My nominee for the best design monograph of 2013 is FHK Henrion: The Complete Designer (Unit Editions). Adrian Shaughnessy and Tony Brook started Unit Editions a couple of years ago. Since then their business model, to sell only online through their own website, has proven extremely successful. They have also an excellent list of titles that include historical monographs. The most recent, devoted to the important English graphic designer, FHK Henrion, is a tour de force of design, writing and editing, representing the designer as entrepreneur principle at its best.
The endeavor started with Brook began talking to Marion Wesel-Henrion (FHK Henrion’s widow) a few years ago. There had been attempts by others to get a Henrion monograph off the ground – but they had all failed. With Marion’s support, of Unit Editions eventually made the book a reality. It took about 14 months of solid work to complete. The project began with the photographing of Henrion’s work (many hundreds of specimens) held in The University of Brighton Design Archives. This was followed by about nine months of writing, and a lengthy and intense design period, followed by printing. Lots of weekends got swallowed up along the way. I asked Shaughnessy to explain more about the process of creating this significant volume.
Given that you’re an independent publisher, what is the investment in a volume of this kind?
In terms of time, the investment is incalculable. We couldn’t begin to amortize our time. But in all other areas, we’re cautious, lean and self-contained. Apart from printing, proof-reading and indexing, we’re nearly self-sufficient, so our financial outlay is as low as it can get.
Did you have an idea of how his work, which is not as well known as it might be in the U.S., would do in your marketplace?
We were frankly nervous. Even people with a strong interest in 20th century graphic design sometimes look blank when Henrion’s name is mentioned. But we trusted that as soon as people saw the work, they would recognize him as a bona fide design genius – which he undoubtedly was. And that’s pretty much what has happened. The book is selling well all over the world, and I’ve given a few talks to students in the U.K. and Europe, and they get him instantly. Our faith has been rewarded.
What is the extent of your marketplace?
Because we sell 95% of our books via our website (no Amazon, and only a few friendly bookshops who we deal with directly), we’re shipping to all quarters of the globe. The world is our marketplace. Recently we’ve had orders for the Henrion book from Peru, Vietnam, Romania and even, wait for it, the U.S.A.!
What’s the break-even point?
It varies. We only print small quantities of our books (usually 2,000 or 3,000). The break-even point is when we sell enough books to finance the next one. We have six books planned for 2014.
What did you learn about Henrion that you did not know?
I learned that he’s the most important British (though German born) graphic designer ever. No one in the UK comes close to matching his intellectual heft or his range of activities. He left Germany, age 19, to escape the Nazis and trained in Paris as a poster artist. He came to Britain in the 1930s and worked for the allied war effort – the British, The Dutch and Americans (he has some very flattering things to say about working for the US military and their largesse in comparison to the poor penny-pinching Brits: for example, he cycled to the British HQ in the morning, but in the afternoon he was picked up in a staff car by the US military where he oversaw the work of 15 designers). During the war and in its aftermath, he designed posters in a style that we now we see as dated, but even here he was a progressive, and made use of photography at a time when everyone else was using crayons and airbrushes.
In the 1950s he reinvented himself and became one of the pioneers of corporate identity (his school friend was Walter Landor). Henrion was amongst the first in Europe, and certainly in the UK, to offer a systematic and ultra-rational approach to identity. Many of his best identities are still in use 40 – 50 years after he created them: KLM is perhaps the most famous.
He did more than anyone to professionalize the British design. He took it from a cottage industry (crayons and airbrushes!) to a fully professionalized industry. But in the 1980s, when design firms were launching themselves on the stock market, driving Porsches, and opening offices around the world, Henrion recoiled from this reversal of priorities. For him, it had to be about the work, not the money. He spent his last decade teaching, writing and evangelizing on behalf of design. At a time when it wasn’t fashionable to say it, he maintained that a designer had a duty to society that went beyond helping to sell stuff. One of his most celebrated works is a poster that he did (unpaid, of course) for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
What did you learn about publishing that you did not know?
Well, its counter intuitive, but our expensive books sell better than our cheap ones. As e-books and tablets grow in popularity, and at a time when you can see nearly everything online, we’ve discovered that people (in our case, designers) seem to value printed books more than ever. But – it has to be books that push all known boundaries, and text, design and printing has to be best in show.
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