The Daily Heller: David Knowles Runs an Indie Publishing House on the Side

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Indie publishing imprints are popping up like mushrooms after a storm. One such is founded by David Knowles, a graphic designer and publisher living in New York City, who started his career designing books in Berlin. He launched his imprint Domain and has published seven books so far. Domain’s distribution varies from project to project, but most titles are sold through direct purchase on the Domain website. Knowles also works with a tight selection of bookstores in the states—most in New York City and Los Angeles—and a distributor in Europe. For designers who are aiming to start their own indie, here is Knowles’s story . . .

You’ve been very active as a young publisher. Why print in this age of digital publishing?
The short answer is that I’m a materialist who is obsessed with the way objects contain all kinds of human stories and relationships. A huge part of my cultural education and self-discovery happened in bookstores, record stores and thrift shops when I was growing up in Portland, OR. And I still feel like the most exciting discoveries for me still happen in those kinds of places. But also I feel like this is a trick question. I’ve lost count of the cycles of “print is dead/print is back” discourse I’ve lived through and I haven’t even been doing this for that long. People kept riding bikes after cars were invented, video didn’t kill the radio star, etc. More tools and techniques lead to more interesting and complex work.

Where does the name Domain come from—is it an ironic comment on digital?
The first books I published under the imprint were all texts that had entered into the public domain. This was in 2017, right as the antiquated rights laws around these texts were sunsetting. I did a few one-off pocketbooks of some of the very first literature to enter into this legal category in decades. At the same time I was looking forward to having more time to collaborate with living authors that I admired on deeper engagements. I considered establishing separate “private” and “public” domain imprints at one point, but this is ultimately not what this press is about. I think these categories are kind of arbitrary and pointless because ultimately the audience experience is most important. So therefore Domain, full-stop.

What is the focus of the imprint?
I say that the press is queer-led and design-driven because I’m a gay person and a graphic designer. And that is about as stable a boundary as I can describe for what I’m trying to do with the press. The projects revolve loosely around topics in design, music, nightlife and economics. Each book also tends to represent a personal take on structures and themes that can feel very abstract—numerology, finance, disease, history. For example, the upcoming book of DeForrest Brown Jr. and Ting Ding is largely about disaster capitalism and the effects of COVID-19 on the music industry. But they’re both writing about their own livelihoods and collecting images from their experiences of New York City in 2020. Prem’s book is ostensibly about typography and conceptual art, but viewed through the lenses of numerology, American racism and his own creative practice. And Linda Simpson’s book is a really wonderful and joyous collection of images from the East Village drag scene of the 1980s and 1990s, but the subtext is that this is a really dark time for gay people, with a lot of powerful forces arrayed against them.

You’ve worked with Prem Krishnamurthy at P! Gallery. I know On Letters is an epistolary essay, but can you say more about the content, concept and design of the books?
When Prem and I worked together at P! he gave a talk at Dia: Beacon about the letters and numbers in On Kawara’s date paintings. I think we’ve both been interested in different conceptual art practices and their relationship to graphic design, but I guess the difference was that Prem used to hate Kawara and I always loved him. I didn’t see the talk but I thought the topic was interesting enough and it stuck with me for many years. When I was putting together a series of projects for the press I knew I wanted to include a publication that was more explicitly about design both in form and content. So I reached out to Prem, who was enthusiastic about developing the talk into something more robust. The book is a series of letters that Prem wrote over the course of a season—I think initially attempting one a day in a Kawaraesque rhythm, but eventually working more sporadically. They start with the topic of lettering, how language gets made visible, how it becomes industrialized and commodified with the advent of moveable type. The different character of repetition at play in the way Kawara creates letterforms and the way that moveable type is mechanically reproduced and repeated.

So it’s a history of typography but also connects to a single individual’s intimate creative practice. This leads Prem to reflect on his own daily work, his lifelong interest in numbers and counting and the different meditation practices he was exposed to as a young person.

In designing the book I tried to find a different way in than the path Prem was taking. I knew I wanted to explore the color palette of the paintings, which remained mostly consistent over the decades Kawara was working. He would mix the colors for the paintings himself every day, and someone told me that he used gray most often when we was traveling or away from home since that was the simplest to mix and carry with him. So I took these three colors: red, blue and gray as the base of a custom printing process. I hoped that by reproducing all the images and content of the book in these three colors I might capture at least some of the range of color combinations that appear in the paintings. Perhaps not the best idea for what we think of as “accurate” image reproduction, but certainly more closely related to Kawara’s world and work.

The book is primarily about the lettering in the date paintings, and there’s a whole chapter in which Prem compares some of the letterforms to classic typefaces of the 20th century. Of course the spoiler is that the paintings have no typeface, so to use one of the fonts called out in the book felt a bit wrong. And then it hit me that the paintings possess a second typographic reference point that’s actually not really mentioned in Prem’s writing. Each Date Painting is housed in its own custom-built storage box. Kawara lined these boxes with the local newspaper of whatever city he was in on the day he made the painting. So I had a wealth of typographic specimens at my disposal. And for a longer, more literary text like this it made sense to use some kind of newspaper font. I took a random version of Times New Roman as the skeleton structure for the typeface, and then altered or tweaked some of the letterforms here and there based on some of the newspapers I was seeing used in the storage boxes. In the end I also let my own instinct and interest guide me in shaping certain letters and ligatures. The result is a typeface I’m calling Interesting Times.

