PAPER IS BASIC
Right in the heart of Ghent, within a stone's throw from Gravensteen Castle, special titles emerge every year. Over the years, Studio Luc Derycke has grown into one of the most relevant design agencies in Belgium when it comes to book publication. The 'objects' have been widely praised. They are created with the attention that every 'newborn' deserves.
Luc Derycke is a publisher, graphic designer and guest professor at KASK, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. He is a passionate man, with a clear vision about the phenomenon of books. Luc strives to push the limits of graphic format in order to benefit the content. In his work, paper plays the leading role.
'Every paper has logic,' Luc says. 'Paper manipulates image. Paper manipulates typography. Volume. Weight. Actually, paper is extremely important. It works throughout the whole concept. You can sense when a well-designed book is printed on generic paper. I think those are the ugliest books, where things simply don’t fit together: content, form, paper. You feel it’s not thought through. With paper you can make a book very precise. In the same way that light is essential for a photographer or a filmmaker.'
–HOW DID YOU START?
‘I started at a publishing house in 1988 under the name 'Les Editions La Chambre' and I gained a few years of experience at Imschoot Uitgevers. That’s where I discovered that the effort it took as a publisher to get a nice graphic design for my books... well, that I could actually do it myself by that time. Or at least try. And so I started. To lease a desktop publishing installation in '92 -'93 - that was something around 30,000 Euros - I took a leap of faith and established myself as a graphic designer. Since then I have been focusing on graphic design. The publishing side of things has gradually crept back into my practice and around 2005 it really took off. Now it's really 50/50: publisher/graphic designer. But my official training is actually art school.’
–SO YOU ARE ENTIRELY SELF-TAUGHT?
‘Very early on, I had a passion for how a book should be, much more than the distribution or sale of that book. I always had very clear ideas about that. I had to have very long conversations with graphic designers in order to get where we needed to. And because I went to art school, I had this expectation of myself that I could draw from my background in terms of image, shape as well as in terms of typography.’
–HOW WAS IT PERCEIVED HERE IN BELGIUM THE FACT THAT YOU DID NOT ACTUALLY STUDY GRAPHIC DESIGN BUT THAT YOU ARE SELF-TAUGHT?
‘In the beginning that was a problem, especially among peers. Those graphical training courses actually started only at the beginning of the 1990s in Belgium, it’s all very recent. So I was seen as a ‘not-quite’ graphic designer. And that has only changed, really changed, when I started to win prizes. In the first 10 years as a graphic designer I also worked 80% abroad: England, America, and just sporadically for the Belgium market...
I do have to admit though; I was really at a disadvantage compared to my colleagues who were in fact trained as graphic designers. That was a critical period... or let's put it this way: it wasn’t until 1995 that I finally made this book and I knew I had really accomplished something as a graphic designer. What can I say… my first books were not that good...’
Luc reminisces laughing: ‘1991, Witte de With, Rotterdam, Chris Dercon was the director back then - they were setting up an exhibition with a French curator and because I was working for a publisher, Imschoot, Chris Dercon had asked to make the catalogue. At the time, I was in this ‘I’m going to design myself’ phase. So I designed the catalogue and if you see it now, it's pretty "charming" but in terms of graphic design... let’s just say that in that period I did a lot of assignments that I really shouldn’t have been allowed to do. But back then it was still possible ... I was a publisher and I decided: I will do the graphic design myself. It also had to do with budgets. I had kind of a 'power training': I jumped into the pool before I could swim.’
–IT WAS GREAT, ACTUALLY, WASN’T IT? IF YOU LOOK BACK AT THAT PERIOD NOW.
‘Well yes, great ... but also quite exciting. At the opening of the exhibition at Witte de With I actually felt people were looking at me thinking something like 'So... who is that ?! What did he make?’ But as far as I can tell, we have a good reputation nowadays.’
–WHAT IS YOUR VIEW ON GRAPHIC DESIGNERS?
