Almost all the books published by Lugemik from 2010 to 2019. Courtesy Lugemik

When graphic designer Indrek Sirkel first conceived Lugemik, he planned to translate and publish important texts about design and art into Estonian. A decade on, his publishing initiative has become known for the opposite: translating art and design from the Baltic state and bringing it to the rest of the world.

The plan changed when a client of Sirkel, Mari Laanemets, wanted a catalog for a show she was curating but lacked the budget for a traditional publisher. Sirkel, a graduate of the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, offered to design and publish Life Would Be Easy in 2010. This was quickly followed by several exhibition catalogs with other artists from Estonia, and Lugemik was born, co-founded with Anu Vahtra.

The experience as a publisher helped Sirkel overcome his previous frustration of designing for cultural institutions, where he felt confined to the “superficial activity” of simply assembling the supplied texts and images. “I was much more interested in how a book is distributed, why this writer was commissioned, why are the reproductions like this,” he says. “One of the things we wanted to do was to talk to the artists, ask them what they thought and get to know them.”

Lugemik also offered a platform for young and emerging artists in Estonia, says Vahtra. For years, the duo had been talking about starting a publishing house. This was born of a discontent with the fact that it seemed only established practitioners who were exhibited in the country’s major arts institutions were the ones getting offered opportunities to be published. Even then, many of these were published only in Estonian and distributed within the country, which has a population of just 1.3 million.

The founders of Lugemik, Anu Vahtra and Indrek Sirkel, at their booth during the New York Art Book Fair 2017. Courtesy Lugemik

“Contemporary practices of graphic design, art and publishing are part of a larger international field, so we therefore feel we can be a part of it and (want) to be read and perceived by a global audience,” says Vahtra, who also studied in Rietveld but majored in photography. This is why most Lugemik titles come in Estonian and English editions. “I would say in most cases, it’s not even a question (of) whether we want to reach outside Estonia or not.”

These goals of collaborating with artists and reaching international audiences have resulted in a diverse collection of 81 titles over the last 10 years. Each book is carefully designed to translate the authors’ content and concept. For artist Neeme Külm’s Shimmer on the Surface, Lugemik created a catalogue inspired by this site-specific installation where the artist blocked the entrance of a gallery with a pool of black water and used low sound waves to create shimmers on the surface. The entirely black hardcover book also “shimmers on the surface” as readers flips through all 400 pages of pure black.

Artist Marge Monko, who has published four books with Lugemik since 2012, says Vahtra and Sirkel often bring another interpretation to her works. “Their approach is a conceptual one—every aesthetic decision has to link to the content,” she says. “When working on an artist book, they usually proceed from a specific project of the artist and using their experience, turn it into a publication, which can be considered another version of the work.”

Unlike traditional publishers that provide a service for other creatives, Vahtra stresses that Lugemik is firmly a branch of the founders’ individual practices. She is an artist known for her spatial and architectural works, and Sirkel heads the graphic design department in the Estonian Academy of Arts. Thus, they only publish content that excites them and when they can produce a book as partners. “Our ideal way to work is equally with the author, to be in dialogue about the content, form and everything about the book,” says Vahtra.

Lugemik’s persistence on producing books accessible beyond Estonia has been matched by its regular participation in overseas art book fairs; and a number of their books have been acquired for the library of The Museum of Modern Art. It also led the duo to convert an old garage in the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia into one of the country’s first specialist bookshops for independent art publishing. Opened in 2013, the shop stocks titles from around the world and aims to help local readers better understand the publications Lugemik puts out.

“When we started, the idea was just that we make our small book. It was stapled, and used only black and white, but this great young artist would be placed next to this big coffee table book (in a mainstream bookshop),” he adds.

A barbecue held outside the Lugemik Bookshop as part of the Asterisk Summer School 2016. Courtesy Lugemik

“Publishing is not about making this book or object… it is making something public.”

As Lugemik currently stages an exhibition of all its titles at the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design (running until September 1); it seems clear that the publisher has more than established itself in the country’s creative landscape. The duo acknowledges that local arts and cultural institutions have since become more aware of the importance of publishing, and Lugemik has also collaborated with them on several titles.

One thing that has not changed is Lugemik remains a hands-on, two-person operation. This means, as they admit, they may be a little slow in replying to emails. But don’t expect any “professionalisation” for the future. Instead, Lugemik has set its sights on continuing to push the boundaries of traditional publishing. With Vahtra leaving Lugemik to focus more on her artistic practice, graphic designer Ott Kagovere was recruited last year, and he brings an interest in alternative publishing practices, such as performances and lectures.

“Publishing is not about making this book or object… it is making something public.”

This is a natural extension of Lugemik’s legacy of publishing books, says Sirkel. “I consider teaching also part of this practice of publishing. You give all your knowledge, it’s just not in a printed form,” he adds. “Publishing is not about making this book or object… it is making something public.”