Beyond The Crane chats with book designer Matilda Plöjel about how a chance discovery led to a stint in Switzerland, what her work process is like and why the term ‘books make friends’ continues to ring true.
BTC: Beyond The Crane
MP: Matilda Plöjel
BTC: What is it that you do?
MP: I am a graphic designer with a focus on book designs, which I do on assignments for others since 2010. I also have my own small, micro-publisher (Sailor Press) where I publish books that I also design myself. I’ve also done exhibition design in various forms and initiated various projects related to books and exhibitions.
BTC: Has it always been about books?
MP: Almost always. I studied in Stockholm and then I moved directly to Copenhagen where I worked at a design agency when I just had graduated; they mainly did identities. There was a lot of bookshops in Copenhagen, so I hung out a lot there and I started to find books that were absolutely fantastic. I had never seen anything like it! Then I realized that they all came from the same publisher so I found their phone number and called them and asked if you could apply for an internship.
BTC: What happened next?
MP: I got the internship at Lars Müller Publishers in Switzerland and then I was employed there; by then I was hooked on books. It was both about to be able to work with Lars and the others and do these fantastic books, but it was also that I had the chance to attend the book fair in Frankfurt every year. I got to experience the whole world of bookmaking. I also learnt that it’s about making books with people, never about people. Making books with people was such a big and important thing there, which I really got with me from then on. Books have been very important to me since then.
BTC: When did your interest in design start?
MP: If you ask my parents, it was when I forced them to cut out a newspaper ad with the flight times for Linjeflyg’s flight between Stockholm and Ängelholm! A newly opened line, which I thought was crazy nice, when I was five. I forced them to have the ad on the wall. Somewhere around there, I think it started. I had a completely different career from the beginning after high school. So it wasn’t obvious to me from the beginning.
BTC: But it has been there? As an unspoken interest?
MP: It probably has. Then, if you’ve ended up somewhere, you can always find traces when you look back. But it is clear that there has always been some kind of interest. I was not one of those cool kids sitting at home and drawing on various cassette tapes and so on; it wasn’t like that at all. Once I started and took some distance course, it went very fast. I felt I had found the right track.
BTC: Do you remember that moment when you felt that this is what I want to work with?
MP: No, it wasn’t really like that; I haven’t had that moment. It was more like “I try this; it was fun”. The books in Copenhagen probably had a greater impact. When I realized what you could use it for and what it could be – that was probably bigger for me.
BTC: What’s your working process like?
MP: I started Sailor Press because I wanted to work with books in the way I wanted to. I wanted to remove as many intermediaries and external limitations as possible and try to make books in a different way than you can in commissioned assignments. One of the things that was important to me was to only make books WITH someone.
BTC: Making books with people as you said…
MP: Sailor Press only makes books with artists and every book is a very close collaboration with one artist where I really go into their world. It is a very non-hierarchical collaboration where the artist obviously has to have views on form and such things, but I can also make suggestions that affect the content and act in a role similar to an editor. That is what Sailor Press is based on; those close collaborations.
BTC: What was that you felt you couldn’t do as an employee?
MP: So I was never employed at publishing houses in Sweden, I have always been a freelance since I came back from Switzerland. I have had many assignments from various institutions and made exhibition catalogues and yearbooks and such things. You have to adjust your work to some degree; it must work in their shop. The communication department has to see that it works for their target group.
BTC: So it has been an evolution of sorts?
MP: When I started out, which I realize now afterwards, I got a lot of creative freedom. But I thought I should get even more freedom! I thought that the more experience I gained, and the more established I became, the greater the creative freedom would be. But it coincided with the fact that many of these art institutions started to work with their own identity and their branding and I was interested in making catalogues that highlighted that topic or that artist in the very best way; not something that stated the museum’s corporate language. It is always a trade-off.
BTC: Can you elaborate on that regarding what you said about it being a trade-off?
