Over the last few years, both the publishers of design books and the shops that sell them have been going through something of an identity crisis. As book sales have fallen, publishers have turned to making products, while bookshops are now selling everything from greetings cards and wrapping paper, to journals, games and puzzles. But within this new landscape, designers and illustrators are increasingly seeing these paper products as a viable channel through which to sell their work. It’s a sign that while the book may be having an existential rethink all of its own, its constituent parts – namely paper and print –
are continuing to thrive.
While many in the design community will be familiar with publisher Laurence King’s books, for the last two years the company has been working on a gift and product line with the design shop Magma.
The publisher decided to focus on creating paper products that would appeal to bookshops, a base they knew well and could then expand from, and so Magma has proven to be an ideal partner in generating the majority of the product concepts.
“We had noticed that bookshops were increasingly selling gifts and stationery alongside books, just as fashion and gift shops were selling certain types of books,” says Laurence King. “We’d also been thinking about stationery and gifts which were a natural development from some of our more successful books. It seemed that failing to produce notebooks or postcards to go with Nina Chakrabarti’s My Wonderful World of Fashion, for example, was a wasted opportunity.” King says that from a publisher’s point of view, Magma’s success in selling design products from the shopfloor meant that they had direct experience of what lines might work. “Their shops serve as something of a laboratory for ideas, enabling us to be much bolder than we would otherwise be,” he says.
The joint venture between the two companies was initially proposed by Magma co-founder, Marc Valli, who opened the first London shop 13 years ago with business partner, Montse Ortuno. And even then the pair were unsure of where to position the brand. “When we started Magma we were already keenly aware of the limits of physical publishing,” says Valli. “We spent a month arguing whether the book was still viable [and] decided that it probably had ten years of commercial life left in it. That turned out to be strangely true, for us at least.” Valli believes that the internet and digital publishing only compounded this further. “That became very urgent for us about five years ago, and with the credit crunch, we really felt people had drastically cut down on the amount of books they were buying.”
Again, the internet has a large part to play here. “Ten years ago if you wanted to know about, say, the work of the studio, Spin, you’d have no choice but to hope that they publish a book,” says Valli. “Nowadays you just click on their website and you’ve got everything you want. That kind of bookselling died down and people started to look at books in a completely different way. The books that do what books have always done – that teach you to do something – still sell just as well. But the kind of big, showcase, so-called coffee table books really took a hit.” Yet at the same time, Valli saw that Magma’s customers were still in the market to buy objects and gifts. “People still needed to buy things – for a friend leaving work, a birthday, Christmas,” he says. “And all the creativity that had been going into the books, that must still be going somewhere. Which is why we started investigating other ways of making available what we had been conveying through the books.”
The gradual migration from books to paper products has perhaps come as less of a shock to Magma’s customers than one might think. Its products are a natural fit with print publishing and appeal to the same market, while Valli believes that paper remains the perfect format for creatives. “You can do texture and colour so much better on paper than you can on almost any other material,” he says. “There’s something about it that you just can’t get either from the screen or vinyl. And paper still means what publishing used to mean for people – it’s a carrier of knowledge, art, something special. We’re familiar with it in a way I don’t think you feel with any other material.”
While King suggests that the art direction and production skills required to produce heavily illustrated books are not dissimilar to those needed to make paper-based products, Valli considers the production aspect of their partnership as key. In terms of processes, he says, making a board game represents a different world. For Bird Bingo, an ornithological version of the game illustrated by Christine Berrie, Magma had to work out the list of 64 birds to include, but also come up with the best format for the product, a process that took several months. “Once you’ve done three or four books you know how it works,” says Valli. “There are two or three types of binding, pages have to be multiples of 16, hardback or paperback, size and price vary – that’s about it. When you have a product you have to reinvent the wheel every time. And when you’re doing it with China, it’s even harder.”
US publisher Chronicle has been making products alongside its established book list since the mid-1990s. The company’s ‘paper goods’ line (now featuring products from Pantone journals to packs of cards listing activities for children) is part of its drive for “going beyond the books” and Chronicle now has its own catalogue for paper products. “It’s in our ethos to see things differently,” says Chronicle’s editorial director for art publishing, Christina Amini. “So it makes sense that we would apply our editorial, design and production expertise to producing new formats. We began by leveraging the content of our bestselling books and publishing calendars, postcard books, and notecards, and then broke through the traditional definition of stationery with guided journals, interactive kits, decks [of cards], games, and more.”
Similarly, Gestalten creative director Sven Ehmann sees the Berlin-based arts publisher’s move into paper products as one that sits alongside its extensive book list. “We don’t see these other products as items replacing the books,” he says. “They are an extension to a product range and a chance to work closer with the talents we are discovering. The book programme is certainly the core of what we are doing, but we always try out other products and projects, too.” For Ehmann, the changing shopping experience has meant that product ranges which used to be present in different locations – books in bookshops, paper items in gift shops – are growing closer together, he says. “We’ve seen that in museum stores, in concept stores, fashion stores and also in book stores,” he adds. “I think it comes down to the shopping habits of consumers. When you are in the mood for paper goods, for the haptic experience, the quality, craftsmanship and so on, you are open to buy books as well as other paper-based items.”
For Magma’s customers, this experience Ehmann mentions is made possible thanks to the company’s dedicated products shop, which opened six years ago a few doors down from its bookshop in London’s Covent Garden. Inside, a world of paper and card is even celebrated in the fixtures and fittings – sturdy cardboard shelves support a wealth of printed goods, from make-your-own-model sets to illustrated greetings cards and notebooks. Magma’s buyer Ruben Errejon remarks how it was only a few years ago that vinyl toys were all the rage, but that people have noticeably moved towards buying paper-based objects. A preference for paper over plastic also suggests that sustainability has become a factor in what customers look for, too. “As people enjoy all of their digital devices, the object quality of our books and formats becomes even more important,” says Amini. “What is new is that so many publishers are now in the game of creating ancillary items beyond books.” And in an interesting reversal of influence, a recent digital offering is just about to be brought out as paper product: Gestalten is set to publish a memory game based on illustrator Christoph Niemann’s successful iPad app, Petting Zoo.
Magma, too, is adapting alongside the digital world, rather than railing against it. In fact, the company is just about to relaunch its website as magma-shop.com, a change from magmabooks.com that says much about where the company has decided to position itself within a wider shift in the way visual culture is consumed. In October last year, says Valli, Magma’s accountant revealed that 2012 was the first year the shops had a higher turnover from VAT-rated goods than non-VAT ones (i.e. books). “We’ve reached that point – it’s still around 50/50; books and magazines on the one hand and products on the other,” says Valli. “But the balance is starting to tip towards products.”
Christine Berrie has certainly enjoyed working in different formats, having initially been approached by Magma to create a range of tote bags featuring her drawings of cameras and radios. She has since worked on postcards, paper lanterns, a photography journal, pencil cases and of course, the big-seller, Bird Bingo. “I like seeing my work on different products,” she says. “I still enjoy doing regular commissions but the products have taken my work in a new direction and I feel as if it is reaching a new audience as a result. I don’t really think about my work differently – my aim is to enjoy what I do and create interesting images, whether for a magazine or a product. This is something that hasn’t changed.”
For Valli, a book or website is simply another medium that an artist can use, but creating a product enables them to establish their own platform that suits their work and from which they can express themselves. “A lot of illustration still comes from putting pen to paper and, therefore, paper conveys that better,” he says. “You might move from your sketchbook to a piece of paper, then to your scanner and a screen, but when you print the work – it’s like coming back home somehow.”