Gerhard Steidl has crafted a company in his exacting image – and now he’s expanding his one-street empire with an eye to the future.
Publisher Gerhard Steidl is not interested in living the high life. He doesn’t own a car. He begins work at the crack of dawn seven days a week and only takes 18 days off every year. Expensive clothes are not for him either; he is rarely seen without his signature white apron. When he has to visit New York for work, he travels to and from Germany in a day so that he doesn’t have to stay the night and can sleep in his own bed. “I work in a very concentrated way,” he says. “I don’t go for dinners. I don’t make small talk.” There’s little about Steidl’s low-key lifestyle to suggest that he is one of the art world’s most high-profile figures. He honed his craft under the patronage of artist Joseph Beuys, was entrusted by Nobel Prize in Literature winner Günter Grass to publish his entire oeuvre and became the late designer Karl Lagerfeld’s go-to for all of Chanel’s print projects. Being associated with just one of these names would be impressive but all three is remarkable. While his empire has grown around him, Steidl’s monastic dedication to the art of book publishing has remained mostly unchanged.
Steidl’s home in the small German city of Göttingen is a two-minute walk from the offices of the publishing house that bears his name. What started in 1968 as a small-scale printing workshop producing exhibition posters is now one of the world’s most revered makers of art and photography books.
Steidl is the first person in the office every morning. He arrives at 05.00 and heads to the room housing the printing press soon after. This brightly lit, windowless space reverberates with a persistent pneumatic thrum as sheets of paper whip their way through a 13-metre-long, state-of-the-art offset printer. Pinned to the wall beside this vast apparatus is a small sign drawn by US artist Paul Ruscha: “Gott sei Dank fur Steidl” (“Thank God for Steidl”). It’s a reverence shared by many of the world’s greatest living artists, photographers and designers. Steidl is the only publishing house to produce all of its books on its own press and artists including Louise Bourgeois have made the pilgrimage to Göttingen to seek the master publisher’s advice.
To his legion of admirers, Steidl’s commitment to perfection is legendary. “It comes from a deep respect for the artists,” he tells Monocle. “They invest so much time, money and energy in a project. And then an idiotic publisher can come along and ruin the whole project within hours. German printers can be idiots, real idiots. They have no taste. They have no style.” By contrast, Steidl is deeply involved in every book, from selecting the paper and binding to overseeing the entire production process. He is often found working late into the evening, labouring over a minor detail of relative lithographic obscurity that less-experienced eyes might miss.
When it comes to materials, buying locally is important to Steidl. “The ink comes from a factory 100km from Göttingen,” he says. “It’s a family business. They make the inks exactly as I want them – my own composition. We get approximately 60 per cent of the paper from Germany too.” Even the printing press is German-made, a top-of-the-range model from Offenbach-based manufacturer Manroland that is capable of printing up to 18,000 sheets an hour. In fact, the press is so large that the entire street needed to be closed off when it was delivered earlier this year. Steidl’s decision to invest in the new machinery was fuelled by a concern over the future of the country’s printing-press manufacturers. “The market for printed matter is getting smaller and smaller,” he adds. “Fine art and photography books are a wonderful, beautiful niche but it’s not enough for a manufacturer of printing machines to survive. My worry was that they would stop making them and I would be left without a good tool to make books. With a new press, I am fit for the next 12 years or so.”
When discussing how the business runs, Steidl likes to talk in similes. The printing sheets are like “his children”. Buying good paper is “like picking fresh strawberries” from the farmer’s market. The office is “like a hospital” with him running round performing different surgeries and running diagnostics but, instead of a stethoscope, his apron pocket is brimming with pens. “I make at least 100 sketches every day to explain things,” he says. “Little design sketches to show the relationship of sizes and so on. Other people send emails; I make sketches.” Born in 1950 and raised in Göttingen, Steidl’s introduction to the world of printing came via his father, who worked nights cleaning the press at the local newspaper. But his fascination with print only really took hold when he visited an Andy Warhol exhibition in Köln as a teenager and became beguiled by the pop artist’s silk-screening technique. Aged just 18, Steidl set up his own print business. Steidl started out printing posters for exhibitions and it wasn’t long before he counted some of Germany’s best-known artists among his customers. The most significant of these was Beuys, who was something of a mentor to Steidl. The young publisher would go on to produce most of Beuys’ multiples and prints until the artist’s death in 1986.
Steidl made his first books in the early 1970s, starting with political non-fiction before expanding into literature and a few select art and photography titles. In 1996 he launched Steidl Publishers, his own specialised photobook imprint, which today holds the global publishing rights for everyone from Richard Serra to Jürgen Teller. Steidl produces about 120 image-heavy titles every year; his company also has a literature arm, which annually puts out about 20 books. These range from German translations of classics, such as Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to contemporary fiction from an array of European novelists. This side of the business began in 1993, when Steidl convinced Nobel laureate Grass to let him print books of his etchings and lithographs. The German writer was so impressed with the results that he eventually persuaded Steidl to start publishing his literary work too.
Lagerfeld entered Steidl’s life that same year, after he won the Raymond Loewy Foundation’s Lucky Strike Designer award. Part of the prize included the chance to have a monograph printed by Steidl but the German fashion designer turned it down. “I was pissed because I wouldn’t get paid if we didn’t make the book,” says Steidl. “So I wrote to him saying, ‘If you had to make a book, what would it be?’ He replied, ‘A well-made book of my private photos.’ I sent him some test prints with all different kinds of paper. Then he called me saying, ‘OK, we are connected. We are both paper freaks.’” Steidl published Lagerfeld’s book Off the Record in 1994. As with Grass, the designer was so taken by the quality of Steidl’s work and the result of their collaboration that he put him in charge of printing everything from runway-show invites to couture catalogues for Chanel – a contract that continues to this day.
