Last Friday interviewed Joe Pearson, the founder of Design For Today, for our next project. Design For Today is a small publisher located in South London and they specialize in hand-drawn limited edition books. Here’s the interview I had with Joe!
How was the company first born and how did you come up with the concept for limited edition books, cards and prints?
I started the company just over a year ago. And before then I was teaching. I worked with special-needs children. And when I was in college training, I trained to do graphics and textile design. I taught that for a bit as well. So when I switched careers to move into publishing, I was really trying to publish the books that I’ve been collecting. I’ve been collecting books for 30 years. Particularly books using lithography and books from the 30’s and 40’s, and the Russian children’s books and the French children’s books of the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s. I’ve been collecting those for so long and I always wanted to try to do something similar to those. So that was what I was starting to do. That’s what gave me the idea.
Also I just disliked the children’s books that were in shops, the commercial children’s books. I particularly disliked the idea that most of the children’s books that you see in book shops are actually printed in China. I really thought that was appalling that the English, British print industry was collapsing and the publishers were printing in China chasing the cheapest printing they could possibly get. They are moving their printing firms from England into Europe, into the kind of Russian states, and then into India, and now finally to China. They are getting their printing cheaper and cheaper and cheaper, and they are more and more disposable, which I thought was sad. So I was trying to publish books that I thought would be collectable and printed properly using English printers, and also using the kind of the graphic style and graphic techniques that I have collected, but in a different context.
As a company, what do you think makes you unique and separates you from others in the industry?
I think it’s back to that same thing. It’s using traditional printing methods. It’s also using traditional design methods. All the artists that I’ve got in my books draw first, and once they’ve drawn it then they may scan it and put it on the computer to do the colour separations. But they are all hand-drawn. So none of the artists use computers to design their work. So I think that’s one aspect, the printing technology where by it’s printied using spotnography as suppose digital lithography, so you get the kind of depth of colour and vibrancy of colour that can only be achieved in spotnography.
It’s a bit like record obsessive. Many young people are now re-discovering vinyl records rather than CD’s, because actually the sound quality of a vinyl has warmth to it. You can’t actually tell straight away, but it’s there. These books are the same, you pick them up and put them next to a digitally printed book and you can tell the difference. So it’s the technology, it’s the way the books are printed, it’s the artists that I’ve chosen.
I deliberately choose young artists. I’m trying to give them their first break. I’ve deliberately wanted to choose artists who are 2 or 3 years out of college. The artists I’ve chosen, some of them have done their first books for me, but since then have now been picked up by major publishers doing some amazing work.
So those are the sort of thing I think are important. And I do small print runs too from 1000 to 1500 copies and I’m not trying to sell them at Waterstones, just through word of mouth, fairs, websites, social media.
How do you choose the designers and illustrators you work with?
It is a combination. Some people, I’ve been following their work via Instagram for example. So I will follow their work and if I think they are interesting then maybe I get in touch with them. Either students or just out of college. Sometimes they have had exhibitions, like their college shows. I go along and see them. If I see someone I think is really really exciting, then I may approach them and say “do you fancy doing a book”. Otherwise it’s artists who have done books, have disliked the process of commercial publishing, have stopped doing books, but now are publishing their own books. And I approach them and say “do you wanna do a book for me”. So it’s those sort of approaches really that I use for finding artists.
Your publications and products are inspired by Midcentury design – what is it about that era that captures people’s the imagination today?
I think it’s several things. I think the quality of training at art colleges in the 1930s and 1940s had a huge emphasis on drawing. If you went to the Central School of Art or Royal College of Art or Westminster or Campbell College of Art, you’d spend a huge huge percentage of your time doing just drawing. Drawing, drawing, drawing. So technically, those artists of the 1930s and 40s are really really good at drawing. That quality shows through.
Also the colour pallette that Midcentury designers and illustrators use is different from the palette today because today through synthetic inks we get a whole range of fluorescent colours that weren’t available. So if you look at books from the 1940s, you can almost spot them and tell the era just by the palette of colours they use. I quite like those colours. So that’s the spark.
And also it’s nostalgic too. But it’s not the kind of cuteness, if you like, it’s a kind of ironic quality that you know it’s inspired by the Midcentury. But if you look at Instagram, there’s a whole breed of artists and illustrators who are trying to be very cute about nostalgia: lots of pink. But they are badly drawn, they are just disposable. Whereas the artists I’ve tried to commision are generally good illustrators first, but influenced by the Midcentury. They’ve taken the colour palettes and design style and put it into modern context. That’s what I’m trying to do here.
Design For Today also reissues “forgotten classics”. Have those been designed in the same style as the new limited edition items you publish? How do you choose what classics to reissue?
I’m actually just about to re-publish two books from the 1940s by an illustrator called Hillary Stevin. She’s died long ago, but I have a permission from the family. These books have not been printed for years and years but they are really really superbly lithographed. They were printed in small edition in the 1940s, but forgotten now. So I’m re-printing those two. It’s the same style: lithographed, same colour, same way. I’m just printing them again using the same technology as they were originally printed with.
The forgotten classics are mainly things I’ve got in my collections. Some publishers are re-printing classics now, Tate Publishing and V&A Publishing for example, but they only re-publish things that they think they’ll make money out of. If it is a classic book that may be not so commercial, they wouldn’t touch it. If it’s not “cute” they wouldn’t touch it. But I can do things that are interesting and maybe have an audience of 500 000 or 600 000. If it’s a really good quality book but may not be cute enough or commercial enough for mainstream publishers to take on, I’m filling that gap really.
And also, it’s a case that some publishers still own the rights to books in print, so you can’t publish those. It’s about finding books that are out of print, getting a permission from the family to do it, and then going ahead.
Read more about the progress of this project: Posterzine planning