Another unique form is your mail books. Small, inexpensively printed perfect-bound texts, or rather reprints of classics, including Virginia Wolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which I especially like. What is your thinking behind this line of titles, and do you plan more?
There are currently four titles—A Room of One’s Own, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, The Communist Manifesto, and Billy Budd, Sailor. The titles together form a tight toolkit for thinking about gender, race, class and sexuality, and they were all chosen because they were all readily available texts that exist in the legal public domain. But the texts are really secondary to the main concept of the project, which was to find a way to graphically register the production and distribution of the books themselves. Each of the book jackets is a carbon copy receipt that bears the material specifications of the book object as well as the item and order number for each book in the series. I think I’m up to around 600 of these books produced at this point. The final step comes when I apply the address of the buyer to the cover and then drop the book at the post office. USPS then applies all of their labels and sends it off. So when the book arrives at its final destination it has all of these layers of circulation visible in the final cover design.

What is the rationale behind the YouTube Reader?
For me as a designer and publisher I was interested in linking the pocketbook series that had started the press with the work I was making with contemporary authors. The book is set in the same custom version of Century that I use in the pocketbooks but in a much looser, more expressive fashion. And the content of the book is transcripts of videos from YouTube, so it occupies this murky territory between public and private domains. I’m more interested in the collective social understanding of what constitutes the public domain than the strict legal definition, anyway. The book was commissioned and co-published with Nick Koenigsknecht, who runs a space called Open Forum in Berlin. I think he was even the one that originally suggested video transcripts loosely organized Black liberation. Charles Theonia, who worked on the drag explosion, did a ton of research and digging for material and then reached out to Kelly Xio, a poet from Baltimore, to see if they’d be interested in taking on an editorial role. Kelly and Charles went above and beyond and in the end there were so many more videos that they found that we couldn’t include in the book. So we decided to make a companion website that would hold a video playlist of all of their clips and research. But they were able to successfully compile, excerpt and organize dozens of videos into a tight manuscript, which they then delivered to me for design.

The book is designed with a tip of the hat to Quentin Fiore’s Medium is the Massage and others, right?
It’s crazy that this has never occurred to me, but of course you’re right. It’s impossible I suppose to design a paperback book at this scale, about technology, that employs an experimental approach to typography, without being in debt to Fiore and McLuhan. I think we’ve disposed ourselves of some of the more optimistic messaging in that book, and I’m not sure McLuhan ever imagined a technology like an algorithm.

Of course the critical difference between our books is that my design doesn’t have images. Or at least not photographs. I’ve tried to create a typographic image with the voices and the words supplied to me. I also think the principles and the questions that anchor the design of this book are simpler. I wanted to explore, through typography, the resilience and adaptability that’s demanded of people under extreme duress. The texts in this book contort and bend themselves around a void that cuts through the entire book object. Unfolding the flaps of the cover reveals this circular void to be part of the controls of a media interface—the record button, to be more precise. To record something—a film, a sound, whatever—is to bear witness to its vanishing into the past. All recording is witnessing an act of disappearance. So the transcripts and the records of these speakers and events are literally shaped by this vanishing.

Your 2020 Drag Explosion appears to be your most ambitious book, and judging from its second printing a year later, it did well. It is also beautifully designed and photographed. Tell me about its genesis.
Linda Simpson has been touring and performing The Drag Explosion as a slideshow presentation for years, and I met her in 2015 through my friend Elizabeth Jaeger, who had published a smaller collection of her photographs. I knew that Linda always wanted to make a coffee-table–style book based on the slideshow, and eventually, once I felt like I had the chops and the funds, I proposed that we make it happen.

Linda has an archive of thousands of photos and selected around 500 for possible inclusion. The book is loosely organized around the chapters of her slideshow presentation. There are sections focused on her East Village scene and her work publishing the radical gay zine My Comrade; a chapter on the early iterations of the Wigstock festival; and then a chapter on the broader New York City nightlife culture of the ’90s, including a lot of images from the Club Kid scene.

There are so many emotions in this book, and it continues to resonate and inspire people who see it. I’ve done a lot of events with Linda and there are always people who browse the book and find themselves in the photographs. I’ve heard so many stories of incredible nights out, old haunts, lost friends. These interactions are the core of what publishing and material design means for me. It’s what sustains this work.

The design of the book was inspired by the mirrors and vanities that are critical tools in the drag arts, as well as the idea of catching a look at oneself in the mirror after a long night out. I wanted to keep the typography simple, so I started with Helvetica and Courier—two fonts that Linda used in her own publications—but then replaced them with a version of Helvetica with serifs, and a sans-serif version of Courier. Two typefaces in drag!

It remains an incredible project, and was a tremendous learning experience for me as the first major project for the press.

As an indie publisher, have you worked out what you believe is a sustainable business model?
Not really. I work full time or freelance or teach, or often all three at once in order to produce the books. I’m always able to recoup production costs eventually and I love writing checks to my authors. I don’t pay myself for any of this though. I’m lucky or privileged enough to be able to pull that off for the moment. But it doesn’t feel like I can do it forever. I think it would be cool if someone hired me to do what I’m doing now inside of an institution or some place with a bit more financial stability.

What are your future plans for Domain?
When I refounded the press in 2020 I wanted to work on three specific projects: Linda, Prem, and DeForrest and Ting. They were the conceptual trinity, so to speak. And that’s what’s guided my work from that point. So the immediate future plans include producing the work of Ting and DeForrest, which is already in the design phase. After that there is a project that’s an oral history of a queer performance space in Brooklyn. I’ve also been thinking about a monograph project from an architect who’s responsible for a lot of current club design in New York City. Also Linda and I have been talking about a history of My Comrade, her long-running radical gay publication that originated in the ’80s and continues today.