Lars Müller is responsible for some of the most provocative and beautiful books in the areas of architecture, design, art and photography. He acts as an editor, graphic designer and publisher, involving himself in nearly every aspect of the design and production of his press’ books. He is both a manager and a producer of content, presenting the work of others and also increasingly initiating his own projects that offer visual interpretations of social issues, such as the books Who Owns the Water? and The Face of Human Rights. Müller considers these books not only documents of their time, but instruments for confronting the politics of global development. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of Lars Müller Publishers, he talks with Volume about the continuing evolution of the book as a form of content management.
BC: When you lectured at Columbia you said that your book The Face of Human Rights would in time pass from being an instrument to being a document, that is a work specific to a moment in time. Your most recent project is a reprint of Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Space - ship Earth. Where do you see Fuller’s book on that spectrum? As a forty-year-old ‘operating manual’, is it a document or an instrument?
LM: You could say it’s a historical document, which it definitely is since it was published in 1969, made for that particular moment. At the same time, because of the actuality of the content, it’s also an instrument. Few historical documents have a chance to become an instrument once again.
BC: But you’ve done it before with Karl Gerstner’s Designing Programmes, a forty-year-old handbook for graphic design. It’s a historical document, but also a very operational book.
LM: I can’t say I’ve defined a strategy for myself here. It’s probably based more on my intuition. It’s the advantage of a small publishing house where you don’t necessarily need to relate to any agreed upon strategies. I’d say that as long as I’m not going crazy I can be constant and stable enough to say that if I allow this or that I’m still in line with what Lars Müller Publishers has been and is.
BC: Do you see an advantage in combining the roles of editor, designer and publisher? First, biographically, how did that happen? Why is it that occupying these three roles seems like the right combination for you?
LM: First, it’s pure ego. There’s no other way to defend that decision. But still, there’s nothing exclusive in those titles; it’s just rare to combine them in one person. For me it was obvious because my starting point was graphic design and it’s easier for someone who’s a graphic designer to imagine himself becoming an editor and finally a publisher than the other way around. It’s an old term, ‘the generalist’. The generalist may have lots of disadvantages because he never reaches the depths of the specialist. But overall and in the way that we handle our poor lives, the way that you run your own house or apartment, you’re a generalist. You do the shopping, the washing and everything to manage your life. You’re a chef, a friend, a lover. Now when it comes to a profession we’re forced to become specialists. I just took advantage of my own independence to remain a generalist, one who may be sensitive or smart enough to find the specialists when I need them. The generalist’s attitude is to do as much as he can, do it right and discover how to be sensitive to the right moment when he needs someone else’s help. If I were to do the books all by myself they’d be quite poor. That’s not how it works, however. With The Face of Human Rights I had the idea, initiated the project and as an editor decided who’d be the right person to join me in that adventure. Walter Kälin, who became the co-editor, is a world-renowned specialist in human rights who works for the United Nations. Discussing the idea of the generalist is not very popular today. People often ask what your specialty is, what you do or what you studied as a way of asking what makes you different. But I say, as a generalist, you’re different.
BC: At any library it is easy to find Peter Eisenman’s or Zaha Hadid’s books. Look up one title and go to the shelf to find many others. But if you look up Lars Müller’s books you’re sent in a hundred different directions. Do you think there’s any coherence between these books that would make it useful to find all your books in one place?
LM: Well, it’s a nice idea, but doesn’t really make sense to collect books based on the publisher. The meaning of publishing may be to offer a service to various fields of content.
BC: But given that you involve yourself in so many aspects of the production of the books you publish, do you see yourself as having some kind of authorship? Sometimes you’re listed as an author, as in
LM: I hope so, but I hope so for myself. It’s not so much that I want to communicate an overall message because I’m still on a discovery tour. I’m still adding experience and impressions. I do indeed hope that after 25 years, or at least after another 25 years, if I were to stop publishing it will be perceived as a body of books, content and interests which the publisher assembled and which are related. I’d say that if a little part of what I’m doing becomes a strong and consistent body, I’d be happy.
BC: How do you decide what becomes a Lars Müller book? There are so many different formats in which you work.
LM: The book is the documentation of thoughts, ideas and events. That’s what drives us as a publisher. I don’t document everything, but at least a good part of what I’m interested in and what I discover as somehow important for my understanding of culture and my time. Transforming these discoveries into a book is a process of concentration and distillation. It’s like moving apartments – every time you move, it’s a challenge to reduce to the essence and leave some things behind. Not necessarily throw them away, but to leave behind what is not essentially needed for your immediate future.
B:C How much of your work as an editor or publisher is informed by your training as a designer?
LM: Graphic design is a tool that helps in the process of reduction. And the book itself has such obvious limits that one is well advised to reduce, but usually the way I experience it is that the content is searching for the right format.
BC: Yet the format is always a book. What is it for you about the specific potentials of the book at this moment that keeps you dedicated to this format? No doubt other forms of disseminating information are far more efficient.
LM: Today, sharing content between different media is a challenging process. We recognize that an increasing share of content doesn’t necessarily have to become a book. I feel kind of liberated in saying that. At the same time, I’m aware of some fundamental changes in our way of perceiving content and our media consumption. I see a possibility for the book to change, at least slightly. A book remains a book – in its physical appearance it has limitations – but still, it can change. And of course I’m a defender of the book, but it’s not my mission to preserve it. I see the changing situation of the book as an advantage for myself. There’s something I regularly discuss with museums and institutions when we’re entering into book projects for exhibitions and the conversation turns to the appendix with the complete listing of exhibitions, works or bibliographies. I say that if an author, an artist or an architect is still alive this list will probably continue to grow so whatever you print on paper will never be complete. Tomorrow it’s old. We should get used to putting everything that can be listed on the internet and free the book from this duty of carrying information which is used by a minority of readers. Many museums and institutions are still dependent on having the most complete collection of information printed on paper as an academic and archival document. But that’s old fashioned. They haven’t yet understood that new media are replacing that part of their work.