MP: Then I became quite frustrated and mostly frustrated at myself because I just walked around and gnawed. I then told myself that then you have to prove that it is possible to do things differently; you have to do something about it and see if it works. It was a bit like that. And I have also been called The Frustrated Designer!
BTC: What’s that like?!
MP: There are also so many decisions involved that you often do not count as design decisions, but that affect the process a lot. If you, as a designer, are not part of the very first beginning of a project then you cannot influence things like how the production budget is planned to be used. You have to relate to a budget; you have to. It is not that I have got bigger budgets with Sailor Press, rather the opposite, but one can use the budget in a more or less creative way.
It can be quite simple things like time schedule, what you spend time on, which processes are allowed to take time, what can go fast, what needs a little more time. In what order do you do things. Things that can be quite important for the end result, but that you may not always think of.
BTC: In the close collaboration you describe. How do you maintain the efficiency of it?
MP: The forward movement. Efficiency. Sailor Press makes books that need time. Most of the projects take quite some time from the first meeting, which is for many different reasons. It is also the case that one has to apply for stipends in order to try to finance the books and that takes time. Then it can also be that suddenly the artist gets a residency or a large exhibition and then the book is paused. Or that you feel that I’m not really done with this.
BTC: So it can be a long process I take it?
MP: It is seldom you meet and three months later there is a book. It is rather that the projects usually take between one and three years. We do not work intensively during all that time but there will always be a period when it becomes sharp mode and now we will make the book. Then a great deal happens in a fairly short, intensive period of time. It is a little bit organic.
It feels like I am always on a need to know basis with the books. There is, of course, a plan for when to release it. But then one thing happens and then another, so you also have to be a little open and act when there’s an opening and get it done. I always have many projects ongoing in parallel but there are never two projects that are in that sharp “let’s do this” mode at the same time.
BTC: When you work close to artists over an extended period of time. Isn’t there a risk that things will happen along the way that affect the end result?
MP: Sailor Press does not publish any monographs or catalogues. We publish projects that the artist feels could work in book form; the books are very independent in a way. They are not really artist books but they are not art books or photo books either. They end up in a kind of grey area, which is in between. It is more that the project can be developed over time. But not so that it comes back and is something completely different; the foundation is always there, i.e. the point of departure.
BTC: How do you know when a book is ready to be published?
MP: I have read a very interesting article about how much deadlines have influenced the history of graphic design. You can, of course, change and develop a project but in the end it must be done at some point, and then you have to make the decisions. If you then feel that this is not finished, and you notice that quite quickly, then you pause it. If it is going to the printer, then it’s going to the printer; then you have to make quicker decisions.
It is probably even good sometimes to get that time pressure and be forced to make decisions. But hopefully you have no more pressure so then you could change your mind if needed. The advantage of having a project grow for quite some time is that you can get to know it very well. There are rarely huge changes happening at the end of the process; it is more that you tweak a few things and then you have it.
BTC: When you work so close to someone, do you have someone outside the bubble that you check with? That you show things before everyone else?
MP: No, not really. It is usually the artist and I that have a good dialogue about it but I also have others. I work very close to the printing house and with John Nelander, who helps with repro work when you have photographs. If I can afford it, I work with a typographer named Thomas Hirter, who is based in Switzerland, and does fine mirco typography. I have Astrid Trotzig, who is often involved in translating. And I have a great network around Sailor Press.
BTC: Sounds like a collaborative process…
MP: It is also good because if both the artist and I think this feels right for this work then it feels like you can trust that quite a lot. I never make any commercial demands on the books, i.e. that it must work in a bookstore shelf or that the covers must be like this or like that and the book must have this format. We make a book that works as well as possible for the content that the artist has come up with. Period. If we both feel it works then it’s fine, then it’s good enough. Not everyone will probably like the book, but when we get there and it feels right then you have to be responsive to that feeling.
BTC: The concept and the content are obviously very important. How do you look at the craftsmanship behind making books?
