I stumbled across this film while looking for documentaries about early printing, Gutenberg and so on. Gerhard Steidl owns and runs Steidl, a publisher-printer based in Göttingen. Known for his photography books with the work of many of the world’s best photographers, they say that Steidl’s ink is printed so thickly on the page that it’s sculptural.
I had previously read this New Yorker article on Steidl’s life and work, which describes things wonderfully. The public interest in Steidl seems to mimic the resurgent interest in people engaged in traditional craft the world over—maybe none more so than Jiro of Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Printing is of slightly (only slightly) more interest to me than sushi.
You can stream How to Make a Book With Steidl on Vimeo here. It features Steidl co-producing books with photographers such as Robert Frank and Martin Parr, with some of Steidl’s more idiosyncratic tendencies on display, as from the New Yorker profile:
Artists who work with Steidl typically travel to Göttingen, which is about four miles west of the old border with East Germany. They wait, sometimes for years, to be summoned, and are expected to drop everything when he calls. “It is like going to kiss the Pope’s ring,” Mary Ellen Carroll, the conceptual artist, said. (In 2010, she published “MEC,”—a book of her work, divided into categories including Mistakes, Boredom, and Lies—with Steidl.) When artists arrive in Göttingen, Steidl is often not quite ready to give them his attention, and so they must while away entire days in a library four floors above the company printing press, which runs non-stop, seven days a week. Steidl does not want artists straying into town, or dawdling at a restaurant or a bar where he cannot find them. “He is like a monk,” Robert Polidori, whose work Steidl has published since 2001, says. “He is not a priest—he is there to work, but he doesn’t perform miracles, or sacraments. He delivers.”
Personally, Steidl strikes me as a figure closer to Venetian printer Aldus Manutius (Aldo Manuzio) than Gutenberg. His dedication to culture rather than religion, his mixing business with scholarship and culture, and his commercial success (Gutenberg was bankrupted and lost his type) make this feel true. But I suppose it’s easier just to say Gutenberg!
This was a feature article published in HOME MagazineNew Zealand, July 2019.
Open your iPhone’s calculator and you’re looking at a version of the calculator that German designers Dieter Rams and Dietrich Lubs designed for Braun in 1980. It’s a modern classic: held in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, the functional, clear and even beautiful design is so difficult to improve on that Apple’s designers were left simply paying homage. But what irony, then, that our iPhones will barely last three years while Braun’s calculators are still going strong almost 40 years later. Apple’s designers borrowed Rams’ aesthetic, but not his ethic.
At least one company is still committed to both. Vitsœ (pronounced “vit-soo”) is a somewhat paradoxical company. Its key product—one of only three that it makes—is a flexible shelving system so understated that it exists merely to highlight the objects placed on it. Vitsœ is a company that doesn’t mind being invisible, like its shelves; but then again, you’ve probably seen these shelves many times without realising it. Called the “606 Universal Shelving System”, they’re the ones that house your architect friend’s books and ceramics, and which adorn the walls of so many Instagrammable mid-century modern houses.
It’s a “system” rather than a shelf because every part is interchangeable. You buy some vertical brackets that attach directly to the wall. Between these, you then fit the thin metal shelves or cabinetry. You can start with a small shelving unit and then add to it as required; you can replace individual parts if they wear out; and you can pack them and take them with you when you move—all of this is Vitsœ’s sales pitch. Because of their flexibility, I’ve heard it said sardonically that Vitsœ’s shelves are the most divorce-friendly in the world.
All three products Vitsœ makes—the shelves, plus the 620 Chair and the latest addition, the 621 Table—are designed by Dieter Rams, the man behind so many of Braun’s twentieth century designs. Clocks, shavers, coffee machines and toasters: Rams designed them all with a clean, uncluttered aesthetic and with the belief that if made well enough, consumer products could improve the world. Planned obsolescence was anathema to Rams. If a product is good, it should last. This was the ethos with which Niels Vitsœ began selling Rams’ home furniture designs from the late 1950s.
