An open book

Hugh Pearman visits book designer Thomas Manss in his Pristine Primrose Hill studio

Go to Primrose Hill, find architect Michael Wilford’s house, go down the steps to the basement, and there – the kind of place where you’d normally find a big kitchen or a granny flat – you’ll find Thomas Manss, neat and amiable as ever. And his company. There are eight people down there, including associates David Lovelock and David Law, all kitted up with computers, in a low-ceilinged space running through to the garden at the back.

The Manss/Wilford connection is a strong one. Manss does a lot of work for the Wilford practice, co-designed its big exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects and produced the book and all the graphics that went with it, married a Wilford daughter, has Wilford/Manss children. Now, his company is growing and it’s time to move, but he’s fond of his basement. “It started as a temporary idea five years ago, and it’s worked a treat,” he remarks.

Things are very organised. Dieter Rams’ Vitsoe shelving lines the walls: the floor is occupied by big five-legged drawing-office tables that Manss made out of blue-laminated chipboard, around which everyone sits on bent-plywood chairs with castor bases. His Berlin office has these chairs, too: they were being thrown out of a German school because of a new law that said four-castor chairs tipped up too easily, henceforth all such chairs should have five castors. Manss took the lot.

There are a lot of books about – some used for inspiration, others the product of the practice. Manss has got a bit of a reputation for being a book designer. Not surprisingly, given that his books are so good. He’s happy with this, but points out that his studio does a lot of corporate work, identity work, packaging, you name it. Books might win awards, but they tend not to be enormously profitable. He wants to be thought of as one thinks of Johnson Banks or CDT Design – multi-tasking, non-specialist.

He’s preaching to the converted about books. I know Manss’s work in that field because I am a half-client of his. His handling of the design of an architecture book I wrote for Phaidon impressed me greatly. This was no weekend job: the design had to work over 500 pages, with something like 1200 images and 140 000 words. If Manss and his associate Law ever quailed at the scale of the commission, they did not show it – though I remember Manss getting almost heated at one meeting where the editor insisted on a redesign of one large section – with no change to the tight timescale.

I suggest that nobody apart from publishers makes any real money out of books like that – designers merely join the authors in the loss-making club. “Ah”, Manss replies, “but you authors are at least on royalties. We designers are on a flat fee.” Touche, I think. A palpable hit.

The Phaidon connection goes back a long way. Manss used to be at Pentagram, where first David Hillman, and then Alan Fletcher, art-directed the Phaidon books. As you’d expect from a multidisciplinary group like Pentagram, Manss found himself working on a wide range of work when he arrived in London from Berlin in September 1989, six weeks before the Wall came down. He found himself doing SAS Scandinavian airlines, the M G financial group, some signage, a Korean hotel identity. He did the printed material for the Shakespeare’s Globe project, designed exhibitions for the Design Council and for Pentagram’s product designer Kenneth Grange in Japan. “It was that wide mix of work that was the appeal of Pentagram,” Manss recalls. “Then David Hillman came to me with a Phaidon book, on the artist Alfred Sisley. There was a difficult editor and author. It put me off books for quite some time.”

As it happens, I have that Sisley book. I bought it years back, not least because of its quality of design, which survived what was apparently a harrowing process. Luckily, Manss returned to book design, encouraged by Fletcher. But in the meantime, much else was happening.

Manss’s upbringing had been in Westphalia, leading on to art school in Wurzburg. The first real job was enormous: doing a corporate identity review for the German Post Office, working for a joint venture of MetaDesign and Sedley Place in Berlin. “They were keen to keep me in Germany,” says Manss. “But with such large clients, you’re always dealing with middle management – people who aren’t really interested.” Hence the move to London, and to Pentagram, where there was a different quality of big client.

Those were times of change in the graphics side of the practice. Quentin Newark and John Powner were there, leaving around 1991 to set up Atelier Works. Peter Saville and David Pocknell came and went. And Fletcher, one of the Pentagram founders, went solo in September 1992. Manss decided to follow suit. “I thought it was a good time to set up – I’d always wanted to run my own business,” says Manss. “But I wasn’t sure if it was better to start up here or in Germany. Alan Fletcher persuaded me to stay here. He said that if I established myself here, I could always go back to Germany. But, if I set up in Germany first, I’d probably never return.”