MP: I have with Sailor Press, by pure coincidence, so far only worked with artists who work with photography. As we usually work with small budgets, we have to put all the resources so that the images should look as good as possible in print. Then one must also be quite clever and come up with smart low-tech handcrafted solutions for the cover. Sometimes we have the opportunity to send away and get back completely finished books but more often there’s one or more arts-and-crafts moment.
BTC: Please continue!
MP: The most advanced so far has been that I invented a method so that you can marble directly on the type of grey board that you actually have inside hard-bound books. With the help of my mother, we hand-marbled 300 books. It was a very comprehensive project. I also had another book where I folded and stamped the covers made of tissue paper. It was a wonderful idea when I got it, and it became very nice, but I realize now that it is very difficult to get up the tempo when working with tissue paper because it must not break and it must not wrinkle; it takes some time.
BTC: Sounds laborious but also rewarding when the task is complete…
MP: With that book, it almost becomes a small ritual that belongs to that book as you get an order and then you make the book and send it. It is also about memories so it is very nice that you have that moment to take care of them and wrap them before sending them away. I am very interested in experimenting with different techniques and materials and mixing what is considered fine techniques and materials with things that may be considered to be more junk or construction materials and cheaper techniques.
BTC: It doesn’t sound like it’s just about budget but that you also like to get hands on too?
MP: Yes! Otherwise, I would not do it. Then we could have made simpler solutions. Well, I’m interested in the book as a physical object. All choices are very important and all choices add some kind of meaning to the book.
BTC: How do you renew yourself in what you do?
MP: I don’t really! I got the advice already in school to not work with advertising, you have since I had no clue what was trendy. It is more that I see something and think “oh, nice typography”, rather that I constantly keep track on things such as keeping track of what different printing presses can and cannot do. It is good to know if there a new type of paper. I have no eagle’s eye on anything; I just move along.
BTC: But your work does stand out to the casual observer…
MP: It is clear that you can see that all the books are from Sailor Press when they are next to each other but the best that can happen is when someone comes to a stand at a fair and says “Oh there is this person’s book, and there is this person’s book”. That it feels like the artist’s book. I leave my impression in most of the things regarding a book but I am not interested in anyone saying “Oh, there is a Matilda Plöjel book”. That would feel very, very, weird. So the books are all a little different. Then of course some elements are recognizable across them. I also do so few books. There is a difference if you have to produce 10–15 books a year compared to 2–3 books a year.
BTC: Is that because you do not want to stand on top of the pedestal yourself?
MP: It is obvious that as a designer you have some kind of repertoire. You can’t do it all, but you rather have some things that you prefer or feel comfortable working with. I have no such clear-cut graphic language. I am more interested in finding something that suits the topic I work with. Maybe I get an outlet to stand at the front when I teach?!
BTC: Where do you find inspiration?
MP: When I meet other small publishers at book fairs. When I see other books and see what is possible and has been done; that gives me a great energy kick. When you see all these amazing things that have been done in the book world. You just get lucky to see so many nice books! To browse physically and look in them. Yes, it’s books I like, that’s what I think is interesting. Then it is not so often that I can say that this book should be like that book. I can feel that I can have these other books as a kind of mental reference, and then my book ends up very far from them. They will be something else.
BTC: Do you learn new techniques and processes in advance to have a larger repertoire to retrieve from, or does it only happen when you see a need?
MP: No no! It is only from necessity. The thing about hand-marbling was nothing I had thought out beforehand and above all, I didn’t know that it would be so hard to figure out how to do it. It wasn’t that now we should sit at home in the apartment for two weeks and cook together various kinds of slime to make it work.