What the shelves are is environmentally friendly, though you won’t see Vitsœ explaining this. The most the company emphasises is that “Recycling is defeat,” in the words of Mark Adams, the eloquent and elegant managing director of Vitsœ who brought the company from Germany to England in the mid-1990s. Adams was just 24 when he quit a lucrative office job to join a furniture store that happened to sell some of Vitsœ’s products. And for him, Vitsœ is far more than a furniture company—as he puts it, Vitsœ is a “service business that just happens to make some products.” He’d never say it (the company’s understated philosophy, and a dose of English reserve would prevent him), but the measure of success for Vitsœ seems to be more about how far it can spread its philosophy of “Living better, with less, that lasts longer”, than how many products it sells.
Vitsœ is not the only company producing long-lasting, flexible shelves. Swedish company Lundia has a wood-based system that has been sold through an NZ-owned subsidiary for many years. It’s slightly less flexible, but the use of natural materials has long spoken to NZ-Scandinavian design affinities. One significant difference between the two companies is that Vitsœ only sells directly to the consumer through their website: you can’t go in to a store to pick up any shelves, though Vitsœ’s “planners” will design shelving combinations for you after you send them a photo of your wall. The direct-to-consumer approach has further helped Vitsœ reduce wastage since it controls the whole process, down to reusable packaging materials.
As I walked around Vitsœ’s beautiful factory (usually an oxymoron) my thoughts turned unexpectedly to New Zealand. I recognised something in Vitsœ’s honest and direct use of materials—the building is just exposed timber, glass, metal and concrete, without a single brushstroke of paint. There is something of the Elegant Shed and Number Eight Wire and Colin McCahon’s use of unstretched jute canvas to Vitsœ: a transparency and honesty, both in its building and in its philosophy. The normal corporate facade doesn’t wear off no matter how hard you go looking—in fact, there is no facade. With Vitsœ and its shelves, what you see is what there is. Much like a Group Architects house in Auckland, I want to say.
I found myself wondering: what if we were to double down on these values, making “living better, with less, that lasts longer” a kind of national design mantra? We seem to already have the foundations built for us by our twentieth century architects and designers. What Vitsœ shows us is that those values are not necessarily synonymous with “local business”—that you can in fact lead the world with them, and turn a good profit at the same time.
Now, just two years after the company completed the move from London to its new bespoke-designed headquarters, Vitsœ seems to be entering a new and exciting chapter in its history. For those who have followed the company for many years this is unsurprising. Vitsœ has always done things differently, always rejected trends and fashions. And at a time when the implications of a century or more of wasteful, throwaway design culture are more than clear, Vitsœ’s understated, long-term, slow-but-steady philosophy offers a lesson for us all. The philosophy comes free—beautiful, long-lasting furniture is an optional extra.
We have the man’s library, but what to do with the man himself? Dilettante, cocaine addict, recluse, snob, sailor and bibliophile—Alexander Turnbull is not one of those benefactors to be remembered fondly by history, nor, for that matter, by his contemporaries. When he died in 1918 he left his library to the nation. Had he not done so, it’s unlikely he’d be remembered at all.
But what a library! Readying myself for my return to Wellington I’ve been browsing through old catalogues of Turnbull’s books, discovering what I’ll have access to after giving up the Bodleian. Guiltily, I realised I’d made from a distance that old mistake in assuming that because we’re small we wouldn’t have much of value.
We have a copy of what has been called the most beautiful book ever printed, the Hypnerotomachia poliphili, from Aldus Manutius’ Venice press. Turnbull bought it from Bernard Quaritch, famous London book dealer, in November 1900. There are over 100 other incunabula in the national collection, many but not all from Turnbull’s own collection.
We have one of the finest and most complete collections of Milton books in the world. This was perhaps Turnbull’s most serious collecting interest, and his most costly.
Turnbull collected complete sets of books from famous private printing presses including, most notably, William Morris’ Kelmscott Press. Alongside this, of course—and after Turnbull’s time—we have complete runs of everything printed by New Zealand’s own private presses like Caxton and Pegasus.