‘I hate it when a graphic designer is used as a kind of instrument. I think that graphic designers have a lot to say about how to compose a book, how to build a book, especially if you have a lot of experience. What also interests me a lot is - and that is what my publishing house is built on - when an artist makes a book, he does it very differently than for example a graphic designer or a publisher. When making books, there are many possibilities that are not yet explored. The publishing world always tends to fall back on fixed patterns. To constantly break them it’s what peaks my interest. Because it has nothing to do with graphic design.’
–IS THAT WHY YOU LIKE WORKING WITH ARTISTS?
‘Yes, and artists like working with me. A kind of 'tabula rasa': ‘What is this? A stack of paper held together by a cover? What can we do with it? What do we have? What do we want?’’
–WHAT IF YOU COULD GO ALL OUT ON THAT STACK OF PAPER AND THAT COVER, IS THERE SOMETHING YOU WOULD REALLY WANT TO MAKE SOMEDAY THAT YOU DIDN’T GET TO MAKE SO FAR?
‘I don’t have a fantasy of something ‘I might one day want to make’. I do have ideas, of course. But everything is connected: the form and the idea, the set-up and the ambition. A book can only come into being when there is a desire to publish something, a need to put something out into the world. Just when you have something of value to say and you want to put that out through the book. That’s when it arises. Not before that.’
–WOULD YOU SAY THE “BOOK DESIGNER” LABEL SUITS YOU?
‘I have become somewhat locked in. I have been ‘trapped’ in the book world by the big demand, by the fact that I only have so little time. But also because of financial pressure. When publishing books you have to invest a lot, so you also have to monitor your investments and nurture them. I have often felt like doing other things, for example I’ve dreamt of becoming an artist again.’
–YOU HAVE TAKEN MANY RISKS IN YOUR CAREER, ESPECIALLY AS AN ENTREPRENEUR. HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN TAKEN SERIOUSLY?
‘As a small “needle in the haystack" you just try to do your thing but the big boys sometimes look down on you. I used to be seen as an artist, so the printing guys were looking at me very suspiciously. But now the profile of "graphic designer" is different - you may grow a beard or wear fashionable glasses - and they take it. Nowadays you fit in the artistic corner a lot more.’
–BOOKS. PAPER OF COURSE. WHEN DOES PAPER COME INTO YOUR WORK PROCESS?
‘With me, the specifications of a book are almost the first thing there is. Suppose we sit together to make a book. What I do is I try to set the paper in stone so to say, even after the first meeting. And even when I ask printers for an initial cost estimate, I usually already choose the papers that are necessary. Because if you don’t, if you do that with a random kind of paper, you always come off worse in the end. Yes, paper is basic. It really is. For books at least.’
–WHEN YOU HAVE YOUR FIRST DISCUSSION WITH YOUR CLIENT, DO YOU GO AS FAR AS TO KNOW PRECISELY WHAT IT’S GOING TO BE, HOW YOU WANT IT TO LOOK?
‘Yes. Either that or when I ask printers for a cost estimate, so very early on.
I have something which is rather unpleasant, it’s what the French call 'le coup d'oeil'. I often see the book in detail during the introductory discussion. As an object, not really its graphic design, but as an object. I have learned not to let go of that anymore. In the beginning I thought ‘it’s just a brainwave, it's not important' but actually, as long as the information is very limited, I have a sort of... clear vision. The more information that adds up, the foggier it becomes. So I have learned to let my intuitive 'coup d'oeil' guide me all the way through. And paper is quintessential to that. It’s one of the first things I see. Before font or layout, that comes later. But that ‘object’ is so important for the book. And paper is its material, isn’t it?
Choosing the paper has a lot of consequences: for print, for how you hold a book, for its look and feel. So I try to make that decision as early in the process as possible ... because that gives the book a very precise character.’
