The designers behind the Swiss collective PIN talk about their creative process and method, and the entangled relationship between the aesthetics of the digital and the medium of the book.
Based in St. Gallen, Switzerland, Larissa Kasper, Rosario Florio, and Samuel Bänziger have been collaborating since 2013 as book designers for distinguished publishers in the fields of art and architecture. Apart from PIN, they run their respective studios Kasper-Florio and Bänziger Hug, and jointly manage Jungle Books, an independent publisher specializing in contemporary visual arts. They also work as art directors for the magazines Saiten and Kaleidoscope.
PIN recently developed the design and layout for The New Normal book that resulted from a three-year collaborative project and “speculative urbanism” think-tank at Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design in Moscow. Co-published by Strelka Press and Park Books, the book investigates the impact of planetary-scale computation on the future of cities.
Merging their methodologies and The New Normal identity and aesthetics, PIN created a montage-like “cinematic” experience throughout the book. The visual stream running through the publication is compiled from design studies, archival footage, and curated fieldwork material originating from the research process of the think-tank over three years.
Strelka Mag spoke to Larissa Kasper, Rosario Florio, and Samuel Bänziger about their practice and their work on The New Normal book.
Strelka Mag: What are the key principles that guide your practice? What kind of projects do you usually take on? And how would you describe your style?
PIN: When working on architecture books, catalogs, and anthologies, we are usually confronted with certain conditions and a defined content that needs to be prepared for the book and brought into a narrative. In the case of artist books, we try to translate an individual work, a group of works, or a practice in close cooperation with the artist and expand on it in the medium of the book. Both cases are preceded by a conceptual and programmatic methodology in which the clearly and carefully developed design parameters play an important role. They influence the form and create rhythms, establish hierarchies and contrasts, lead to a layout and a unique design, and create a narrative that communicatively reflects the content. Functionality is the basis of the design, but we also like the idea that something is not purely utilitarian, and we try to make use of the charm that sometimes lies in the details: the weight or feel of the paper, the typographic proportions and subtleties—this charm of the not purely functional.
SM: In the case of The New Normal, which already had a strong visual presence and brand identity, how did you approach the design challenge in relation to your own visual practice and body of work? Where does the book you designed for Strelka fit within your practice?
PIN: The integration of the existing identity was always present, but in the beginning it seemed much more important to us to understand the DNA of Strelka’s activities as a whole and the program The New Normal and to use this to define the material, the narrative, and the structure. This resulted in a form that is based on our methodologies, but at the same time also respects the content and intent of the editors. The decision to involve us as outside book designers indicated from the start that Strelka was open and allowed us to act independently from the existing identity and to make our contribution in the form of book design.
SM: Working on The New Normal, you had the opportunity to explore and experiment with craft, different paper types and textures, etc. How (if at all) do you think this aspect of book-making translates to the digital space? Is the book’s “object-hood” lost in digital form, or do you approach the concept differently?
PIN: The book makes it possible to present and comment on finished content, to simultaneously archive, organize, and review it, and thus to gain a new work from a retrospective point of view. The manifesting gesture of archiving and arranging text and images, overlaying and combining, as well as linear reading or selective viewing by the user, find their precise formal correspondence here. Thus, the book The New Normal also encompasses the breadth, variety, and intensity of the activities that took place during the three-year project between two book covers. The moment the loose pages are bound into a book, the content is complete as a collection. Stephane Mallarmé once said that “everything in the world exists in order to end up in a book.” In the age of digital memory one could argue that everything that exists in the world also exists or will exist in the digital realm. Still, books remain precise sources and stores of knowledge and, in contrast to virtual archives, they are tangible. Books are always used sensually. This makes it impossible to directly translate them into the digital realm. It requires an approach that is detached from the physical medium and its conventions, and whose possibilities in turn allow the contents to be independently experienced.
SM: Do you follow or draw inspiration from other practicing graphic designers, and how do you think notions of “collaborations,” “authorship,” or “credit” change at a time when it is so easy to mimic the work of other good designers?
PIN: We follow developments in contemporary graphic design, but more with an enthusiasm for exchange and less as a path of inspiration. We see the global network as a lively discourse with outstanding like-minded people. In addition, mutual exchange promotes self-reflection or motivates introspection, which can ultimately be relevant for personal development. We strongly believe in teamwork and in the fact that an idea can always grow and improve through a joint process, an exchange, and the sharing of ideas. The quality of the communication—and sometimes also its tension—is part of the creation. We are more interested in this process than authorship or the stroke of genius that ultimately may be uttered by one person, but is a result of a common path.
SM: The projects developed during The New Normal initiative deal with the impact of emerging technologies—automation, artificial intelligence, machine vision, etc. How do you translate the aesthetics of technologies into the print medium?
PIN: The book as such stands in extreme contrast to these technologies. It is, if you like, a long-outdated medium in its form. And yet it is indispensable as a tool of manifestation, because what is printed remains. Thus, in our opinion, we shouldn’t ask how to transfer this technological phenomenon into a book. It is not a translation of it, but an extension or manifestation, which means that you don’t necessarily have to adopt the aesthetic. Rather, it is offered a stage with the possibilities of book design. And yet we cannot claim that these technologies have no influence on the design. The resulting virtual aesthetic is omnipresent in contemporary graphic design. Books seem to be becoming increasingly complex and no longer able to maintain their simplicity. But what remains and will remain for a long time to come is the fact that the book is a static and comparatively very immobile and closed body—a quality that can be seen as an advantage, since the feeling of infiniteness disappears.
SM: More generally, how do you see the similarity, difference, or relationship between graphic design and architecture in the way that they deal with systems, aesthetics, and communication?
PIN: You could call us book architects. We work with spatial layouts, relationships, and sequences, play with emptiness and fullness, condense and expand content. As book designers, we are interested in creating a graphic architecture that can deal with heterogeneous material. If you compare this with a built space, it resembles the situation before and after the users move in. In the best case, the architecture should be able to withstand a velvet green sofa and a pink tablecloth and not lose its presence. This requires a precise placement of the basic structure. However, the structure sometimes changes over the course of the process and has to adapt to the content, and elements are added or removed. Here, too, we see a strong relationship to architecture. So it is a constant reaction to external influences, mediating between different protagonists, defending strategies, and being open to a wide variety of personalities.
Find out more about the publication and The New Normal initiative at thenewnormal.strelka.com