BC: The Face of Human Rights seems like a book that couldn’t exist without the internet – without digital photography archives that could be mined for images – although it behaves according to a different logic. What is the role of the editor today, now that the internet provides no shortage of content?
LM: The Face of Human Rights was an amazing experience for me in demonstrating a very simple idea. Photography in its creation is a very real process. You have a camera, a setting, something happens – he hits you and I take the photo. That used to be an analog process. You had a negative, you made a print, you sent it physically to the newspaper, the newspaper printed it, multiplied it and distributed it: an analog process of distributing visual information. Now this collection of photographic documents is put on the internet and what I do is take advantage of the access to thousands of photographs, make a selection and bring it back to analog again. It’s a transformation that I think is exactly the right thing to do: use the technology of the book while understanding the evolution of information into a digital archive. A digital archive actually has no value. It has a theoretical value. If I tell you I have 5,000 photographs on my website – so what? But if I tell you that I just published a book, I hand over much more information on my thought process. It is much more instrumental than the internet. The source, the collection of 5,000 photos on your website, has a theoretical value and becomes important only when used, only in the process of selection. It could be considered a process of subtraction, taking away all the photographs you don’t need. For The Face of Human Rights it was not a process of adding one picture and another and another up to a hundred. It was to take away 4,900 of the 5,000. That’s the editorial process.
BC: You had tens of thousands of images that became these six hundred.
LM: Yes, but if you want to make a choice of six hundred that are appropriate to the content, you must search through the six thousand. That’s a consequence of digital media technologies. With digital photography, unless you have limitations on your data capacity, you have no limit to the quantity of content you can generate. Until recently photographers knew that if they took a photo they had the negative and to make a selection they needed to go to the laboratory and do real work to enable them to make the selection. As a professional photographer you were already limiting the production of images. Today there is no reason for limitation.
BC: In book publishing you pay for every page, while on the internet there is no purely economic reason to edit at all, because storage and processing power are now approaching almost zero cost.
LM: Yes, and it may be a disadvantage of the internet that the information is theoretically there, but there is no lifetime capacity that can compare with it so it becomes an abstract form of power. We know that whoever has information has power and that it’s even surpassing money as a value. Whereas with the book what you hold in your hand is actually what it wants to be. That’s where I defend the book: not against other media, but for our rather limited capacity to absorb information.
FJ: The object is still part of the experience for you in book publishing. How does the object become part of the expression of the content? Is it the physicality of the object?
LM: Treating, not manipulating, the content suggests a form, like with Fuller's Operating Manual, a small paperback. I think this book should be soft and very easy to handle. It wouldn’t make sense as a hardcover because you’d feel that it’s a manual and would feel free to treat it accordingly. As a manual you’d want to keep it in your pocket. It should even look very used after a while because it is a manual and useful. My design effort here was minor, mostly to make the right decisions and keep costs low because we’re selling it for under twenty dollars, which is almost impossible when you produce it in euros and sell it in dollars. So no extras here: no glossy paper, no embossing. It’s appropriate for the content as brought into an object. The Face of Human Rights is necessarily a big book, but it’s not a coffee table book and that was the intention. Why the smaller format and more pages? Well, it’s 700 hundred pages because I couldn’t do it in any less and because the content is heavy, so I wanted to make it a heavy object. And I used to say you could actually knock out Dick Cheney with it if you got close enough! If it’s a smaller format you can bring it closer to your body, so you necessarily have a physical relationship between the book and yourself. Once you have a coffee table book you may expect people on your left and right to be looking at the same book, and that destroys the intimacy of reading, of concentrating on your interaction and perception of the book. There was a discussion as to whether it should be a round or square back. If you want to please the hands of the reader, you choose a round back, but to me that would have softened the content. So I said, no, it must be a brick. But then to give the hand something in return, I went for that white, handmade cotton fiber material for the cover, which was really very stupid because it becomes dirty immediately. But perhaps the dirt is not just dirt, but rather it’s dirt from your hands and I love that. I love traces of use. That may be what I share with architects who think not so much about the size of a building, but about what attitude they want to project beyond function.
BC: You pay attention to the specificity of a book’s use, like the amount of time it takes to read a page, whether the direction of reading is vertical or horizontal. There’s a sensitivity to how you anticipate the uses of a book.
LM: I may allow myself some speculation on that. We don’t do any marketing tests but I think we’re in a quite exciting period of change. People your age are the first generation who grew up with electronic tools and toys, Tamagotchis and smart phones. What I’ve tried to adapt for the book is the non-linearity of perception and how people approach new content. Museums have reacted to that. Today they usually don’t tell you that you must enter at the right and take the tour because they know people will either be interrupted or give up and never get to the end. So you should allow this kind of multiaccessible space. What I have experienced, which may be another comparison to architecture, is that in architecture the back entrance is often more interesting than the front entrance. Offering various entrances into a building or a book means that it is left up to you. The book should be designed such that wherever you enter you’re always welcome. Then it’s up to you to decide when you have a rough idea and want to understand it better. You turn around and enter through the main entrance, read at your pace and you may be patient enough to understand the continuity of the content. But again, you’re free, and the interactivity of the book is amazing. All of a sudden you realize you’ve discovered something and then you may dig deeper. That’s the idea of horizontal and vertical reading; they’re both always related to time. The vertical is where time is not important anymore. That’s where you dive in and then dive out again – you dig deep and then out, out of the book and into the internet, your unlimited ocean of information, out of the control of the book, which is a defined and limited space. In books, it’s about selection.