In 2010, graphic designer Adam Michaels was looking for a different kind of book series. He wanted to see more accessible, visual and editorially experimental books, books that were typographically and materially nuanced, research-based, and socially-driven. He imagined these books in a small, mass-market paperback format. “There was a kind of generational impulse that was part of this too,” said Michael. “I had many friends and colleagues producing significant work which at that time, didn’t have a natural publishing outlet in the US.” Princeton Architectural Press agreed to publish his new series, ultimately producing three books under the title, Inventory Books.
That collection helped launch Inventory Press, which started out in 2014 — co-founded by Michaels together with Shannon Harvey. Where Inventory Books was focused on mass-market paperbacks, Inventory Press has a less dogmatic attitude about formats. Over the last eight years, the imprint has published a wide range of book types, but still clearly has a fondness for the paperback, as well as titles spanning from primarily text-driven to image-driven.
“We tend to have a quick intuition about what seems like the right fit, both conceptually and visually,” said Michaels. “There does tend to be a network-based aspect to our collaborations — one book often leads in some way to another, in terms of writers, subject matter, etc.” Inventory Press’s best selling title, however, is an unlikely one for such a small operation: Jordan Peele’s screenplay for Get Out. That book was conceived as heavily illustrated, small, paper-y, and heavily annotated.
Michaels and Harvey’s studio, IN-FO.CO, also works on a wide range of projects beyond books, including identities and websites, interactive and motion graphics, wayfinding and signage, and exhibitions. “We get particularly excited when a project involves a range of scales and media,” said Harvey. “We have always organized the studio to be able to produce high-level design in a medium-agnostic way.”
For Michaels: “The two entities work in a complementary way these days; something like half of IN-FO.CO’s book design output is for IP titles, but we’re still very happy to work in other contexts. It was a thrill to design Barbara Kruger’s new monograph Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You., published by DelMonico Books, LACMA, The Art Institute of Chicago, and MoMA.”
Ultimately, the thread connecting all of the pair’s work is an attempt to balance rigor with a strong sense of the unexpected. “There isn’t a house style, so much as approach,” said Michaels. “Our titles still tend to fall between a variety of disciplinary cracks.” Below, Harvey and Michaels take us through beloved titles from their studio’s shelves.
Favorite book from your personal library:
AM: Difficult to choose, but looking at the shelves right now I’m drawn to two titles from the same year: Notebooks: 1959–1971 by Lawrence Halprin (MIT Press, 1972) and Edward Ruscha (The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1972). Each picks up an existing, non-art/architecture book typology (a faux-leather bound sketchbook in the case of the former, a children’s Big Little Book for the latter), with the result being incongruities (the effect of a casual, intimate mode of address in the Halprin book, despite the reality of professional editing, followed by mass production and distribution) and unexpected format-based moves (in the Ruscha book, a deadpan presentation of his work followed by some hundreds of blank pages to fill out the small format’s wide spine width). In general, this approach — recontextualizing and reinhabiting something familiar, providing a framework for decision-making in the process, and a productive kind of disorientation in the finished product — can be a helpful way of working.
SH: There’s a tiny book by Le Corbusier called Une Petite Maison (A Little House) that I think of often — it’s an annotated walk-through of Villa le Lac, a very small house that Le Corbusier designed for his mother in 1925. Each page highlights a different banal or sometimes surprising detail of the house and is accompanied by an informal personal narrative. The result is a truly intimate portrait of a place. Reading it feels like stopping in at a friend’s house, in book form.
Favorite books for use during the pandemic:
AM: A month or two into the pandemic, when ceasing to leave the house for all but essential errands, I first built an end table, followed by one chair, and then another, based on plans for Gerrit Rietveld’s crate furniture from How to Construct Rietveld Furniture, by Peter Drijver and Johannes Niemeijer. Having picked up some rudimentary woodshop skills years ago in art school, and having, for the first time, a garage, this was a deeply satisfying process, requiring some, but not too much decision-making in translating printed plans to reality — an ideal form of productivity during deeply uncertain times. A few months later, I built a dining table based on plans in Autoprogettazione? by Enzo Mari — a more complex, lengthier process involving a truss structure made from 1×2 boards — also highly educational both while working on the project and then using the end result in daily life.
Favorite recently-released book:
SH: David Hartt’s The Histories is a recent favorite. It’s a beautiful volume that documents his multi-venue project and wrestles with the intersecting influences of race, colonialism, and landscape. Michael Veal’s fascinating essay looks at these influences on music in particular, which plays a large role in David’s work.
AM: In addition to considering individual titles, I’ve always been drawn to the overall sense of worldview put forth by a publisher or record label — surely leading to the idea of starting a publishing imprint seeming like a good one.
Growing up through 1990s underground music culture, my outlook was very much shaped by then-established punk labels like Dischord, Touch & Go, and SST, and then-newer hardcore labels like Gravity and Vermiform — each with an overall aesthetic and orientation, while including numerous outliers. After the more obvious move of buying Black Flag records, the SST catalog would then lead to the Minutemen (life-changing and far from conventional punk or anything else), Meat Puppets (weird hippie noodling, often at high velocities), and so on — baffling at first, but mind-expanding in the best possible way, as a way to think past the doctrinaire — based on a sense of the label acting as a trusted guide (even if later realizing that even a trusted guide loses their way from time to time).
In terms of art book publishing, beyond various individual titles under various imprints, for years I’ve been heavily drawn to the overall output of Gaberbocchus Press, Something Else Press, and Edition Hansjörg Mayer. Each imprint has a strongly developed visual sensibility, incorporating then-avant-garde art and design approaches into books for wider, book trade audiences.
SH: Franciszka and Stefan Themerson’s experimentation with format and language at Gaberbocchus Press is an inspiration. Their close friendships with artists and writers led to imaginative collaborations that pushed the form of the book in new directions. Kurt Schwitters in England: 1940–1948 is a particularly engaging example of the press’s designs, and is an example of a book based on a lecture (which is another format we like at Inventory Press). The contents of that volume were also reworked into an altogether different structure “Kurt Schwitters on a Time-Chart,” which was printed in Typographica 16 (and later re-printed in Blueprint for Counter-Education, and much later, an issue of Dot Dot Dot) — an interesting example of how contents influence and are influenced by their containers.
Upcoming Inventory Press books you’re excited about:
Three Summer / Early Fall highlights include:
Cyberfeminism Index, edited by Mindy Seu, documents and compiles early feminist internet history.
Seeing|Making —> Room for Thought, by Susan Buck Morss, Kevin McCaughey (of Boot Boyz Biz fame), and Adam Michaels, elaborates on Susan’s career-spanning writings on montage to show us how images work.
And lastly, the highly anticipated Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal will be released this summer and will be a tremendous document of the late drummer’s polymorphic output and genius.