Press Play

From their Berlin-based design studio, the team at Book Book engage in hands-on experimentation with a collection of small-format printing presses, testing the creative potential of a technology long considered obsolete. We caught up with the team to discover the story behind their latest project, Im Gebirge: a hardback book they set out to print entirely in-house...

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Photography by Sascha Herrmann.

Book Book’s studio space, situated round the corner from Viktoriapark in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, is divided down the middle by a bookcase into two distinct areas. At the front is found the paraphernalia one would expect of a working graphic design practice: desks, computer screens, paperwork and notebooks. But at the back, the remaining space has been turned into an orderly kind of experimental laboratory for in-house printing. It’s here in the ‘machine room’ that the studio houses their collection of production equipment and presses, though this is not a shrine to screen-printing, letterpress or lino. Rather, it’s a space in which the Book Book team – Jan Blessing, Constanze Hein, and Felix Walser – explore their fascination with the near-obsolete world of small format printers and duplicators, and in particular, their prized Roto/Rotaprint 625 Office-Offset presses.

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Photography by Sascha Herrmann.

Much like the more widely-recognised Risograph, Office-Offset presses were small-format, relatively user-friendly duplicating machines that populated offices and smaller printing houses in the mid to late twentieth century. Effectively a fully-functioning offset press in miniature, their prevalence was  decimated by the unstoppable march of the Xerox photocopier, and the majority were abandoned in the early 1980s – nowadays, they have all but disappeared. Yet for several years now, Office-Offset printing has been a key area of focus within Blessing’s own personal research, and this has manifested itself within the work of the Book Book studio; their idiosyncratic design approach owes as much, if not more, to a shared interest in diverse and unusual production methods as it does to their collective visual sensibility. A trained offset printer before embarking on his design career, Blessing’s interest in Office-Offset printing and its history stems both from an informed understanding of the print industry, and from his respect for the craft of the press-master.

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Photography by Sascha Herrmann.

Blessing’s final graphic design diploma project was a book telling the story of these machines and testing a variety of different printing methods on them – collecting old tins of pantone ink to experiment with, and pushing the limits of what the press was capable of. “It wasn’t just about getting this machinery and using it, as an act of historical reminiscence,” he explains, “it was about exploring how we could use modern technology in combination with the presses to create something new, or seeing how far could I tweak it and interfere with the machine itself.”

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Photography by Sascha Herrmann.

It’s this interest, which Hein and Walser share, that has driven the trio to engage with hands-on ways of producing their work. They do so using a small collection of print and finishing machinery including three Office-Offset presses, sourced through obsessive searches of eBay and Gumtree. “I have a rule at the moment that I can only buy a new machine if an old one gets gotten rid of,” he says. “It doesn’t work, though – if I come across a real bargain…”

Their experiments often involve making direct, analog interventions within the mechanised printing process: drawing, collaging and scratching directly onto the small A4-plus printing plates (which are thankfully still produced, and which Book Book expose using a unit that lives in the studio bathroom), or running rubbery flexo plates through the machine to create a letterpress-like effect. “Nowadays, you can’t just go to an offset printer and ask if you can work directly on the plate, messing around,” Blessing explains. “For us, that’s where it gets interesting.”

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Photography by Sascha Herrmann.

Having tested out the experimental capacity of their presses in-house, the Book Book team found themselves keen to take their investigations of this kind of hands-on printing even further. Office-Offset presses such as those in their collection had originally been intended for short-run, small format leaflets and corporate communications, but Book Book had loftier aims. They wanted to print an entire run of hardback books in their own studio, using the Roto/Rotaprint 625 – a feat that had never been accomplished before, but which Book Book finally achieved earlier this autumn.

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Photography by Sascha Herrmann.

The book in question, Im Gebirge ('In the Mountains'), documents a number of exploratory hiking trips taken in the Swiss Alps during the ‘80s and ‘90s by Anna Grass, the octogenarian grandmother of a close friend of the Book Book team. A former prima ballerina, keen draughtswoman and avid journal-keeper, Grass enjoyed exploring the mountainous landscape surrounding her house in Ticino, and would frequently venture out into the valleys in the vicinity of Lago Maggiore with her partner, plotting the routes herself and writing detailed accounts of each excursion along the way. “She started these treks during a transitionary time when all the farmers in the area had stopped harvesting on those cliffs,” Blessing explains. “This was before mass tourism, and there weren’t really any proper hiking routes, so Grass and her partner just looked at the map and went.”

When Grass’ desire to publish something from her old hiking journals was mentioned to the team, it seemed that the ideal subject had presented itself for their book-based labour of love: a deeply personal project, with an independent spirit at the heart of its subject matter, and a connection to the past.

