In the Workshop

In the Workshop

We would like to provide a detailed view into our work process and reveal the unique story behind each of our books. To navigate through the stages of development of a particular project, please select a title under the In the Workshop link on the left.

The Principle – or how we think about what we do

Our work method is rooted as deeply in the performing arts as in visual art. Consider for a moment the relationship of a composer to a musician, a playright to an actor, or a choreographer to a dancer. The composer, author, or choregrapher provides the work, and the performer provides the expressive knowledge of the instrument that is necessary to give the work its precise sensory qualities. One can speak of the relationship of an artist to a bookmaker in just this way. The artist provides the work, and we, as the bookmakers, bring the artist’s intentions alive in a unique physical object: a book. On our stage, we have simply replaced a piano with a printing press, and our artists have composed works that will be played with ink on paper.

It is a slow process. It requires commitment to study, experience, and understand a work so that one can serve it well. Before we begin a book, we have typically observed an artist’s work for a minimum of ten years in the studio, that is, in the place where the artist’s work is made. Often the existing relationship spans decades. Theoretically a book can be made in a day. However, each of our books develops over an additional eight to ten years. That is just how it happens. One day we may be surprised. But it is a slow process to make books as we do.

We are interested in works that need to be books – i.e. works that can be realized only through the materials, forms, and functions of a book:

A book has width, length, depth, and weight.
A book has duration, tempo, and rhythm. These are derived from its basic architectural unit – a signature: a single sheet of paper folded into 4, 8, 12, 16, 24, and 32 pages, just as a single measure in music is divided into beats.
A book is seen, touched, smelled, and heard.
A book can travel to every possible location, and is experienced often in a private, domestic place.
A book has a history – technological, political, and aesthetic.

Construction and Design

We design through a hand-construction process on the big tables in our workshop. Our design tools are paper, ink, pencils, rulers, cutting knife, thread, glue, linen bands, shirting, book cloth, and bookbinder’s board: the real materials of bookmaking. We develop the format, depth, weight, rhythm, composition, and sequencing of the book directly in the hands with these materials.

The basic unit of our design process is a folded and trimmed signature printed on a specific book paper. In contrast to a two-page spread that can be printed directly from a layout file, a signature of 4, 8, 12, or 16 pages must be imposed front and back, printed, folded, and trimmed. Though time-consuming, this allows for an accurate evaluation of the developing book as an object. Later in the design process, signatures will be stitched on bands to form a book block, which provides a more optically correct view. This process is repeated many times until we are satisfied.

We study a developing book to see how it is working and how readers interact with it. How does the reader use the senses? What is the observation tempo and rhythm? What is seen and perceived and felt in the work? These are clues that allow us to know if we are articulating the work well. We observe the maquettes in various-sized hands. We study them on the table and in the lap. We observe them while standing, seated, and reclining and in every available kind of light. We observe them in different cities. We always include children as readers in the development stage because they are much more open-minded and sophisticated visual readers than adults. Importantly, we are not concerned with whether a reader likes the book or not. We are only concerned with knowing if the work is working according to the artist’s intentions.

The objective of our design process is a final maquette that can be produced using the materials and work processes of offset lithography and machine binding. On occasion we combine machine and hand processes in the manufacture of our books, but only if the work itself presents a compelling reason to do so.

The Digital Operations

The operations of scanning, color correction/editing, layout, imposition, and plate-making act as a bridge in our work process – a cycle of digital work that delivers us from the analog process of book design into the analog process of printing. This is a matter of moving information accurately from one device to another. Where these processes will take center stage in the work process of most designers and publishers today, they remain secondary support for what is essentially a hand-crafted and analog process for us.

Although dry and technical, these processes are shaped by aesthetic judgement. We find great benefits in controlling every aspect of these digital operations because it allows us to orient each detail toward the effective animation and communication of an artist’s work – which happens ultimately on the printing press and not in the digital darkroom. The digital operations can only be effectively controlled and refined if one has a knowledge of printing. All too often the digital means is mistaken for the goal in the bookmaking process.

