Fine prints - Issue 171 - Magazine | Monocle

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It’s a Monday afternoon in Näfels, a village in the Swiss canton of Glarus, and Lars Müller is hard at work. The publisher and two members of his team are scrutinising several glossy prints in graphic designer Dafi Kühne’s studio, which is full of old type-casting machines and printing presses. Kühne has just introduced a “best of” selection of his work from recent years. His visitors look through the pile and pause when they reach a deep-blue poster announcing the launch of a magazine, with spindly letters spelling out the word “Neu”. “This could be good to add context to a selection [of Kühne’s work],” says curator Tanja Trampe. To which Müller answers plainly, “But do you like it?”

A studio visit by Müller is something that almost any designer would covet. Over a period of 40 years, his namesake publishing house has released more than 800 specialist design titles, including monographs of architects such as Peter Zumthor and Zaha Hadid. At 69, he is showing no signs of slowing down. When monocle meets him, he is on a stock run for his latest venture: Flat & Bound, a shoppable online collection of some of the past century’s most precious printed matter.

Flat & Bound’s poster collection
Lars Müller in his Zürich studio

Kühne is the first contemporary designer to be included. Müller founded Flat & Bound in 2021 in order to sell works from his private library, a formidable col­lection consisting of gifts from friends, souvenirs from exhibitions and pieces nabbed from the homes of designers or picked up at antiquarian shops in cities from Oslo to Osaka. “I’m not a collector,” says Müller. “It contradicts my idea of being a publisher, which is about distributing to as many people as possible.”

Müller tells monocle how he honed his eye for print. As a teenager he was already dealing in stamps. He later studied graphic design in Basel and Zürich. After graduating he headed to Amsterdam in the early 1980s to work for Total Design, the agency founded by Dutch graphic designer and typographer Wim Crouwel, who pointed out to him that books are the only printed matter meant to last. Müller then returned to Switzerland with a plan to venture into publishing. “I drove back with a car full of books,” he says. “That’s how it all started.”

Kühne’s workshop
Crowded corner

The studio of Müller’s fledgling imprint soon started receiving weekly visits from revered designer Josef Müller-Brockmann. In the 1950s and 1960s, Müller-Brockmann had helped to define the grid-based, Helvetica-heavy Swiss style through his poster designs and by co-editing the influential Neue Grafik magazine with Richard Paul Lohse and Carlo Vivarelli. But by the 1980s, the rigid aesthetics of this old guard had fallen out of favour. “They were not recognised by many young designers of my generation,” says Müller. “I was captivated by Müller as a warrior of modernism.” His mentor became a lifelong friend. In 2016, Müller-Brockmann’s widow, Shizuko Yoshikawa, gave his archive to Müller. The collection makes up a large part of Flat & Bound.

Browsing through the collection makes its high-calibre provenance evident. Among the hundreds of posters, books and magazines are many museum-worthy pieces, from prints by Japanese graphic designer Ikko Tanaka to a treatise by Le Corbusier with a dedication from the author. The collectables don’t all come cheap but are priced well below market rates. “Our clientele isn’t lawyer’s offices,” says Müller. “We look for aficionados, young people who might forgo a few pizzas to afford a poster.”

Letterpress options
Cabinets of curiosities

Müller’s approach to Flat & Bound mirrors his recipe for success in publishing. The programme of Lars Müller Publishers is focused on the 20th-century avant-garde. Alongside this canon, he presents a selection of contemporary design. Similarly, Müller is keen to complement Flat & Bound’s modernist archive with works by young designers. “It takes you out of your comfort zone,” he says. “You have to judge the work in a different way because the old rules cannot be applied.”

In the case of Kühne’s prints, the criteria for selection include scarcity, relevance and how representative a work is of the artist – though much eventually comes down to taste (the “Neu” poster doesn’t make the cut). Kühne is an ideal choice for Flat & Bound. He prints his posters manually in his studio, using equipment scooped up from moribund type foundries and presses. After almost two hours of deliberation in his Näfels studio, the team settles on a dozen works.

Drawers of print treasures
Hands-on work

The posters are taken by Müller for storage at the Flat & Bound collection in Zürich, housed in the offices of the publishing house. There are no plans to open a retail space – the platform has already found its intended audience online.

While Müller might not call himself a collector, he takes pleasure in a piece having passed through his hands. “It can stay for a while too,” he says, gesturing around the room. “This assemblage more or less reflects what society was like in the 20th century.” Dispersed once more, it might inspire graphic designers in the 21st.

Top Picks from the Flat & Bound collection

Schützt das Kind! 
Josef Müller-Brockmann 
poster, 1956


The 5th Sankei Kanze Noh 
Ikko Tanaka 
poster, 1958


The Art Directors Club
Paul Rand
poster, 1988


Exposition de la résistence italienne 
Max Huber
poster, 1968 (reprint)


Galerie Aktuell
Max Bill
poster, 1965


Doves of All Nations 
Ivan Chermayeff 
poster, 1970


Plakat Affiche Poster 
Shizuko Yoshikawa
poster, 1971


Opernhaus Zürich, Medea 
Josef Müller-Brockmann
poster, 1972


Galerie Apel&Fertsch 
Max Bill
poster, 1970


Tokyo Olympic Games 1964, Runner
Yusaku Kamekura
poster, 1964


Des Canons, Des Munitions? Merci! Des Logis... SVP 
Le Corbusier
book, 1938


Galerija Suvremene Umjetnosti Zagreb, Galic 
Mihajlo Arsovski
poster, 1970


Kammerchor Zürich, Antonin Dvorak, Requiem
Müller-Brockmann 1Co
poster, 1969


Wohnen heute 6 
Richard Paul Lohse
book, 1967


Neue Grafik 1 
Richard Paul Lohse, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Hans Neuburg, Carlo Vivarelli 
magazine, 1958


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