BTC: But you have quite the repertoire at this stage…
MP: My repertoire is largely based on things I did when I went to preschool such as overly simple techniques. It’s about mixing simpler and fine techniques. Like I said, you burn all the money on the very best print for the photographs; then I have no problem mixing it with anything else. Anna Strand and I stood and acetone-pressed all her covers and it was a technique you used when going to the design school because you couldn’t print on thick stuff in the copier. That’s really not a technique you usually use for a whole edition. But it is obvious that you can do that. It was super nice and exactly the expression we were looking for. So, yes, it’s more about necessities.
BTC: How is it to be a creative individual in Malmö?
MP: When I had clients, I worked almost exclusively with people in Stockholm and also some foreign clients. Now with Sailor Press, it started with Malmö-based artists and then it is luxurious to have the proximity that you can be seen often and quite spontaneously. A good thing with Malmö is that there are many good artists to work with. But now it has expanded so I also work with artists from other places as well. I have always felt more at home in the small publishing world as in the design world.
It is also fun because there is a small and active small publisher scene in Malmö. That feels great! You don’t make any money at such a small publisher so it is quite nice to be able to live and have a workspace. I would never have been able to afford this in, for example, Stockholm, but in Malmö there are still places with low rents and so on. I think it’s great fun to go to Stockholm and see a lot of stuff and meet people there but it’s also very nice to just be here in Malmö. It is a good city to have a daily life in. On the whole, Malmö is great!
BTC: Why are you still doing what you do?
MP: I like books! That’s what I’m passionate about; that’s what I think is fun. It feels like there is so much left to be done. There is a lot that I want to learn. I also think it is about having to learn new things all the time. When you work so close to others you have to take note of what they are working with. You have to contextualize. Had it not been that I could learn something new, I would not have kept doing this. But I still do, all the time.
BTC: And clearly you still enjoy and are enthusiastic about what you do…
MP: If you look at the books, there are no revolutionary changes from book to book, but it is nevertheless a certain deepening of certain things. You learn more about certain ideas and if you have figured out where to print the ultimate black then you know it. Maybe there is no difference for the untrained eye but I know that this blackness is a little sharper than the other I printed six years ago. Because back then maybe it wasn’t even possible. I think it’s about that. When I feel that I cannot learn anymore is when I will probably do something else. It is also that you get to know so many nice and friendly book nerds. The terms “Books make friends” is really true. It is a small community and everyone is so small that it doesn’t make sense to use your elbows. It is more that you share tips and you talk. It’s nice and friendly.
BTC: Yes, and sometime you might need help folding 300 tissue paper!
MP: No, I keep that in the family! My mother should get massive credit! – Mother? – Yes? – Can you come and fold this? – Yes! She has once said “You do everything for your children.” Yes! Good mother, then you take care of the spatula so we can make some marbling-slime!
BTC: Looking forward: Where are you headed?
MP: The great thing with Sailor Press is that I have no pressure that we should grow so much or that I would like to work with these people. I have the good fortune that there are many who come to me and propose book projects. And because it is a very small publisher, I can do very few of them. But sometimes you are lucky to stumble upon projects that are just amazing. I try to combine Sailor Press with teaching, which feels very good. I do so much research for the books, in terms of content, I have to read up on various topics sometimes – how should I relate to this. So I have a lot of extra knowledge that I have gathered and some of this I can now use in my teaching; I can pass on the knowledge. It feels very good to be able to put all this accumulated knowledge to use.
I am also part of another publishing project here in Malmö called Puss Publications together with Petra Bindel and Emma Persson Lagerberg. We have published a book with their work that I designed. Emma is a stylist and Petra is a photographer. It would be a lot of fun to continue this project because it is such a good excuse to work with close friends who are also talented and do great things! So I hope it continues.
BTC: One final question: Which is your favourite place in Malmö?
MP: To be honest, I enjoy being in our apartment very much. If I can have that as a favourite place? It is also very nice to have the office in the same building. You do all the work related things then you sneak up three flights of stairs to the family and the apartment. It’s a great luxury and very nice to have it. I like the small local scale on everything.
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All photos by: Emma Persson Lagerberg