Graphic Designer Clemens Jahn in Conversation about the Book Sound Is Liquid by Wolfgang Tillmans
Ines Gebetsroither: We now have the new book by Wolfgang Tillmans, the catalogue for the exhibition Sound Is Liquid. You worked closely with the artist on the design.
Clemens Jahn: At the beginning of the project the plan was to make the book a kind of reader. It was only later that we had the idea to complement the four art-theoretical essays with an extensive image section. At that point I liked the idea of sticking to the original plan of a reader as a formal basis for the whole book design. Thus the book format is comparatively handy and when setting the texts we focused very much on reading quality, not just in terms of the typography, but also in the choice of an uncoated off-white paper. That is much easier for the eye when reading than the bright white picture-printing papers usually used for art catalogues.
IG: In addition to the plates section curated by Tillmans, the catalogue contains theoretical essays by George T. Baker, Diedrich Diederichsen, Élisabeth Lebovici, and Felicity D. Scott, on important aspects of the work of Tillmans such as his relationship to music and club culture, architecture, references to art history like New Vision, and also the theme of illness. What was your design approach to these different contents?
CJ: The four essays in the catalogue have in common that they all refer to numerous works by Wolfgang Tillmans from very different creative phases. So the idea was to have small reference illustrations “running” below the footnotes in the text section of the book, and to choose a selection of these for larger or full-page pictures. This means that the texts and the illustrations are very closely linked, with the effect that the different contents in the catalogue come together as a whole and seem less like clearly separate entities. Also, when the paper changes in the book, the transitions are deliberately kept fluid: the image on the first page of the image section (Panorama bar morning, 2002) actually belongs to the previous text section. The same goes for the first page of the end matter which is technically a text page but still belongs to the previous image section.
IG: Wolfgang Tillmans often designs his publications himself. He has made numerous artist’s books, monographs, and catalogues that he sees as part of his artistic work. How did you work together to decide on the graphic design of this book?
CJ: As far as I know there are more than thirty books by Wolfgang Tillmans already. For us both it was important that this book fits well into Tillmans’s visual cosmos. Most of his books are set in classic typefaces like Helvetica, Times, and Garamond. This has the effect that the typography doesn’t force itself into the foreground, and there is a clear focus on the contents—both the images and of the text. The graphic design of Sound is Liquid draws on this. The body texts are set in Times Ten, a version of Times optimized for smaller font sizes. The secondary font is Monument Grotesk, a modern interpretation of the well-known Swiss sans-serif fonts, designed by the St. Gallen design studio Kasper-Florio.
My role as a graphic designer in this project was to develop a coherent overall concept and layout system for the different types of content, while leaving the artist as much freedom as possible when curating the image sections. Wolfgang Tillmans designed the picture pages layouts and collages completely independently, irrespective of the book’s layout pattern. This makes the picture pages very organic, erratic, and unpredictable, and it leads to an exciting contrast between the image layouts and the otherwise rather homogeneous geometry of the fonts and type area.
IG: You have designed publications working closely with artists a number of times, including the book Objects Recognized in Flashes for mumok (with the artists Michele Abeles, Annette Kelm, Josephine Pryde, and Eileen Quinlan). What makes graphic design together with artists special? How can one imagine such a process?
CJ: What I find particularly interesting about exhibition catalogues in general is the temporal component. While an exhibition is usually dismantled after a number of months, a catalogue remains much longer in the shelves of libraries, book stores, gallery owners, and book lovers. But a catalogue like Sound is Liquid is in no way just a documentation of something ephemeral. Especially not in this case, as the book was developed in parallel with the exhibition. In my view, the catalogue and the exhibition are more like related and complementary manifestations of an initial curatorial idea, making it tangible in different ways specific to their medium, with the exhibition being limited in time and a place people can walk around and experience spatially, while the publication is not limited in time, is portable and has pages that can be turned.
When collaborating with artists the specific ways in which the individual person works certainly play a big role in developing a publication, not only in terms of artistic and design aspects, but also in terms of communication, logistics, and organization. Some artists have a setup like a small business with generous work space, staff, and established processes, while others are pretty much on their own and work with just one or two assistants. Some artists are always on the move or are commuting to teach, perhaps, while others work day after day in their studios. For me as a graphic designer it is always rewarding to enter into dialogue with an artist and to dive into their cosmos, developing something new in collaboration, and being open for the unpredictable.