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Robert Klanten

Gestalten – a Manifestation of Good Taste 0

Agnese Čivle,

Produced with the support of ABLV Charitable Foundation 

Established in 1995 in Berlin, Gestalten is one of the most powerful publishing houses in Europe that deals with design and visual culture. It is, in a sense, a mirror of the times – a mirror which has documented the developmental directions and trends of modern-day design, illustration, graphic arts, architecture, and urban and contemporary art – in the form of more than 400 books. The German word “gestalten”, meaning “to form” and “to fashion”, encodes in the name of the publishing house the company's ability to both reflect trends, and to inspire. 

The founders of Gestalten are historically seen to be the triumvirate that is Robert Klanten, Markus Hollman-Loges and Andreas Peyerl. Aware of the forecasts concerning the coming of powerful and universal design layout instruments, the three Folkwang University of the Arts students of industrial design turned to the, at that time, still very novel technology of computer-aided design (CAD), as well as to the relatively unknown field of desktop publishing. 

At the end of the 80s, the partners began to show their design prototypes at the big-time design fair, Ambiente, in Frankfurt. Klanten's tiny bit of experience in publishing, yet considerable base of knowledge in design theory, was sufficient at the time to bring about the trio's first publishing job – a catalog of the products on display at the design fair. The resulting onslaught of jobs dealing with exhibitions, and the odd organizational gig, introduced the partners to a whole contingency of creative souls – graphic designers, audiovisual artists, programmers, underground musicians, and even saucy go-go dancers. Soon enough, for these three friends hailing from both sides of the Berlin Wall, the shaving of Styrofoam blocks into BMW models at university fell to the wayside, to be replaced with the more exciting job of printing fliers for parties and CD inserts. With the founding of Gestalten, Andreas and Markus continued to work in design development, but Robert concentrated on the publishing of books. The first official book project for Gestalten was “Localizer 1.0” – a comprehensive visual compendium on the techno and electronic music industry. 

Now the publishing company has offices in Berlin, London, New York and Tokyo. met with the company's president, Robert Klanten, at the busy Berlin headquarters of Gestalten, to have a chat about books.

Gestalten book on the newest trends in the design of porcelain, glass and ceramics – Fragiles

18 years have passed since the founding of Gestalten. How has the field of visual culture subjects that you cover in your books, changed over the years?

Working at a company that publishes books on design and visual culture entails constant vigilance of every possible expression of creativity, of any manifestation of art and design. In the last years, much has changed in the field of subjects that could be covered. Various classical design disciplines have expanded – for instance, alongside the traditional craft of porcelain pottery, there are now increasingly new, innovative and unconventional interpretations of the material's form and decorative motifs being developed. 

In addition, the various socio-demographic changes, increased mobility and global networks are  influencing the way that the people of today live, work and interact; which, in turn, has greatly affected the modern understanding of architecture. The new architects are no longer interested in erecting classical buildings, but are rather oriented towards short-term, transformable and mobile projects, including various pavilions and exhibition platforms. Solutions are no longer sought in the project for one certain structure, but in the transformation of the environment as a whole. New phenomena in contemporary architecture have appeared, of the kind that didn't exist before. The same thing is happening in art. 

Many interesting things occur when the sparks begin to fly at the intersection of the old and the new. In a sense, we're attempting to forecast these new phenomena, and we're looking for interesting things.

Gestalten architecture guide Spacecraft. Fleeting Architecture and Hideouts

Having spent such a long amount of time in the epicenter of visual cultural processes, is it possible to predict the development of future trends?

I'd say that it really isn't all that important to be able to predict new trends or possible changes, but that what is important, is to be able to reveal what parts of all of this will be useful and viable – interesting for a longer time period, and on a wider scope. That's a much bigger challenge for us!

Right now there isn't just one trend; the trends are many, and at the same time, several things are developing. We try to pinpoint which will be fruitful, and which ones, although they may be interesting, will be short-lived and have little impact on the visual culture scene as a whole. 

