Each year, the Swiss Federal Design Association holds a competition for the “most beautiful” book designed that year. The thought and aptitude of Swiss designers is highly regarded globally within the design community, cultivating a scene that has pushed the remit of typographic and editorial design for hundreds of years.
Understandably, designers — regarded to have a serious opinion and often finicky approach to work and these sorts of awards — react to The Most Beautiful Swiss Books competition with excitement, eagerly awaiting to check out which publications have been given one of the industry’s highest honours. It’s a competition met with the same anticipation as the Oscars, VMAs or the Mercury Music Prize, but for graphic design.
To accompany the competition, a catalogue is designed showcasing the books featured, which means it’s up to one studio to design a book of the most beautiful books — a daunting task to say the least. This year, the honour was bestowed upon Hubertus Design, a studio based in both Zurich and New York. As previous winners of the award, the studio was more than qualified for the task and has created a book that looks analytically at the entire concept of publishing. Below, we speak with Jonas Voegeli of Hubertus Design to find out more about the studio’s task, how they felt, the process that preceded, and his thoughts on the final catalogue.
What does the Most Beautiful Swiss Books awards mean to you at Hubertus Design?
First of all, it’s an annual competition that many within the Swiss graphic design community get excited about, both in terms of submitting their work and in seeing the results, but it’s also one that has a substantially large international viewership. It’s viewed (by some) as a kind of gauge for what’s currently happening in Switzerland, in terms of book design and typography. Then, there’s the awards ceremony/exhibition itself, which is sort of like a family event — a place for everybody to meet up and shake hands, while browsing books. Nevertheless, it remains a rather traditional and institutionalised competition, while keeping its allure. In part due to the changing jury from within the expertise.
How did it come about that you would have the honour of designing the book of the most beautiful books?
We were asked to present a design concept for the catalogue once before, as a pitch in 2010, but we didn’t get it. The reason(s) for why we were given the commission this year are numerous. Hubertus stands for high-quality book design — specifically at a time when the necessity for the Most Beautiful Swiss Books catalogue has become questionable, given the information about it is largely consumed online. So we (metaphorically) proposed for the Federal Institution of Culture to think about this year’s catalogue as one of the last chances to produce a real, obsessive, printed catalogue. That being one reason for why the publication is meta-titled Back to the Book, alongside a parallel metaphor in our minds while conceptualising the catalogue, which was the approach of “the last book” — as if the 2016 catalogue would be the last transmission of information on the excellence of these books.
Was it quite a daunting process? What were the hardest or most rewarding bits?
It’s probably no more daunting than starting any other book project; however, this being one whose audience is (arguably) primarily made up of artists, designers, and publishers, you could say there was some unusual “intimidation”. So, we let the concept guide our process and keep it focused, contained.
The concept was actually based on aspects of our 2010 submission. The original idea was to produce a catalogue whereby we would reproduce, remix, and redesign everything from each of the awarded books! Obviously this was a highly idealistic and surrealistic approach; yet, because of the workload it would’ve created, as well as the potential copyright issues, we needed to modify our scope. Therefore, we started with the ideology of showing everything but framed that within different chapters: Examinations, where we built examination categories as a visual response to an interview with the jury about the details they took notice of in their analyses, and Excerpts, where we provided an opportunity to literally read into the awarded books by re-typesetting some of the texts/essays contained within.
What were your aims for the book? What feelings did you want to evoke?
To design a (beautiful) catalogue on “the most beautiful Swiss books” is sort of a paradox in and of itself — even the format of a competition on beauty seems more questionable than ever before. How do you judge beauty (the age-old question)? On the level of execution of one’s design skills? On the printing and binding quality? On the relationship between content and form?
Through our design of the catalogue we’ve tried to raise such questions, and scrutinise them. On one hand, we would like to share the fascination of purely formal, obsessive, and technological details — letting a reader look through the eyes of the jury, so to say, in a extensive/magnified way. Thus allowing the books, and their details (something designers are known to painstakingly mull over), to almost become obsolete and/or parodies of themselves (perhaps similar to how some could view the format of the competition itself?).
On the other hand, we also wanted to provide a possibility to read into the books and represent them. Not via proper reproductions, but via fragmented accessibilities: a jury report, formal examinations and observations, excerpts of the books, and even a movie-trailer. Linear reading, specifically that of books, has been redefined — perhaps by itself — so new, appropriate, ways of reading and representing books, and their content, is becoming evident. All of which should be reconsidered. That’s also why we think the next catalogs of the Most Beautiful Swiss Books should widely expand their online/interactive experience and appearance.
Finally, what are your thoughts on the final publication?
We’re quite happy with it. There are a few details and experiments that we really like — the colour of the last chapter, for example. It’s printed in black, with two overprinted whites. A high percentage of powder was mixed into the white inks to produce that rough, sandpaper-like, and haptic experience, which we’re super fascinated by. It also provides a nice bridge to the movie-trailer we created for the exhibition.
We are less happy with the holes in the cellophane the catalogue is wrapped with, which the black silkscreen printed colour drops through sometimes. However, as for the black silkscreen printed dots on the cellophane themselves — produced for a limited amount of copies only, which comes off as soon as you rip it apart — we are quite happy with that result as well. You might have black ink on your fingers when touching the clean, fresh, white book itself, before even opening it, which we like very much — reflecting many of the questions we asked through the design of the book itself.
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.