What happens when a classical musician meets a punk rock star? The result, in graphic design terms, is the latest release of WERK magazine.
Bundled inside a handmade wrapper resembling a courier package plastered with stamps, customs forms, and white shipping tape, is a pristine hardcover book—a surprisingly conventional design for a cult publication better known for its experimental printing and production. Previous issues came in spray-painted covers, cloth pages, and frayed edges, but for its 23rd edition magazine founder Theseus Chan made the unusual move of making a book as German master printer Gerhard Steidl would.
Steidl is legendary for printing and publishing traditional art books for the likes of photographer Robert Frank, artist Ed Ruscha, and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. With his white lab coat and neatly trimmed hair, Steidl might seem an unlikely collaborator for Chan, who sports shoulder-length hair and a wardrobe of graphic tees and sneakers. But it was precisely this clash that spurred the Singaporean graphic designer to invite Steidl to subvert the magazine he founded in 2000.
“With [Steidl], I thought it’s interesting because his books are all very beautiful, but they’re very classical. They’re not done in the way I would have done it, where I would burn and rip it apart. I’ll try to destroy it,” explains Chan.
This punk spirit still exists inside the austere-looking issue, which showcases the raw and surreal collages of Japanese illustrator Masaho Anotani. Chan was already putting together the magazine with Anotani’s artworks when Steidl called him up to collaborate on a special issue of ZEITmagazin that he was guest editing for the German weekly. In return, Chan proposed working together on WERK, and unwittingly skipped the queue of collaborators who typically wait years to make a book with the much sought after printer.
As with most Steidl collaborations, Chan made the pilgrimage to Göttingen, Germany where he worked, ate, and slept in Steidlville. These are apartments next to the printers that allow Steidl to work on a clockwork schedule that churns out some 300 books a year. Collaborators are summoned as needed during printing, and Steidl even books your cab home when you’re set to leave. Such a meticulous operation turned out to be an ironic take on Chan’s anti-design approach for this issue. Rebelling against designers who become obsessed with their craft, Chan sought to shape this issue around chance encounters. The courier-like wrapper is an exact replica of how Anotani mailed over volumes of small booklets containing his artworks, and the magazine’s pages follow the sequence the artist created for the scans of his works. Chan also deferred to the printer’s choices of paper stocks and using a hard cover—a trope of Steidl books, but a first for WERK.
“Trying to create by not creating—it’s obviously a form of designing. I was just trying to do that and see how far it could go. A lot of things I used were happy accidents or matters of convenience,” says Chan.
“I didn’t want to apply the typical designer mode of doing it. I just wanted to let it come about as organically as possible.”
Despite starting as polar opposites, Chan found in Steidl a “kindred spirit” who shares his love for analogue technology and dedication to craft. Chan also witnessed Steidl’s hands-on approach as he pushed around pallets of paper and made sure the office windows were closed, the chairs were tucked in, and the rubbish was cleared at the end of the day.
“He’s the sort of leader who’s the first one in and last one out,” says Chan. “It mirrors a lot of things I do myself. I completely understand why he insists on certain things.”