Taking a look back at the 90s, when Gestalt had just taken off, what were the things in the industry that you wanted to do differently? 

First of all, we wanted to focus our attention on the artists and designers that were not well known at the time; we wanted to reflect their accomplishments while the other media weren't on to them yet.

Secondly, we, in a certain sense, changed the way that design and art books get published. In the mid-90s, to just publish one issue, the publisher spent a year – or even three – searching for other co-publishers and acquiring publishing licenses... We thought: no – if we're going to concentrate on visual culture, which is in a constant state of development, and if we're talking about trends – then we must be quick! We began to work independently, we reflected the latest inclinations in a very timely manner, and we turned towards export.

At the same time, we became a sort of sign of quality, indicating what is good and valuable. We showed people the straightest road to knowledge and gave them an overview of what was going on in visual culture. People were ready to spend a certain amount of money for a book that would save them time – that would give them a shortcut to reaching what was new and important.

In your opinion, what were the most interesting episodes in the history of the publishing house?

Everything has been like a challenge – it's been interesting the whole time! Many things have happened, and are continuing to happen, in front of our eyes. We've tried doing our job in a way that was, foremost, interesting to us; because as soon as it became dull to us, it would become boring to the readers as well.

Gestalten book on the use of interactive technology in innovative design A Touch of Code

The development of the technological media environment has also been a challenge, of sort. How has that influenced publishing, and what sort of challenges do publishers have to be ready to meet in the near future?

In terms of the media, technological changes can be compared to the transition from candlelight to electric lighting. And in the same way that candles still exist, so do books still exist. It's just that they fulfill a different function now.

Books used to be the primary carrier of information; now, a part of the information has been diverted to the internet. That, of course, influences the way that books are produced and used. It is no longer necessary to publish, in books, information of a timely nature that can be transmitted through other sorts of media; brochure-type publications can be replaced with e-books. But e-books do not necessarily have to replace books of illustrations. Printed matter, of the sort that Gestalten produces, cannot be replaced by another medium.

But the thing that one must concentrate on during this flood of information, is content. It must be special, unique and unobtainable elsewhere. 

Books used to be like valuable clocks that were handed down, generation to generation. In your opinion, what is the lifespan of a book these days?

That depends on the book. Overall, books are becoming increasingly cheaper, but at the same time, the prices of good and valuable books are climbing. And they will continue to climb because it is no longer necessary for people to acquire a book just to get to the information inside of it; they buy it as a thing that is to be treasured – just like a work of art or a design object. People will buy books about subjects that interest them and that are important to them. Expensive books will become something like a manifestation of good taste. In a digital world, where only a remaining few have a collection of physical musical recordings, a bought book proves that the owner of it undoubtedly wants it to be a part of his or her life.

How important is the aspect of a book as entertainment?

It is not possible to create a boring book about an interesting subject. 

By making books fun and easy to comprehend, we speak to that part of the public that is still searching and asking questions about certain subjects. That is our objective, because we don't work for those who already know everything. However, I don't want to say that we are only oriented towards entertainment; rather, we are democratic in a sort of sophisticated sense. We want people to understand the design value of a book. And the making of that sort of a book requires investing a lot of work. The new generation of designers, illustrators, journalists and graphic editors are increasingly widening the possibilities of visual storytelling so that they can transmit information in a way that makes it easy to absorb, enthralling, and aesthetically innovative.

Gestalten books are unique in that they all have been created by designers. How do you go about finding and selecting your creative team?

We have about 40,000 artists in our database. We intensely observe what's going on, follow other forms of media, and maintain contact with design schools and instructors – who then recommend new talent to us.

There's a well-known saying: “Don't judge a book by its cover.” In today's world of over-saturated stimuli, how important is the first impression – when it comes to selling a book and having the customer relate to it?

It's still very important. About 40% of the decision of whether or not to buy a book is based on how the cover speaks to the buyer.

The biggest problem that today's publishers face, however, is not finding “the right” cover. You see, for example, in the US there are very few bookstores, and the ones that are left are going out of business. People are forced to buy books, for example, on – without knowing anything about their material quality. But in terms of the kinds of books that we create, people wish to see them first, and touch and smell them.

