Letter to Peter Zumthor

Letter to Peter Zumthor


Dear Peter Zumthor,

I am writing to ask for your consideration of an architectural project. My friend and creative partner, Jerry Sohn, and I would like to develop a building in the historic city of Göttingen, Germany, to house our publishing operations at Little Steidl as well as our two families. The location and its history are of deep personal significance, and we would like to make a sensitive and enduring architectural contribution to the city and its developing Kunstquartier.

Our two-person publishing house developed out of a collaboration with Gerhard Steidl at Steidl Verlag. Ten years ago, we came together as a trio of bookmakers to make artist books with contemporary artists under the name Little Steidl. At first, Jerry and I collaborated directly with the artists to develop and design our books, while Gerhard handled production and printing. I quickly fell in love with the press and the idea that an entire book could be made from conception through production with my own two hands. I asked Gerhard if he would teach me to print, and, to my great fortune, he was not only eager to pass on his knowledge of printing but also to help us transform Little Steidl from a publishing imprint into an independent publishing house with our own printing program.

We knew that our operation would be based in Germany, where one can still access well-made materials and knowledgeable support for production. However, the question of locality was open for debate, and we decided finally to set up our little publishing house right next door, where the first generation Steidl and the second generation Little Steidl can stand side by side.

The city of Göttingen is an unlikely location for contemporary art, and this was a point in its favor. Books can travel to every corner of the world, but we feel that the daily magic of printing is best shared within a smaller community like Göttingen, where personal connections can be made with people on the street. Printing is typically pushed to the industrial zone beyond the periphery of the city, but because we will operate as an artists’ workshop rather than a commercial printing operation, we are welcome to occupy a quiet corner of the historic inner city and catch people by surprise.

We have recently negotiated to purchase such a corner – a property of 152 square meters with an ensemble of two Fachwerk houses. The city’s thirteenth-century stone wall and tower run alongside the property, and the pedestrian-only street spills onto an open-air café just to the south. The Steidl publishing house stands next door, and, extending north, a collection of small buildings will eventually form a Kunstquartier, a long-term project that Gerhard is collaborating with the city to realize.

We are attracted to the idea of a cultural center where skilled production is a daily reality and where a visitor can build a long-term relationship to an entire cycle of creative activity from conception to completed object. We would like our building to have a welcoming presence on the corner, to quietly invite an interested person to look in and ask questions, perhaps sit down to read, or take away a few printed sheets for closer inspection.

Our dream is to live and make books under a single roof. We envision the full breadth of our lives within this one building. The programmatic components are living space for two small families and a guest; garden; workshop encompassing design, prepress, and press; paper and book storage; and delivery. The building department will understand this vision as mixed-use – residential and business – yet we do not make such distinctions. An idea more relevant to us is that there could be opportunities for varying levels of community, solitude, and privacy within the building and also on the street. These are the daily activities – some common and some individual – that will happen in the building:

Alone or in silence

Observing light, shadows, and colors as they change with the weather and throughout the day.

Observing movement – things that move with the air currents and wind as well as the movements of people and machines: each of these has a tempo and a shape that influences my thoughts and stimulates my imagination.

Observing and working with the basic materials of bookmaking – ink, varnish, paper, glue, thread, fabric, and board: These few simple materials are inexhaustible in their specificity, and the expressive possibilities are endless when one considers proportion, density, weight/lightness, flexibility/stiffness, roughness/smoothness, permeability, scent, and color. Each book draws on our past experience of materials but also initiates a new inquiry built around a specific artist’s work. Often a project will require hundreds of physical experiments and maquettes until the correct support for an artist’s work is reached. This is a solitary and slow process – thousands of hours of folding, cutting, stitching, and proofing, which does not work well as a collaborative activity. We observe our maquettes while standing, while seated at a table, in different chairs, on a sofa or bench, in changing light, and in various-sized hands. Eventually the maquettes are integrated into a more communal creative and domestic space so that we can observe how they will one day have a useful and beautiful presence in the life of a reader.

Listening to music, particularly Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Prokofiev, early Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Eric Dolphy: Silence, the negative space of music, is as important as the tones themselves. I enjoy music most when it is surrounded by silence, so that the rest from tone can have its full meaning. Each evening an overwhelmingly beautiful break in the silence reminds me of the world outside. Within a two-block radius are six churches, and at 6:00 comes the daily concert of bells that embraces our corner of the city from all sides. It reminds me always of Debussy’s “La cathédral engloutie”, and alone it is sufficient reason for living in the inner city!

Preparing the ingredients for cooking – mise en place: It is a time for technique, observation, and improvisation with materials that change from week to week and throughout the year. It is also a time to think. For this enjoyable and intense sensory concentration, I retreat into an internal world. Family and friends like to sit silently and watch. It is a special moment to have multiple minds focused in unison on colors, aromas, and flavors.

