Simon Merz on running independent publishing platform WTP-PP and designing a book about books
German designer Simon Merz graduated in 2019 with a Masters from the University of Applied Sciences, Augsburg, and has since been awarded first place in the Bavaria Culture Prize and second place in the Walter Tiemann Prize for his META publication. In 2018, he founded WTP-PP, an independent publishing platform that creates publications in the field of contemporary visual arts, as well as occasional apparel and accessories.
EM Hey Simon. How’s 2020 going for you so far?
SM Hey! From a ‘design-work-perspective’ it’s going really good for me so far. Trying to work a lot and save as much money as possible to get rid of my student loan. I also just got awarded second place at the ‘Walter-Tiemann Preis’ for my book META, which I feel really honoured by. But yeah, 2020 in general… Uff!
The recipient has to go beyond the haptic and material characteristic of a physical book.
EM Congratulations! What inspired the META book?
SM I guess growing up in subcultures just before digitalisation hit, I was really into album packaging, skateboard graphics and small DIY publications. These things were my first introduction and gateway to graphic design. So I always had a stronger connection to printed things, which during my studies developed into an especially strong interest in the book as an object but also an alternative and democratic medium that a lot of artists use to showcase their work. So when it came down to my final thesis, I started researching on the topic of artist’s books and ‘publishing as an artistic practice’ and surprisingly found quite a lot recent publications to the topic. After reading a few books and articles about it, I came to the conclusion that everybody has a different understanding of what an artist’s book and publishing as an artistic practice actually is and what it should be. And I felt that I could add something to this discussion.
Something further than just writing about it, something where the form of the book actually adds something to what the text of the book can’t really say. So I figured out that one of the key elements of an artist’s book is its self-reflexivity. And while I was also already writing a book about books it only made sense to pick up the concept of self-reflexivity and build the work on that. So I came up with the idea of a blank book, with the perforated edges of Japanese binding, where the recipient has to go beyond the haptic and material characteristic of a physical book and has to open and ‘destroy’ the book itself to get to the printed content, while at the same time the typographic editing of the text also picked up the idea of self-reflection. A book about itself basically. The whole thing is pretty conceptual, it’s kind of hard to explain, you have to see and use it to fully understand, which is exactly what I was aiming for.
I did my bachelor degrees in Austria, then worked two years for a University where I mostly did typographic work.
EM Your career has seen you work in your home country of Germany as well as Austria and Israel. Can you tell us about this journey?
SM I don’t know if I would call it a ‘career’ yet, due to it has mostly been studying so far. I did my bachelor degrees in Austria, then worked two years for a University where I mostly did typographic work, then did my master studies back in Germany. During my masters, I went on an exchange programme to Israel where I met my girlfriend. From there on I spent a lot of my time in Tel Aviv. So after two years of travelling forth and back to Tel Aviv, we decided to give it a try and move there last summer. It didn’t really work at the time, mostly cause it was hard for me to find the right jobs. I felt there wasn’t really a place or need for my approach to graphic design. It’s also crazily expensive to live there so it wasn’t a good place to start saving money. Then, late 2019, we moved together to Vienna which has been great so far.
EM Do you think these experiences of different cultures has informed your approach to design?
SM Maybe more my process than my actual approach to design itself. I feel that especially in Tel Aviv life goes faster, people are more willing to take risks and just do things, while at the same time being the most welcoming, open-minded and alive people (although I know my Israeli friends would probably not agree with that statement haha). I guess being surrounded with that mentality a lot influenced my outlook on everything I do, including my design practice. To not overthink stuff too much, and being fine with it, even if it’s not the greatest thing I have ever done. That has been pretty beneficial for me, fighting my German mentality I guess haha.
EM Let’s talk about WTP–PP, your publishing platform. What made you decide to start it?
SM During the process of the META book, I thought about how to publish it, as the question of publishing is a big topic in the book itself. By that time I already had released some smaller publications and zines on a little webshop that I called WTP (short for ‘Welcome To Paradise’ which is the title of my first zine from 2014) that nobody really knew about, probably also because I didn’t really tell anyone. But with the release of my first ‘proper’ book in the back, I thought it was the right time to put all the publications together and start my own little thing and see where it goes. And by ‘starting my own thing’ I mean opening an Instagram account.
But I think the initial idea behind all this, is still me having my own thing where I don’t have to compromise on anything. I guess for the most part people going into the arts, it’s about creating and especially creating for themselves. And I feel that in graphic design that urge can easily get lost by working for clients or a 9 to 5 in a studio, which basically is a common thing in any field of the applied arts. So I wanted something to continually work on only for myself. For me, these self-initiated projects have always been the most fun and rewarding in many ways and also a chance to showcase a clearer and unfiltered version of my ideas and how I would like things to be and look like. So I want to keep these projects going and with WTP–PP I have an extra reason to do more.
Typography has always been my main interest and kind of the backbone of all my work.
EM With the design changing significantly for each WTP–PP product, what would you say is the characteristic that unites them together?
SM I don’t really think that visually anything ties them directly together, other than maybe the fact that I always try to make room for some kind of typographic work on every item I do, if it’s the back cover of a photo zine or the label of a shirt. Typography has always been my main interest and kind of the backbone of all my work, so I want to keep doing it and get better at it. But also there I’m not necessarily searching for a certain ‘style’ that ties my work together, I try to keep a certain quality and mostly focusing on a more conceptual approach to it. Maybe that’s their common characteristic if that makes any sense.
EM What are your plans for the future of the platform?
SM For now, I think just keeping it alive and hopefully doing more projects with friends and artists that I like and admire. I’m working 9 to 5 at the moment so it’s quite hard to do anything creative next to that. But yeah, lately I keep asking myself that question too. As much as it may sound like ‘I’m doing it’ I think it’s important to mention that it hasn’t made much profit yet. I just read that Roma Publications, with almost 400 publications under their belt, creates no profit, just enough money to pay the bills. That’s crazy. Of course, I would love to put it on the next level but if you put a lot of your time, energy and money into something, I guess it’s nice and necessary to get some financial reward out of it at one point. So I still need to figure that one out or hoping that it might figures out itself if I just keep doing it, without forcing anything of course. That was never really the point.
But what I can say about the future plans of the platform is that I want to keep it kind of undefined, that it can turn into whatever I want it to be. Of course, the foundation of it will always be the books but who knows… I think the time is right to be more than one thing and I’d like to bring more of my other interest, outside of the ‘graphic-designer-publisher’ world into it. I’m a skateboarder and I’m into art, music and whatever comes with that.
Why can’t your favourite publisher also make your favourite shirts, sew your favourite pants, make your favourite art? Not that I’m your favourite publisher or I knew how to sew but you know what I mean. I’m inspired by a lot of different things and I want WTP–PP to be a platform to bring these things together. So I’ll keep on doing that and hope people will keep on liking and supporting it so I can do more. That’s the easy plan, for now :–)