There are currently 24 medieval manuscripts in the Turnbull Library, though Turnbull himself only bought one (he did not read Greek or Latin). The earliest is a pre-1150 manuscript of Boethius’ On Music.
And then, most significantly, is the fact that Turnbull aimed for utter comprehensiveness in his collection of NZ-related materials. Neither Sir George Grey or Dr Thomas Hocken, who donated their significant libraries to the public too, had the sheer quantity of NZ books as Turnbull did.
And unlike so many collections in Europe, we don’t need to be members of a university or personal friends with the collector to go and view any of these. They’re a part of our national collection. Just walk in to the National Library building in Wellington.
Turnbull and NZ’s libraries, a short bibliography:
The Fascinating Folly: Dr. Hocken and his Fellow Collectors. E. H. McCormick, University of Otago Press, 1961. (This is a pamphlet with great introductory material to the three contemporaneous book collectors who gifted their libraries to the nation.)
Alexander Turnbull: His Life, His Circle, His Collections. E. H. McCormick, Alexander Turnbull Library, 1974. (The most comprehensive biography written on Turnbull).
This brilliant guide to book history at the Alexander Turnbull Library.
The Turnbull: A Library and its World. Rachel Barrowman, Auckland University Press, 1995. (A great history of the library through time, though with far less about Turnbull himself than McCormick’s biography).
Early Imprints in New Zealand Libraries. Alexander Turnbull Library, 1995. (Subtitled “A finding list of books printed before 1801 held in libraries in the Wellington region”, this is a good primer on what we have in our libraries).
The Oldest Manuscripts in New Zealand. David Taylor, NZCER, 1955. (A popular book in its time, this covers the earliest Medieval manuscripts we had in all NZ libraries before 1955).
Account of a cruise in the yacht Iorangi to Queen Charlotte sound, New Zealand. Alexander Turnbull, privately printed, 1902. (The only book Turnbull himself ever wrote. A copy is available, of course, in his own library).
A friend and I were speaking recently about some of the Pacific’s remote islands, a topic which, since spending the first three conscious years of my life living on Rarotonga, has long interested me. Chris spoke about Disappointment Island, which he had previously written about:
“Disappointment Island, in true New Zealand fashion, is a terrific understatement. Much like the Pitcairn Islands, the story begins with a ship navigating the southern oceans. A week after leaving setting sail from Australia with 2,576 ounces of gold (about 73 kilograms, worth $3.2 million, in today’s US dollars), the ship collided with the Auckland Islands, which is disappointing at the least. Fifteen of the 83 on board made it out alive, and rowed for what is now Disappointment Island. They eventually settled on Auckland Island, where they found a habitable hut. After 9 months, four of the crew sailed to New Zealand, and were never seen again. The rest waited a further nine months, when they flagged down another ship. Despite numerous attempts, some deadly, the gold has never been found.
Chris’ Disappointment Island is south of New Zealand, in the Auckland Islands group. But while reading the first published account of Cook’s second voyage to New Zealand, I was surprised to find the map above, which showed a clearly marked Disappointment Island north of New Zealand, in the middle of the Pacific.
My first thought was that the map might be wrong, since, clearly, news hadn’t quite reached London that Stewart Island was, in fact, an island, and not a phallic protrusion off the end of the South Island. (That eventual news would cause the South Island to long be called the “Middle Island”). But of course, Disappointment Island is marked so definitively that it had to exist—on Google Maps it won’t show up until you’ve zoomed right in, yet here it is more than visible.
I did find the Wikipedia page for the northern Disappointment Islands (now part of French Polynesia), which notes simply that “These islands are arid, and are not especially conducive to human habitation,” and that “British explorer John Byron named Napuka and Tepoto “Disappointment Islands” because he found the natives to be of a hostile disposition toward him.” But in this case, Wikipedia didn’t offer a rabbit hole to go down, so I had to turn elsewhere.
