The interest you have shown in graphic design is rare for a printer. How did it come about?
It was already there in 1973. I wasn’t really interested in printing but
when my father bought a printing firm, I started to do his book keeping. And then, for the first time, I saw that one print was more beautiful than the others. I thought ‘This is great work! It’s beautiful’. That print was designed by Wim de Ruiter. So, I started to look in the files for more of his work. I could easily find it because it was so much more beautiful than all the other stuff. And from then on, I wanted to explore further and see work by other graphic designers. The most beautiful print I saw at that time was designed by Wim Crouwel. For me he was at a level which seemed unreachable. Then my father became ill and I took over the running of that small printing firm. In the years that followed there were a lot of changes, and we started to work more and more for designers. It is instinctive to want to do something that you like, so that’s how I began to specialize exclusively in this field.
You said: ‘Beautiful books are made together’, is the relationship between the designer and the printer, the secret to a better book?
Yes. It even goes even further because there is a chain of intermediaries.
It starts with the client, he asks a graphic designer to come up with a project which fits his brief. But then, the graphic designer needs technical information from a printer and a bookbinder to be able to make the proposal. The interaction between all these people is really important: between a client and a designer, between designer and printer, between printer and bookbinder, and perhaps other parties that are involved. The better the cooperation, the better the result. That is why we say ‘beautiful books are made together’. You need the expertise of all parties involved. As for the printer, he has to know the designer well to be able to make a product as close as possible to his expectations.
When graphic designers come to you with unconventional ideas, what do you say to them? Do you try to find solutions or bring them back down to earth?
We are there to find solutions. I always say, anything is possible, within
the limitations of money and time. If they want something that can’t be made with machines, you can always finish their book by hand. But if we are going to make hundreds of books and each book individually, that’ll cost a lot of money and take up a lot of time. Most of the time there is a budget and you try, within budget, to get the best possible result. When I’ve got all the information about the project and its budget, I can start calculating and show what the implications of certain choices are. For example, in the budget we see that the normal 25 % which goes to the book finisher has risen to 75 % because the finishing is very expensive. If the designer accepts a different way of finishing, then immediately he can save at least 25 %. But sometimes a special feature is so important in the design that it is non-negotiable. If you alter it, then nothing remains of the design. These projects should still be discussed. It is always through close cooperation and mutual trust in each other that you can make choices which will lead to a satisfactory compromise. It is just common sense. Design pushes you to experiment and make choices. This development is part of it.
Sometimes good surprises come out of it.
Often, if you have a limited budget, it leads to surprising choices.
Whereas when you have a comfortable budget, you can do anything you want, but in a way this is too easy. Often, the limitation is an impulse to make very specific choices and something really extraordinary comes out of the process. It is not always a disadvantage. I like that very much. You want to make something out of the ordinary. That is what design is all about.
The Vouwblad series shows a real involvement on your part for creation in graphic design. Beyond the commercial relationship, it seems that you are also partners. Why and how did you start the project? What is the main purpose?
I just took an idea that existed already in the fifties. At that time, design jobs were beginning to emerge. Before the Second World War, it was part of the printers remit to design also. It was only later that graphic designer became a profession. The example of Kwadraat-Bladen by Steendrukkerij de Jong is famous. Steendrukkerij de Jong was one of the first printing offices that focused on designers. They didn’t do the design themselves, but Pieter Brattinga, the owner of the printing office, was well aware of how beautiful design could be. They made Kwadraat-Bladen, little books of 25 x 25cm that form the series which had been created by artists and designers. The presentation of such books grew out of a series of meetings and festivities that were really well known within cultural circles in Holland. The big firms, that still worked according to the old principles ‘we do everything ourselves’, saw them as a small group of lunatics that were just messing around. But they made beautiful prints. So printing offices and designers grew up together. I just copied the idea because they formed an example for me. When you run a business the leitmotiv is ‘be good and tell everyone’. For instance, for us, twice a year, we send out beautiful printed matter designed by a graphic designer that shows his work. And that became Vouwblad. I think it is perfect cooperation between designer and printer. And it works!
What do you pay attention to when you hold a book in your hand for the first time?
Everything. There is always something special about a book, a little detail that pops up. There are all kinds of impressions that the printing highlights: the gap between the external aspect and the content, how it can be well but simply done, the coherence…
Printers are always complaining about designers, but you don’t have this reputation. Still, do you have any advice for them…?
You will never hear us complain about a designer. Quite the opposite. They give our work direction by asking us for exceptional prints. Being able to fulfill their expectation is essential for our printing office, it is the reason why we exist. I am glad that there are people who worry about the quality of printing. If they couldn’t see the difference, then they would all be sending their work in PDF to large scale printing firms without worrying about the detail and we wouldn’t be here. So, please, be as difficult as possible!
Sometimes I get questions and I don’t have the answer to. Sometimes we pay for the tests, sometimes the customer pays. It is good that you are together on a kind of discovery voyage. If it is a complicated project, you don’t have all the answers when you start, but you find the solutions, go further, and that is lovely, everybody can be proud of the result. Never say it cannot be done, it is surprising how far you can go!
As a designer, you have to focus on your own creativity, that’s what makes it so enriching. It is the most important thing you’ve got. Develop that as much as possible and find people around you that you can trust and that have skills that you haven’t got. You shouldn’t be bothered by the technical limitations. But then again, you need to know enough about technical limitations to avoid stupidity. There is a kind of balance between technical knowledge and having no boundaries, going further. That is difficult. There is always a risk, but sometimes when you take a risk, the result is extremely rewarding. Sometimes it is a mistake. That is part of the game.