Steidl Verlag

Steidl-Verlag – “My books are meant to smell nice”

Steidl-Verlag logo © Steidl-VerlagPassion and dedication to the book as a work of art reflect the philosophy of the Steidl-Verlag publishing house, which brings all the production stages together under one roof.

In 1978 a young man scurries through a door into a wilderness in the centre of his home town of Göttingen, sits on a folding chair in the far corner and devotes himself to his reading. He has just bought the overgrown plot and yet he has to hide – from his Communist friends and also to an extent from his own courage. However after some years he decides to build a house on his private city-centre garden. Today this is the main building of the Steidl-Verlag.

Ten years before he acquired the site, Gerhard Steidl had already established his own publishing company, at the start he printed posters and multiples and taught himself the required expertise. In 1972 Gerhard Steidl published his first book: Befragung der documenta (Questioning Documenta). At the beginning of the 1980s he started to publish volumes on art, literature and photography, before compiling his own photo book programme at the end of the 1990s, which became the largest programme specialising in contemporary photography in the world within a short time. Today the company is one of the best-known publishers of photographic and art books worldwide, where German and international artists such as Robert Lebeck and Klaus Staeck or Robert Frank, Joel Sternfeld and David Lynch have their books published. Steidl’s outstanding international reputation manifests itself in an export figure of around 80 per cent. But Steidl is also present in the literary market, with authors such as Erich Loest as well as Nobel prize laureates Halldór Laxness and Günter Grass.

Transforming ideas into works of art

The success of the Steidl-Verlag is both simple and complex to explain. For Gerhard Steidl, who was born in 1950, the focus is always on the quality of a book. Unlike many other publishers who offer diverse formats to which the content is adapted, Steidl approaches the situation from completely the opposite angle, so that every book retains its individual format. To give that particular material a unique character, Steidl also utilises further advantages offered by printed media. The feel, smell and even the sound made when pages are turned are important factors for him that make the unique character of a book stand out. To achieve this, he has to optimise the appropriate paper, the right printing inks, chemicals and binding process for each book.

The publisher does not view the use of state-of-the-art technology as a contradiction, but as an essential and an enhancement in order to mass-produce works of art in the age of technological reproducibility with the quality of hand-printed materials.

Steidl’s vision of having the production process, from programme work to printing, under one roof is a key aspect of the publisher’s representative position. He sees his publishing company as a highly modern factory, as a living organism in which ideas “drop down from the top to the bottom”. What was being developed at the top becomes tangible at the bottom. The company’s heart beats in the basement: the printer processes around 2000 tonnes of paper in a year.

Integrated on-site image processing

Further up the building, in Steidl’s “digital darkroom”, is where the images are processed. Artists have the opportunity to be involved in all stages of the process and therefore have a direct effect on the production of their work. For instance it is possible to inspect the result in printed format immediately and carry out changes to the layout, paper, typeface or colours. American artist Roni Horn thought up the name “Steidlville” for the building, which has become a household name for artists throughout the world.

Gerhard Steidl sees himself as the conductor of an orchestra. The size of his publishing house is limited by the work capacity of the publisher, who starts work at four in the morning, and this means that he is not able to comply with every collaboration request. But passing contracts on to other companies is just as much out of the question as publishing a book he “hasn’t been able to get his paws on”. About 25 years ago a driver from a haulage firm knocked over a pallet of printed paper. As a consequence Gerhard Steidl simply bought his own lorry and employed his own drivers – since then nothing else has happened.

Working closely with Günter Grass and Karl Lagerfeld

The well-travelled publisher is a paper man and his office is the only one in the company without a PC. He prefers to communicate by fax with Karl Lagerfeld, one of the few people who own a colour fax machine just like Steidl. They have just set up the LSD-Verlag together. Confusion with the drug is certainly intended, since they promise a mind-expanding effect which could certainly result in visions. Steidl still has a few of these: he plans to collaborate with the city of Göttingen to create an art district, with a Günter Grass House at its centre containing all the books ever published by the author. For Grass, whose world rights the publishing house has owned since 1993, Steidl is, by his own admission, one thing above all else: a lucky break.

Christian Kahnt
works as a freelance literature critic and author in Cologne.

Translation: Jo Beckett
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
September 2010

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