Seven years ago, Unit Editions set out its stall nice and early. The publisher’s first book, Studio Culture: The Secret Life of the Design Studio, shone a little light on the magic of firms such as theirs. The book was like the most measured, easy-on-the-eye solution to a maths problem: “Always show your working,” said teacher, and they did. The book was also charming and funny and human; qualities that have tended to elude design publishing, often on purpose.
Unit’s rejection of a notion of design appreciation as something wilfully serious and anally retentive struck a happy note. The design tribe lapped it up. Most of Unit’s books are considered an authority on their subject. Herb Lubalin: Typographer sells the designer as an exponent of “graphic expressionism”. Paula Scher: Works shows just what “work” means: heaps, reams and tons of it for Atlantic Records and Moma and a quarter of a century at Pentagram. Spin: Adventures in Typography is a sort-of autobiography that takes you on a ride to save the fedora and whip from the rolling rock of dull and dutiful design commentary. Indiana Jones with a propelling pencil and a polo neck? A bit.
Physically, Unit Editions is a publisher that works within the Spin design agency and shares some of its staff in a large, partitioned, white-walled studio in Kennington. It has sold books in an online age; both teams smile a lot and the two are definitely connected. “We wanted to dispel the myth that designers don’t read,” says Adrian Shaughnessy, one of the three Unit founders. “So we started printing designers’ reading lists, something we always found interesting. And I suppose we just kept on printing.”
So curiosity and a desire to connect with the like-minded kicked Unit off but was there an intuition that people would pay for print and that Unit would be a goer? “To be honest we thought we’d be selling digital books,” says Tony Brook, another co-founder who directs both Spin and Unit. “But that just didn’t happen. There was an immediate learning curve about what online could do though: after publishing our first couple of books we were immediately undercut by Amazon.”
Unit learnt quickly and now sells its own books for the recommended retail price; a price it sets. “Much of the idea for starting Unit Editions was frustration with slow and inflexible design publishers,” says Shaughnessy, warming to the theme on an Eames EA 104 office chair (because we knew you’d ask). “We have a model like an indie record label,” he says. Which one? “ECM.” So more of a German avant garde jazz and contemporary classical label but hey, Adrian, we know what you mean.
Producing a book will take Unit six months to a year (“Still lightning quick compared to anyone else,” says Brook), much of which is archive-sifting – some are impeccable, others a mess – filtering, photographing and assessing the work. “It’s the slow way but the only way that we know that everything has been seen and has some context for us,” says Brook. The Paula Scher book, a must-read if you’re into design or just have a passing interest in the world outside your window, was more of a labour of love. “Paula’s a friend and she wanted us to do it; it’s flattering but there’s an extra pressure that’s not unpleasurable,” says Brook with a smile.
What job do the books have? “They’re contemporary things,” he says. “They look at a designer’s work from the here and now; we reassess the things that we like and when you talk about books now you talk about texture, feel, size, smell. There is a physical and emotional connection.”
There is a flurry of touching covers, admiring spines and sniffing of paper in the Unit library. “The book is having a moment because of the saturation of the internet and a hunger for context,” says Shaughnessy. “Design works in print: the dynamism of the words and text.” Shaughnessy concedes an important practical point to the world of the web, however: “I mean, certain things are better online.” Like what? “Like train timetables.”
Unit Editions: the bibliography
An independent publishing venture, Unit Editions produces books for an international audience of designers and followers of visual culture. The company was formed in 2010 by Tony Brook, Patricia Finegan (both Spin) and designer and writer Adrian Shaughnessy.
The first book was published in 2010. It was called Studio Culture: The Secret Life of the Graphic Design Studio. It featured interviews with 30 graphic designers who had formed landmark international design studios. Since then, Unit Editions has published 30 titles and a range of smaller publications. Print runs are intentionally kept low – 2,000 or 3,000 of each title – and books are only available through the company’s website and a handful of specialist shops around the world.
Unit Editions hits
Studio Culture: The Secret Life of the Design Studio The set text for the expert or passing stranger who wants to get under the skin of the creative impulse.
Wim Crouwel: A Graphic Odyssey Sixty years of works great and small from the Dutch master, from his Stedelijk Museum identity to the Netherlands’ handsomest stamps.
Ken Garland: Structure and Substance A beautiful monograph of the UK giant who realised back in 1966 that the telephone was as important to a designer as his pencil. Ever the communicator, Garland is a perfect fit for Unit Editions.
Essays: Scratching the Surface Shaughnessy’s style is direct, witty and sharp. “Why would anyone want to read about graphic design?” he asks, and proceeds to make you wonder why you ever had a doubt.
Paula Scher: Works Full to bursting with ideas, angles and shortcuts to understanding, Scher’s work rules the past 25 years.
Lars Müller Publishers is an independent publishing house that has made a mark with its timeless books on architecture, design, photography, art and society. It all began with Die Gute Form (Good Design) – published in 1983 – and more than 600 books later, Müller is going from strength to strength.
Monocle: What inspired you to establish a publishing house?
Lars Müller: My modernist education helped liberate me from the pressures of having to follow market trends. First and foremost my designs are created to serve their content; marketability comes second. My books are designed to be timeless. Fortunately there are people who are not in a rush to jump on the next bandwagon. Mankind doesn’t evolve quite as quickly as that: we’ve remained deeply connected to the medium of the book. That doesn’t mean that I don’t see great advantages to digital media but I believe the book’s here to stay.
M: What books do you gravitate towards and what’s your latest publication?
LM: I’m passionate about book design and enjoy accompanying a book from start to finish. Through my first book, Die Gute Form (Good Design), I slid into the realm of product design, photography, architecture and graphic design and stayed there. A unifying theme is the idea that we’re more alike than we think. We just launched a photography book by Ahmed Mater called “Desert of Pharan”. He spent five years in Mecca documenting the transformation of this sacred site into a megacity. The message is that far more connects us on this little planet than divides us.
M: How are you navigating the changing media landscape?
LM: We look for places around the world to showcase our books. I just returned from Dubai, where we had a pop-up shop, and I will be in Milan for Fuorisalone during Salone del Mobile. Several of our covers are monochrome or embossed and those will look like a blank page on Amazon. You have to see my books in person.