By coincidence I had also requested to the library John Hawkesworth’s 1773 volumes of (and this is a very abbreviated version of the title) “An account of the Voyages undertaken by the order of His Present Majesty for making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere…” (Aside: Boswell apparently said to Cook, who disliked Hawkesworth’s volumes, that “He has used your narrative as a London tavern keeper does wine. He has brewed it.” Hawkesworth himself was so embarrassed by the negative reception to his volumes, which had made him rich, that he apparently “died by the vilification he suffered.”)
The first volume of Hawkesworth’s series includes, as the eighth chapter, Vice-Admiral John Byron’s (that’s Lord Byron’s grandfather) account of “The run from the Western Entrance of the Streight [sic] of Magellan, to the Islands of Disappointment.” The actual story is a lot more interesting and ironic (if cringe-inducing today) than the Wikipedia entry makes out.
For a start, the islands appeared anything but arid and inhospitable. On the 31st of May 1765, Byron records that,
The wind shifted from N. by W. to N.W. by W. and the number of birds that were now about the ship was very great; from these circumstances, and our having lost the great south west swell, I imagined some land to be near, and we looked out for it with great diligence, for our people began now to fall down with the scurvy very fast.
I stood for the small island, which as we drew near it had a most beautiful appearance; it was surrounded by a beach of the finest white sand, and within, it was covered with tall trees, which extended their shade to a great distance, and formed the most delightful groves that can be imagined… We soon perceived that it was inhabited; for many of the natives appeared upon the beach, with spears in their hands… I sent the boat with an officer to look for an anchoring-place, who, to our great regret and disappointment, returned with an account that he had been all round the island, and that no bottom could be found within less than a cable’s length of the shore, which was surrounded close to the beach with a deep coral rock.
Scurvy is the key to the Disappointment Islands. Byron’s account was so painful to read that after reading the rest of it I went outside the Weston Library to eat some oranges I had in my bag, almost just to relieve some of the crews’ suffering.
The scurvy by this time had made dreadful havoc among us, many of my best men being now confined to their hammocks; the poor wretches who were able to crawl upon the deck stood gazing at this little paradise which Nature had forbidden them to enter, with sensations which cannot be easily conceived; they saw cocoa-nuts in great abundance, the milk of which is perhaps the most powerful antiscorbutic in the world: they had reason to suppose that there were limes and bananas, and other fruits which are generally found between the tropics; and to increase their mortification they saw the shells of many turtle scattered about the shore. These refreshments [love this euphemism for turtles], indeed, for want of which they were anguishing to death, were as effectually beyond their reach as if there had been half the circumference of the world between them; yet their being in sight was no inconsiderable increase of the distress which they suffered by the want of them.
For two days Byron’s ship and smaller boats circle the islands, trying to find a place to anchor or a way to land some men on the islands, but with no luck. The islanders, more than understandably, did not seem to want to welcome the Englishmen to their island paradise. At this point in Byron’s narrative you can read him trying to weigh up the possibilities: keep trying to get ashore while his men (and himself, without doubt) sink deeper into their scurvy, or hurry away in the hope that other more friendly paradises lie not far away.
Eventually, on Saturday the 8th of June, they give up. Byron “fires a nine pound shot from the ship over their [the islanders’] heads, upon which they ran into the woods with great precipitation.” A most petulant farewell.
At ten o’clock the boats returned, but could get no soundings close in with the surf, which broke very high upon the shore… At half an hour after ten, we bore away and made sail to the westward, finding it impossible to procure at these islands any refreshment for our sick, whose situation was becoming more deplorable every hour, and I therefore called them the ISLANDS OF DISAPPOINTMENT. [emphasis original]
Surreally, just after I finished writing these notes the BBC published an account of someone visiting the Disappointment Islands. The journalist found them not so disappointing, though his account is on the quaint, romantic side (“Night fell fast and the stars blew me away. I gawked upwards from the empty beach as if catching the night sky for the first time, the Milky Way scrawled like a diagonal swath of pink gauze”, etc).