However, there is a significant gap between a book as an analog object and various digital representations of it. This gap cannot be fully defined by comparing the color gamuts of devices and color spaces in the production chain, and it cannot be addressed to our satisfaction through standarization, certification, and color management. A work is more than color, and color is more than a fleeting metamerism under highly artificial conditions. Moreover, if one accepts a digital proof as the goal for an analog printing process, one operates only within an extremely small area of the aesthetic range of printing. Each of our books encompasses an intensive, creative collaboration between a human being and a printing machine, and the expressive range of the print is defined by the imagination and diligence that we bring to the project. A digital proof is only one helpful step along the way. By all means do we measure, calibrate, and profile, but always oriented toward the most critical work: printing.

We make a first round of printing plates for a project based on what we already know about the capabilities and performance of our printing press using specific papers under specific conditions. These first plates are used for wet-proofing (proofs made on press), which provides additional project-specific information that can be taken back into the digital darkroom and refined for the final print run. We then make a new set of plates. For books that involve very complex or experimental printing processes, multiple rounds of wet-proofing will be carried out at the very begininng of our work with the artist as part of the design phase, for in these cases the very question of what the book can be is linked to the results of experimentation on press.


We print on a Roland 200 two-color, offset-lithographic printing press that was built in 1993. The maximum press sheet format is 74 x 52 cm. It has no control board and no computer. Everything on the Roland 200 is readily visible: every part, every process, every material. On newer machines the major functions are hidden from view and are often not directly manipulated by the printer as much as by the computer control system. Today Roland Sheetfed boasts printing presses that do everything but turn themselves on. Not ours! And we hope it will never be necessary to walk down the path of automation.

A two-color press is capable of printing a maximum of two colors at a time. For printing projects that require more than two colors, the sheets must run through the press multiple times, each time adding a maximum of two colors to the sheet. A standard four-color (CMYK) print with varnish must run through the press three times per side. In one run, black and cyan will be printed. In another, magenta and yellow, and finally, varnish. Compare this with a six-color press: CMYK and varnish all in one pass. The reason we love our machine is the process. We build a printed sheet step by step. The artist sees and understands how the print is made and how its qualities are shaped. The extra time and effort yield critical insight.

The Roland 200 has an unusual five-cylinder design consisting of two plate cylinders, two blanket cylinders, and a single shared impression cylinder, all housed within a single unit. With one inking system above and one below, both are accessible and controlable by hand at the delivery end of the machine. Typically each inking system would be housed in its own three-cylinder unit, with the units linked together in a chain one behind the next. In the latter design, the inking units cannot be directly accessed fast enough, and a control board must be used. We prefer to control the ink zones directly, although either system can give excellent results.

During a print run we have two means of measuring ink densities: our eyes and our wonderful, old-fashioned Gretag-Macbeth densitometer. There is a rhythm to the process of oversight and control. Depending on the paper, the printing speed, and the stage of the print run, the press needs about 50 to 100 sheets to respond to an adjustment in ink density. On longer print runs, one must develop a sense for the speed at which ink densities will gradually rise. Controlling the ink levels involves responding to both sporadic, localized shifts as well as predictable, progressive changes. This part of the printing process feels like having an intense conversation with a machine that has its own character and unique behaviors. We have to really concentrate to make sure we catch everything it is telling us.

As long as the Roland 200 is part of our lives, it will never be necessary to go to the gym for a workout. During an eight-hour printing shift, we might need to clean the press as many as twelve times. Certain handmade papers that are not intended for offset lithography make a lot of dust, and the blankets and plates must be wiped down even more frequently. Sometimes you just have to scream.

We have never met a single person who loves this machine as much as we do. However, all of our printer friends admit that it is indeed the right press for our idiosyncratic work process.


We work exclusively with a small handful of specialized binderies in Germany to produce our machine bindings. On occasion we may need to combine machine work with hand processes, and the hand processes will usually be carried out in our own workshop in Göttingen. The amusing irony is that as certain classic, specialized binding machines become obsolete, we sometimes have to employ handbinding to imitate the techniques that could have been carried out by machines in the past. The supreme irony will be revealed in our next publication – Jan von Holleben’s Kosmos – for which we developed a special hand-stitching technique that looks more machine-made than what the machine itself could produce, all because Jan didn’t want anything that would look too precious! We do what is necessary….