Steidl’s work is singular but he can’t do everything himself and he relies on a tight-knit team of 45 employees. There are editors, designers, photographers, bookbinders and printing technicians. He believes that keeping every part of the process in-house is crucial to the company’s continued success. “Before offset printing arrived in the 1970s, everything was letterpress and it was very specialised,” he says. “You needed a printer, a typesetter and a designer to operate it. When offset arrived, the process became very fast and hi-tech and everything except the actual printing was outsourced. The knowledge transfer was interrupted. The creative side had no understanding of what the printer was doing and the printer had no idea about what the photographer was doing. They no longer spoke the same language.” Steidl works to counteract this trend by keeping these processes under one roof as much as he can. “That’s the only way to make it better,” he says.
In a world that is increasingly reliant on remote communication, Steidl is still a firm believer in the importance of in-person visits and about 3,500 guests pass through his offices every year. He wants artists to feel the paper with their own hands and see the inks up close. “Normally, when an artist goes to a publishing house, they’ll sit down with the publisher, sign a contract and go to lunch,” he says. “They’re not welcome at the press. I try to make the production process as transparent as possible to educate the artist about it so that they can see that I’m doing the best for their project.” Creating a book with Steidl is more of a collaboration than a commission. “It’s a vertical process,” he adds. “We sit in the library on the top floor and I ask them what their vision is. Then it goes one floor down to the design department, then the image department below that and finally to the press on the ground floor.”
While the kind of books that Steidl publishes hasn’t changed drastically over the past few decades, there has been a shift in the format of his publications. “How do people consume a book?” he asks rhetorically. “In America, they order through Amazon. There are hardly any bookshops in the US any more. You have to pay for Fedex and for the packaging, which gets expensive if it’s an 8kg brick. And people are travelling a lot too. So if you go to Tokyo and visit a nice bookshop and find a beautiful little book, you buy it immediately because you can easily take it home in your suitcase. We’re fighting to make our books as small and light as possible.” Steidl believes that the days of humongous coffee-table titles are over. “The problem with those books is that you actually need a table to read them on. Sure, you can display them proudly when you invite guests round so that they think, ‘Oh! What an intellectual guy!’ But they’re really a nightmare. I want a book that I can hold in my hands and sit reading on my sofa. You can’t hold a 10kg book in your hand for two hours.” Nevertheless, Steidl admits that some books require a larger format to do justice to their contents. He cites a new Damien Hirst set as one of the biggest challenges in this regard. “We’ve been working with him for 13 years on this book called Pharmacy London. There are 10 volumes with 3,800 pages. They are housed in a crate that he has designed to look like a fridge. It’s a beautiful object.”
Artists and photographers who visit Göttingen are offered board at the Halftone Hotel, a building next to the Steidl office that the publisher bought in 1983 and transformed into six self-contained apartments. These are not your average suites, not least because they contain artworks by Steidl clients such as Ed Ruscha and Jim Dine. “Guests go for dinner together in the evenings,” says Steidl. “It builds up a kind of community. You can compare it, on a much smaller scale, to the Chelsea Hotel in New York.”
The publisher owns so much of Göttingen’s Düstere Strasse that the street is often referred to as “Steidlville”. Aside from the office and hotel, there’s the Kunsthaus Göttingen, a stark-but-striking gallery designed by Leipzig-based architecture studio Atelier ST that opened in 2021. Steidl acts as curator here, putting on exhibitions of work by the artists who he publishes. The line-up has so far included the likes of Gilles Peress and Roni Horn. Exhibits are printed at Steidl’s on-site fine art printing studio, which also produces works for some of Germany’s leading museums and galleries.
The concrete-clad Kunsthaus sits in stark contrast to its neighbour: a squat, half-timbered house that dates back to the 1300s and is also owned by Steidl. It houses the Günter Grass Archive, a publicly accessible collection of the late writer’s etchings, lithographs, drawings and texts. Across the street from here is another ancient, half- timbered property belonging to Steidl. It housed a book bindery for 260 years before the previous owner decided to sell up in 2021. The building is still being renovated but, when it opens next year, it will host bookbinding workshops for young people. The publisher’s own prototypes will be bound at the site and visitors will be allowed to observe the process too.
Düstere Strasse has one final addition on its way: The Steidl Academy. This new institution will provide grants to people who want to learn how to make and print books. It will be housed in a building designed by British architect David Chipperfield on an empty plot next to the Steidl HQ. “There will be a library and a study room – the machinery to learn,” says the publisher. “It’s really a little private university for young people to come from around the world and work for anything between a week and a year.” According to Steidl, founding an academy is the last major ambition that he is yet to achieve. “I’m getting older and I want to transfer the knowledge to the next generation.” A new guard of printmakers might be eagerly waiting to learn from this master but it remains to be seen if any will leave an impression quite like Gerhard Steidl.
Over the course of its 55-year history, Steidl Verlag has published more than 5,000 photobooks. From contemporary masters such as Juergen Teller to photojournalism pioneer Henri Cartier-Bresson and fashion photographer David Bailey, the publishing house has printed titles with many of the biggest names in the field. From this vast catalogue, Gerhard Steidl chooses five of his favourite publications marking significant moments in his printing career.