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Grass’ collection of journals, hand-drawn maps and sketches would form the book’s contents, but to begin, the Book Book team had to adapt their working processes to cater to a client for whom computers and email were unfamiliar territory. “It was interesting to think about how to get the process going,” Hein explains. “The communication between Anna and ourselves was mainly over the phone, mailing things to her home, or even text messaging, because she doesn’t have a smartphone. She had the old typewritten manuscripts, which her granddaughter typed up for us and edited together. We were also given all the notebooks in which she did the drawings, at different sizes and on different papers, so we had to scan those all in.”

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Photography by Sascha Herrmann.

The finished manuscript for Im Gebirge detailed around fifteen different hiking trips, interspersed with Grass’ sketches and route maps of her own, which Book Book organised chronologically. They were particularly keen to include some of the specific Swiss maps that she had used to plot her journeys, but these proved challenging to obtain. “The Swiss are famous for printing and designing the most detailed maps in the world – it’s a different kind of map-making,” Blessing explains. “Once she had found some and brought them to us, we had maybe ten different maps to work with,” says Hein. “It was a bit of a struggle, because we wanted to indicate the trips on the maps, so we had to collage them all together really cleanly; a lot of work.”

With the Swiss maps and Grass’ own sketches digitised, and the structure of the book decided upon, the team turned their attentions to the challenges of production. Printing on the Roto/Rotaprint 625 press presented a set of limitations within which the team had to experiment; details such as the exact texture of the paper or the shade of black used to print  the text and sketches became of paramount importance. “Black is not just black,” says Hein. “That is something that we really wanted to emphasise – we wanted to get a really nice quality of black, because that’s the only colour.” To do so, Blessing built his own bespoke swatchbook, mixing different shades of black and adding other ink colours into the mix, before testing how they printed on the Gardapat Kiara paper used for the project. “The final ink has got its own distinct smell,” he says. “It doesn’t come from mixing them, but I think one it must be from one of the basic blacks we used in the final colour.”

For the maps themselves, the printing posed more of a challenge; the Roto/Rotaprint 625 was designed for single-colour printing, so the registration of each layer of CMYK proved extremely difficult. In the end, in order to preserve the crisp detail of the carefully-sourced Swiss originals, the coloured map reproductions were printed using a digital HP Indigo press.

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Photography by Sascha Herrmann.

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Photography by Sascha Herrmann.

Throughout this whole process, Grass was fascinated by the technical aspects of bringing a book to life, and keen to learn more about the challenges posed by the Office-Offset printing process. “Anna would come over to the studio and we would talk for hours, explaining the process to her and talking about paper, about book design, about typography; there were a lot of lectures in a way,” says Blessing. “She was really enjoying it, and the whole process of design and of printing it on the press in our studio was just as important to her and to us as the finished book itself.”

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Photography by Sascha Herrmann.

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Photography by Sascha Herrmann.

Once the book was printed – a time-consuming endeavour in itself involving 32 print runs, due to the small 4pp signatures the press’ size necessitated – it was cloth-bound and foil-blocked at a local bindery. In many ways, the end result encapsulates the philosophy of Book Book studio: the collision of contemporary printing technologies with their forgotten ancestors, the collaborative process, and the recontextualising of the press-master’s craft within the graphic design studio itself. The end result of the project feels appropriate for its content, for just as Grass blazed her own trail in a literal sense through the mountains of Ticino, so the experimental production of Im Gebirge forges a previously unexplored path.

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Photography by Sascha Herrmann.

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Book Book’s work with outdated devices such as the Roto/Rotaprint 625 might, at first glance, seem to be a print-lover’s exercise in nostalgia for a machine whose original function has been superseded by newer technology. Yet projects like Im Gebirge demonstrate the ways in which these older pieces of kit can be reappropriated and subverted to create new outcomes. Blessing himself offers an interesting historic perspective on this: “If you look back to the time when lithography, the ancestor of the offset print, was still the main commercial printing technique, no-one thought of it as an artistic medium,” he says. “That didn’t happen until offset printing was invented, when lithography became kind of obsolete and then the artists took over. That’s interesting to think of, considering the amazing digital printing technologies like Indigo that we have now. Office-Offset printing isn’t lost, it’s still out there, and it’s now possible to use it as an artistic medium – to take that machinery and directly interfere with the process in quite a direct, analog way. To continue that thought of combining modern technology with historical technology, and to bring those together to create something new: that’s the idea behind our experimental space.”

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Photography by Sascha Herrmann.

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Photography by Sascha Herrmann.

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Photography by Sascha Herrmann.