–DO YOU PREFER UNCOATED OR COATED PAPER? YOU LEAVE IT UP TO YOUR OBJECT, OF COURSE, BUT YOU HAVE TO HAVE A SLIGHT INCLINATION…
‘I have a predilection, but it is purely emotional... my grandfather had a secretaire and in it, he held his paper on which he wrote with his fountain pen. And there was this one type of paper: cream and smooth calendered paper. It was so smooth that it was very pleasant to write on it with a pen. That is why I have a kind of predilection for that paper.’
–WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CALENDERED AND COATED PAPER?
‘In the past they tried to smooth paper by literally ironing it out. A calender is a series of hard pressure rollers. They rolled paper sheets out for a very long time. But it wasn’t perfect, ink was not evenly absorbed.’
–DO YOU SEE PAPER AS THE BASIS?
‘Yes. I think that sometimes, with paper, you can make unexpected choices and you really get to the heart of a project. Actually you can almost only do that with paper, because paper is material. It’s not the image that is printed on it, it is what it is. Sometimes paper is the bridge that emotionally introduces you to a project. Especially cover material. Take for instance people’s clothing. Sometimes you see the people and other times you notice their clothes. But sometimes you see a person who is very extravagantly dressed and you cannot separate them from the clothing, there’s a kind of 'fusion' happening. I believe paper can deliver that fusion-feeling. We combine up to 3-5 different types of papers in a book. What I also love is colored paper. I am a big fan of Gmund. The Color series, that’s a beautiful range. I started using it very early on, especially as cover material. Paper is 80% of a book.
Paper is the basic condition of a book. With paper and a cover you have a book. Even if there is nothing in it. I always look for nobility. When you give shape (to something) you manipulate everything. I always try to shape how the viewers will perceive it. I like to make sure that they can perceive its architecture in the way it was intended; that they don’t feel deceived. And paper really helps to give back its honesty.
Paper is paper, it’s not a 'trompe l'oeil', it doesn’t trick the eye.’
–DO YOU SOMETIMES HAVE TO MAKE CONCESSIONS IF FOR EXAMPLE IT DOESN’T FIT INTO THE BUDGET?
‘I will do everything I can to keep the concept intact: ask the customer for more money, ask for less money for myself, print less, whatever ... I tend to go all the way in defending paper . For example, I would say ‘ok, no fee for us then, as long as we can keep this.’ But I shouldn’t do that too often, right?...
But sometimes it can’t be helped. So if I want to keep something a certain way and that means I don’t get paid, then ok, that’s just how it is…’
–THIS APPEARS TO BE A CHALLENGE FOR ALL DESIGNERS.
‘Sometimes you stick to a concept and it turns out that a certain finishing isn’t possible... And then me together with the printer and the company that does the finishing, we all sacrifice a lot to make the concept come to life. But in the end, as soon as the book is out, everyone is very happy. And then you all get new assignments because you have created a very special book together. So if you have to forgo your fee, you sometimes do that strategically. Because that is in fact your promotional budget.’
–DO YOU HAVE MORE PASSION FOR PAPER OR DO YOU HAVE MORE PASSION FOR BOOKS?
‘I have a passion for people and their lives. For how people seek to shape their lives. And books are a part of that. A very important part, if you ask me. Because when you publish your own book… well, you are in fact dealing with a bit of a psychological drama... a combination of heraldry or something like that... it’s a funeral of sorts. This is what motivates me. I can also be passionate about fashion or other things, such as Instagram. That fascinates me because it’s actually the same ... people who give shape to their existence, who publish their lives, their thoughts, their work or their taste or whatever.’
–YOU SAY THAT INSTAGRAM INTERESTS YOU BECAUSE OF THE PERSONAS THAT PEOPLE TRY TO PUT OUT THERE. YOU ALSO DO THAT WITH YOUR BOOKS. YOU TRY TO MATCH THE RIGHT PERSONA WITH THE RIGHT ARTIST.
