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.
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.
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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