Reading: everything stops when a good book is found.

Gathered together or in concert

Enjoying food and wine together from all possible perspectives: dreaming and thinking of nice things to eat; discovering ingredients and ideas and bringing them home to share; making food for friends; anticipating delicious things while they are made; and experiencing the fruits of dreaming, labor, and waiting.

Sitting around a table together: Our extended family will always sit around a large table, rather than on a sofa in the living room. Everyone has objects, new works, and thoughts to share with each other, and a table is the most natural place for these interactions. Within a few minutes of gathering, we usually have started to make something together, which means heaps of notes, cut paper, fabric, and drawing materials. Any table’s surface, no matter how large, is quickly covered to capacity. Then it is natural that the activities move onto the floor and take over every available space.

Enjoying the garden: It is an essential part of feeling at home. The garden is for working with the soil and living things, for looking, for smelling, and for children to play and discover. It is also a connection to a community of local plant specialists who visit the farmer’s market. Every week, new tiny wonders are brought home to the garden and nurtured.

Developing books: We make and evaluate books in collaboration with artists, handling content development, design, prepress, and printing with our own hands under a single roof. It is also part of our work process just to gather together, prepare and share food, exchange stories, enjoy the garden, go out for an adventure and then return home. Our books develop slowly over several years, and in this time and with these experiences, each book can be more sensitively refined. Everyone involved in a book must listen to the nagging doubts that inhabit the background of one’s thoughts when making a work – doubts for which there are often no resolutions in sight. As long as there is a little doubt, more time is needed. It is always worth the wait. This is why it is important to cook, eat, listen, and have adventures together. It is a way to maintain contact, sometimes over several years, while we wait for the insight that will resolve a work.

Playing objects: We live with objects that are useful and enriching in our daily lives. We are conscious of their presence, as though they are people, and in most cases they are indeed extensions of the family members and friends who have made them. Beyond these objects that come out of our personal histories, Jerry’s daily life is organized around the joy of bringing objects and people together in a way that is creatively exciting. Over nearly four decades, many artists, clothing designers, architects, and chefs have come to rely on Jerry for his insightful, humorous, and playful methods of procuring rare objects and materials. He loves particularly to discover how something has been made, and will sometimes develop new methods of fabrication to suit an artist’s needs. A wave of objects comes in as regularly as a tide, and Jerry organizes it all into numerous creative projects around the world. One might wonder how this is connected to our bookmaking, yet it provides a foundation for our close relationships with artists and allows us to develop extraordinary insight into their work.

Daily family life: There are three children between our two families. My daughter, age 18, will begin university this fall. She grew up making Little Steidl books and has a close relationship to the Steidl publishing house. Jerry and his wife, Eba, have four-year-old twins who are just starting their lives. Like my daughter, the twins will have an opportunity to participate in all of our creative activities according to their interests. Their future experience of Göttingen will be shaped by the new building. All three of the children will inherit the house, the creative activities inside it, and the relationships we are able to build with the surrounding community over the coming years.

Printing on our Roland 202 press: This is the final chapter of a project. Handling a sheet through approval by the artist is a collaborative process. Sharp eyes and insights from several different viewpoints come together to achieve the best expressive and technical results. Our offset press is a half-format, two-color machine that is now considered old-fashioned (no computer). We love all of the qualities that make it too inefficient for contemporary commercial printing. With only two colors on press at a time, we experience each print as a building process, during which we must keep tight control with our hands and eyes. The hard physical labor is worth the added excitement everyone feels when they are so close to the process. We believe it produces a book that feels more concentrated and human. It is about six times slower to print a book on our press, compared with a recent machine. This provides time for direct and active engagement with the materials of printing, which is essential to making an expressive print. In light of the labor that awaits us, we bring projects to press only when we are convinced that the book is an essential addition to the world.

Placing a democratic work in the hands of others: Each of our books is a creative work by an artist. We are only an artist’s servants, helping to bring his or her work to life in the materials of bookmaking. We strive for a work that speaks for itself as a precise object and requires no further explanation. Such a book can be placed in the hands of any person, of any background or age, and appreciated.

Retreating into privacy

Each of us enjoys a separate sphere for sleeping, bathing, and intimate relationships that is completely private.

We have come to you because we are profoundly moved by the sensory experience of your buildings as well as their welcoming embrace of the human activities that happen within and around them. They remind us of our purpose. We would like to commission a building from you that can be enjoyed each day as an inspiration, both from the inside and on the street. We will gladly extend ourselves as your servants and advocates, and give you our promise that your vision will be fully realized.

With very best wishes,

Nina Holland
Immigrant Bookmaker

27 May 2014