Gestalten book on the three-dimensional aspects of contemporary visual culture High Touch

How important are tactile qualities in today's book world – such as the feel of the cover, the texture of the paper?

They are important, but the publisher must find the middle ground between the effort invested into making a book, and its selling price. You can make a special book, but if the buyer isn't ready to deal with its price – then there's no point, really. One must create a product that will create contact with its target audience.

In you opinion, can a book be art, or is it just a product?

A book can be art if it was created with that in mind – in special, limited-edition series. We create products – they're beautiful and functional – but they're still products. We have to hand down a message – that is the main job of a publisher. Gestalten doesn't look at its books as works of art, even though the books do speak about art.

What does it mean to be a contemporary publishing house? Can a publisher survive just by producing books? In 2008, you founded Gestalten Television...

Ten years ago, people still put a certain amount of money into their pocket and headed to the bookstore to buy a book about which they had never even heard about before. The store and the display stand were enough.

Today, a product must be communicated on a completely different level – you have to make a Facebook page and open a Twitter account. Through these, you have to get people's attention in an attractive manner; you have to get them to talk about it.

Television is part of our marketing strategy and communications plan for the brand. Through it, we not only present our product, but we also present ideas and the world about which we speak in our publications. In our special interview programs, designers, architects and artists talk about their creative passions, thereby making people interested in acquiring the books.

Since we produce for a certain group of people with a certain type of knowledge and interests, we've also created side products for them, for instance, an online shop for fonts and symbols.

Gestalten Space

In 2011, you also opened the bookstore-gallery, Gestalten Space. What was your objective in creating it, and is everything going as was hoped?

When our books are put on shelves in shops in other countries, no one has any idea who we are and where we are from. Now we have an opportunity for direct communication with both the local public, and with visitors to the city that come from all over the world. We have the opportunity to find out what their opinions and interests are, as well as the chance to create a vision about ourselves. That is very important for the overall image of the brand.

With exhibitions, we get great feedback from not only the public, but from the artists as well.

After the 2004 Asian tsunami, you worked with the London design agency, Ilovedust, to create a charity project – a book titled “A Book Designed to Help”. Are you currently working on any similar charity projects?

Not right now. And I have to say that, compared to the 2004 project, our latest charity project – the book “Arigato”, which was created to help finance reconstruction in the parts of Japan affected by the 2011 earthquake – didn't do all that well.

To help and encourage social responsibility in this manner today, the product must be valuable and attractive to the target audience in its own right.

The Gestalten-published book, “Nostalgia” – an homage to the Russian pioneer of color photography, Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii – was awarded the German Photobook Award Gold Medal. How did you come up with the idea to make this book? How important are awards like this to the publishing house? 

The book is a portrait of the Russia of Tsar Nikolai II, as photographed by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944). Restored by the US Library of Congress, the exhibition of photographs saw its European premier at the Gestalten Space gallery; we also came out with a series of prints of the photographs, and a book.

Photo album The Russian Empire of Czar Nicholas II

Actually, we never participate in these sorts of competitions. Our manager of distribution filled out the application, and I didn't know anything about it. It was unexpected, so we were surprised, but we can't complain! But in terms of marketing, the award doesn't have much impact. To get anything out of these sorts of competitions and awards, one must participate in them regularly and be able to stand out – we don't wish to do that.

In terms of its market, Gestalten has always been an internationally-oriented publishing house. Which part of the world are you focused upon right now?

We're global. We're trying to do some more work in China, but that's complicated due to the copyright infringement and illegal publishing going on there. It's impossible to fight against piracy in China.

The fashion designer, Karl Lagerfeld, once said: “Books are like narcotics, but without the risk of overdosing. I am a happy addict.” What does a book mean to you, personally?

It's a medium through which certain content can be availed of in a very direct and special way. A book is a unique carrier of information that has no equal. Working in the publishing industry is terribly exciting!