‘Book production is completely driven by people’s urge to publish their persona. That is obvious when it comes to artists. But other people do that too. And then you have to ‘translate’ them to the book medium. And yes, I recognize that in Instagram also. It’s just much more accessible: you see people on vacation, with their children, sunsets...’
–BUT THE INTERNET IS VOLATILE...
‘Yes, and that creates a kind of fear. For artists too: they make their artworks, show them in galleries, they keep some pieces in stock, some are sold. After a while you have a kind of uneasy feeling... 'my life’s work is everywhere, it has no place anymore'. And if you put that in a book you can reduce everything to a place, a volume. Actually you build something that brings these people a lot of inner peace.
And it’s unbelievable how much you can fit in a book. Sometimes I experiment with exhibitions of artists' books. Artists’ books are actually a kind of artwork onto themselves, and it makes you think that it should be possible. And that works quite easily indeed. If you would hang all the pages on a wall next to each other, it becomes a considerable area. That book structure gives you a lot of possibilities. It is something you assess for a very long time, what you put in, what you leave out. But a book is a very 'smart' object.’
–ARE YOU A BOOK COLLECTOR YOURSELF?
‘No, I do not collect books. I have a lot of books, but I don’t go around collecting them. I find collecting to be quite stressful. I used to have this big urge to buy books. I also had it as a child. Books saved my life. I could travel through books: through time, through space, you could connect with everything. I still find that exciting but maybe I'm too immersed in it ... But I also try to keep a fresh look on things.’
–HOW DO YOU DO THAT? HOW DO YOU TRY TO KEEP YOURSELF FRESH?
‘I hardly dare go into bookshops anymore because you absorb so much and then it gets to you, you unconsciously save all that information. And that comes into play when have your 'coup d'oeil'... it needs as little external information as possible in order to function properly. Of course I sometimes walk into a bookshop and maybe I buy something, but what I really want is to go outside with a cart full.'
–DOES ALL YOUR INSPIRATION COME FROM THE ASSIGNMENT?
‘For instance, I am very fascinated by those ceiling boards there. You can’t really place it... materials that you cannot really put into words easily are interesting. Things that you can’t explain. These are the most interesting materials, materials that resist translation. Or, for example, what I also like to work with: animal skin materials: snake leather or something like that. You say snakeskin but you know that it is not really snakeskin, so what’s the snake doing here, in a book? You can’t connect the dots, and these are the kind of 'open spaces' that pleasantly surprise you.
Something that also inspires me is the Belgian backcountry. You can drive from Ghent to Brussels on the highway, but you can also take the back roads. And it’s so crazy. They call that ugliness, but every house is simply different, a paradigm. For example, the old workers’ houses. Every person does their own thing. And you get the strangest variations on the same pattern. In The Netherlands you probably wouldn’t be allowed to do that.’
–IN A WAY YOU HAVE THE FREEDOM TO MAKE SOMETHING UGLY.
‘Yes, or just make something to your own taste. That dedication to the particular lives very strongly here. I find this to be very touching. You have people who try to make a modest laborer's abode into a palace. Or transform it into a very modern home. You can almost read their world. That really touches me. You have many of those places in Flanders.’
‘Furthermore, I try to reject inspiration as much as possible, in order to keep my eyes fresh and sharp. The more formative you think, the better. I am very nervous about book fairs for example. They are too much for me. I also look very economically at art. I work with the 'coup d'oeil' and I know it to be very efficient so I have to respect it and follow what it tells me.’
‘But I can be very inspired by a person or the facade of a house or someone who has fenced their field in such a strange way, that you almost see them struggling, fighting with the materials. That 'struggle' that people take on with their environment is what I find very inspiring. For example, that window there - points to a dirty, unfinished glass pane in his studio - ‘it’s not beautiful. But I find it very funny to look at. It’s unique. Imagine that you restore it nicely, then you get a window like hundreds of others.’