-garde magazines and publications, e.g. by El Lissitzky, in facsimile during the 90s. Since then I have published several books by the famed British product designer Jasper Morrison.
Why Benzin? How was this book formed, and what is it about?
2001 I was approached by the editors of Benzin: Michel Fries and Thomas Bruggisser. I was looking for a way to showcase young Swiss graphic design myself and to prove its high standing quality and international competitiveness. It was the right time for the proposal. The editors had the right contacts and it took very little to fit the book into my program. The year before, I had published Wolfgang Weingart’s Typography. Weingart was an innovator and renewed Swiss typography through his experiments that were very influential at the time. Recently we published True Print, which presents the work of young designer Dafi Kühne. He prints his letterpress posters in his own studio, and his work has a cult following within the community.
You are considered one of Helvetica’s advocates due to the books you have published and your presence in Gary Hustwit’s documentary. Tell the story of your two books on Helvetica. Is it true that tens of thousands of these small red books were published and sold?
My advocacy of Helvetica grew out of my desire to distinguish myself from my teachers: Müller-Brockmann and Lohse exclusively used Akzidenz Grotesk and Crouwel used Frutiger’s Univers. I value the high quality of these typefaces. Unlike their extravagance, Helvetica has a modest character and solid letterforms. It expresses the beauty of the ordinary – just look at the lower case a, e or s. Gary’s film was inspired by the concept of my homage to Helvetica, showing how professionals and amateurs use the font. I don’t mind making a fool of myself in the film, pointing out the ordinary usage of the typeface in the city of London. I claim: “Helvetica is the perfume of the city!“ Well – the western city. Some argue Helvetica was the typeface of capitalism, providing the basis for major corporate design programs (together with the equally Swiss grid system). I believe that the vast availability of the font to dilettantes around the world made it a socialist font. The little red book indeed sold over 50,000 copies. Its success committed me to follow up with a profound observation of the typeface, its genesis, the historic context and its influence: Helvetica forever – The Story of a Typeface.
Josef Müller-Brockmann and Richard Paul Lohse were your mentors and also founders of the Neue Grafik. Tell us about the reissuing of this journal and its importance in design.
Through Müller-Brockmann and Lohse I was introduced to the magazine early on. Müller-Brockmann proposed the magazine to his colleagues (Hans Neuburg and Carlo Vivarelli, beside Lohse) in 1956 after returning from a visit to New York where he was convinced that the world was hungry to learn about the new movement in Switzerland. Back then common design was driven by illustration with random typography and serif fonts. The message hitting from Europe was spectacular: grid based compositions, geometric abstraction, sans serif typefaces, etc. – the ingredients for rational, informative and modern graphic design. The response to the magazine was similar in Europe. Neue Grafik, published between 1958 and 1965 in eighteen issues, and was a manifesto for what was then the world leading Swiss Style in graphic design. Due to the small and unsteady print run of the various issues, only very few complete collections of Neue Grafik can be found. Despite the limited circulation, the magazine had an enormous influence. Most designers know about it but have not seen the content. I had promised myself back in 1996 when I bid farewell to Josef Müller-Brockmann that I would one day undertake this reprint. He had to wait for 18 years but it is available in many libraries now.
One Hundred Years of Swiss Graphic Design … What an exciting title! What was the idea behind the creation of this book?
This book came along with an exhibition at the Zurich Design Museum. The idea was to express the impressive continuity in Swiss design without specifying the years – from the famous artistic posters for Swiss tourist destinations, to the modern avant-garde and the high time of the 50s and 60s, as well as the digital age and the present. The very high standard of Swiss graphic design has always been outstanding. The book was designed by NORM, one of today’s leading studios.
Thanks to your cooperation with the Zürich Poster Collection and the publication of dozens of books from this series, these posters are brought out of the museum drawers and presented as books to those who are interested throughout the world. Could you talk about this series and it subjects?
To my own surprise the Poster Collection series has been a secret success – the first issue was published 15 years ago and 28 issues later the series is still going on. Part of the success may be the unorthodox concept. Beside the rather few monographic celebrations of Swiss heroes – Otto Baumberger, Armin Hofmann, and Ralph Schraivogel to name a few – we take pleasure in composing collections that meet topical or typological criteria and allow the presentation of exquisite posters from the collection in an unexpected context. Black and White, Handmade and Typotecture are among my favorites.
How do you handle the idea of publishing various books about art, architecture and design? Do these books merely discuss design in Switzerland or do they go further to consider the international scope?
The publishing program represents my range of personal interests in the visual world. Only in the design compartment, titles of Swiss provenience may be dominant. My close friends, the Japanese graphic designer Kenya Hara and product designer Jasper Morrison, as well as other international authors are creating a balance. I consider the content of my books to be of international relevance. Especially in architecture we discuss topics of global importance. Art and Photography may depend more on my personal taste and curiosity and Society connects various categories. The photographic documentary of Mecca by Ahmed Mater, Desert of Pharan – Unofficial Histories behind the Mass Expansion of Mecca, is a good example.
Are you a designer, publisher or editor in Lars Müller Publishers? What is your real responsibility?
Today, I consider myself a publisher with the background of a graphic designer who takes pleasure in initiating, inspiring, editing and designing books. My business is small but independent. This gives me full freedom of decision.
How are the stages of preparation, writing, editing, publication, production, and finally distribution and sales carried out in your publishing house?
Lars Müller Publishers develops and produces around 25 books a year with a team of eight people who work in editing, marketing, sales, design and production. The fact that I am a designer-turned-publisher allows us to control the publications in-house from the very first idea to the printing of files. We place a lot of weight on the design process. Authors and editors work with us on the design and enjoy laying the pages out on the wall with us, which I consider our major working tool. Distribution is handed out to specialized partners. Theoretically our books are available at any physical bookstore worldwide, given there is an order.
Which books do you think are your best books in architecture, art, graphic design, and photography? Why?
This is a question I refuse to answer and leave to an outside view. Many books are important to me as biographical notes. I guess this is an answer that many designers may give. Of course, some books are more important than others, having higher impact in their field or contributing to the current discourse. It is fair to say that the quality of a book is defined by many factors. The book design is only one of them.
Lars Müller Publishers’ books are displayed in several exhibitions, in addition to being available in the shelves of bookstores. Why have you chosen exhibitions?
I was reluctant for a very long time to exhibit my books. It’s a difficult task. Ideally they all fit onto one shelf and you allow the viewer to pick and look. I agreed for the first time when the renowned ggg and ddd gallery in Tokyo and Kyoto respectively offered me an exhibition and allowed me to work with my friend Sou Fujimoto as the exhibition architect. Our concept was to present a selection of books on tables of different dimensions to emphasize the individuality of each item and stimulate an intimate encounter between the book and the reader. The exhibition was very successful and traveled to Shanghai last spring. A similar concept is currently being shown in Innsbruck, Austria.
What are your plans for the expansion of the publication and its fields in the future?
The structure of Lars Müller Publishers but also the current situation within the book industry prevents us from expecting growth. We rather try to sustain the business and output on the current level. I strive for high relevance of my program and hope to contribute to the understanding between nations and cultures. For the time being, the book successfully manifests its exclusive position as the reliable medium it is.