“Good design is always marked by great consistency”: Studio Spehr and its ardent focus on book design
With a practice focused on art catalogues and photobooks, the designer talks to us about the importance of rigorous conversations in the design process.
- Jyni Ong
- 15 January 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
Paul Spehr, the man behind Berlin-based graphic design studio Studio Spehr, has built a practice with a strong focus on book design. Working for a variety of cultural institutions and collaborating with a handful of Germany’s formidable creative publishers, Paul is best known for designing art catalogues and photobooks. Besides this, however, he also dabbles in corporate design as well as creating logos and exhibitions, all while teaching at the University of Hanover.
With a range of printed objects under his belt, Paul’s work is clear and beautifully framed. He doesn’t think of his work as having a signature style so to speak, referring to his process as something that comes naturally, step by step. He does, however, have established working strategies that contribute towards a healthy creative process. One of these strategies being discussion, particularly with people he works well with. Timo Hinze from Studio Super Computer, for example, is a regular collaborator.
As good friends, the pair like to discuss their tastes, interests and opinions in design. “Our method is to talk the thing through but leave the concrete design apart,” Paul tells us. The discussion, in turn, revolves firmly around the aim of the project, the client and the final outcome. They judge the conversation almost like a competition with the best idea winning in the end. Once the winner has claimed their place, most of the time, there are no more questions around the style of the design as it leads on from the winning discussed idea.
“I think good design is always marked by great consistency,” Paul adds. Whatever he is designing at any given moment whether that’s a presentation, a mock-up or an actual book, he tries to be as consistent as possible. “Compromises will come into play all by themselves, no need to worry,” he says. He didn’t always have such a solid view of the design process, however. He takes us back to his first memories of engaging in graphic design, long before he even knew what graphic design was.
In one memory, he is sitting in a geography class and “being totally hooked” by the final pages of the atlas. Mesmerised by all the flags of the world, he took a particular liking to the military and voyage flags and symbols, remembering how they were “very seductive to me”. Elsewhere, he thinks back to the tiny pictograms visible from the sports section in his father’s newspaper and in another distant memory, he goes back to sitting in the backseat of the car, drawing logos of gas stations that pass by.
When he eventually learnt what graphic design was and decided to pursue it at university, he enrolled at a design school in Leipzig, known for its book design which has stuck with Paul to this day. He developed an astute interest in Italian design from the 60s and 70s, noting the likes of Aldo Calabresi, Bob Noorda, AG Fronzoni and Max Huber as influential. Contemporary graphic design is less of an influence for Paul at the moment. Instead, he is easily absorbed in the expressive hybrid where Italian design meets Swiss modernism; fascinated in the movement not only for its place in the cultural field but also for its wider impact on the visuals of the economy and major corporations, for example.
Paul often sees his role as a designer to organise contents rather than decorating them. An example of this is his work for the Hello World – Revising a Collection exhibition at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, one of the city’s major museums. A collaboration with Stephan Müller and Timo Hinze, the group designed the catalogue as well as the visual system and exhibition design. Featuring more than 250 artists and approximately 800 pieces from different eras, the exhibition was organised into 13 separate chapters, with a curator taking ownership of each chapter.
The challenge was to create a considered design while working with so many different people and artefacts. Some curators provided long and wordy captions while others wanted images to stand alone without text. All in all, it was no mean feat trying to please all parties involved with such a huge array of different demands. The end solution, however, was a classic design concept, a modular system of numerous containers to suit the range of requests. The result allows versatility without looking like 13 books squashed into one, providing a consistent tone of voice while allowing individuality to shine through.
As for the future, Paul tells us he’s getting ready to give more workshops and lectures on the photobook at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Hanover, a role he’s filled for the past two years. “I very much enjoy teaching and working with these students,” he says. “As they’re all photographers, they have the ability to think visually but they’re not so influenced by the latest hot design so they’re very free and willing to design. It’s a lot of fun, I really love it.”
Studio Spehr in collaboration with Stephan Müller and Timo Hinze: Hello World; catalogue for Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart Berlin; 2018 (Copyright © Studio Spehr, 2018)
About the Author
Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.