Fletcher, as usual, was right: Thomas Manss and Company now exists happily in both London and Germany, with the boss putting in three days every fortnight in Berlin. The German end of things came about because he was invited back to become visiting professor of corporate identity at Potsdam Polytechnic – which inevitably led to interest from clients, and subsequent commissions. So he started an office in Potsdam to coincide with his teaching trips and, when pressure of work finally meant that he relinquished the teaching, shifted back to Berlin.

Back at the start, however, Manss set up shop in Victoria, sharing space with the lighting designer Peter Zandi. He printed a simple card: Pentagram, in the house style, mirror-reversed on the back, and Thomas Manss and Company, same lettering and point size, the right way round on the front. He sent the cards off to everyone he could think of, and sat back. The first to respond was the architect Nicholas Grimshaw, who was setting up a Berlin office and needed stationery in both German and English. There were plenty of other responses. “I had phone calls back from the most unlikely people. The card was something that communicated pretty immediately,” says Manss.

Not that Manss needed so much new business to start with, since the ever-loyal Pentagram network was already supplying him. Some big projects that had gone quiet at Pentagram during the recession suddenly revived – including all the graphics work for Bruce Graham’s Hotel Arts in Barcelona and Frank Gehry’s famous “golden fish” restaurant alongside. His old employer subcontracted Manss to carry the project through. “We did everything in that hotel that you’re allowed to steal,” he says. “It was a furious start. I had two employees by the time I had been in business two weeks.”

There followed record covers for New Order – jobs for London Records, referred to Manss by Saville. But Manss knew that CD cover designing was no way to build a business – there are plenty of teenage designers who should be doing that kind of thing, and are probably better at it – and got out of it after a year. The proper corporate work started with something very different: The Creative Papers for paper company Arjo Wiggins. This is the sort of job, unlike books, that the public never sees – but your co-professionals see a lot of. Arjo Wiggins wanted to promote its fine paper brands. Manss bound them into a book, and on each paper printed a nonsensical invented object – a baby-buggy doubling as a paint-roller, a Filofax with built-in swimming pool, an adjustable comb for bald people, and so forth. The images have nothing to do with paper, but they make you want to flick through the book, and as you do so you get a feel for the product. The cover featured an upsidedown umbrella for dry countries – the idea being that it caught water – but the point was that this cover image was embossed, so nicely demonstrating the possibilities of the paper.

Manss happily credits his old boss, so adept at the witty ideogram, in such exercises. “Nobody would deny that Fletch has had a significant influence,” he says. However, Manss is as German as Fletcher is not: something that, he claims, helped him during the recession. “In hard times, all you really want is something that works. I found that everybody assumed that if a German did it, it would work.”

And it has worked. Manss tends not to lose clients. Some, like the B W loudspeaker company, come to depend on him for their literature and launches, packaging, everything. Other audio companies like Sennheiser and Myyriad have joined his roster. From Berlin, he has masterminded the identity of a big conglomerate, Oberhavel Holding, right down to the livery of its OVG buses. And I want to talk about books?

So we talk about books. A book, for Manss, is more than presenting text and images clearly, though he has a Germanic love of typographic clarity. A book, he says, must be a desirable, valuable, object. Which is why I was very happy to have him designing mine, just after he had produced the sumptuous Tadao Ando: the colours of light by photographer Richard Pare for Phaidon, with its different textures and lavish fold-outs. Books like these become treasure chests: interestingly, another Manss project is a little, highly desirable, blue velvet box with the word “memory” on the top in silver letter. It does not really matter what it contains – it happens to be the card game of pairs, where the pairs are made out of various “marks” designed by the practice. The point is that it is a Manss object, and turns out to be a somewhat lavish idea of a greeting/ business card.

He has just designed a new volume on architect John McAslan for Thames and Hudson, and another, for the Foreign Office, on British architects in Germany. But in other books, such as The Looking Book for publisher Ron King of Circle Press, or Sightwalk by the Magnum photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov for Phaidon, what you get is the book as designed object of desire. The feel of the thing – the binding, the three-dimensional texture of the cover, the use of unusual papers – is paramount. Sightwalk consists of just 25 photographs, printed on metallised paper, hand-bound into a rectangular format with a cover reminiscent of an old- fashioned photo album – not overtly, just in its use of blobby Beluga bookcloth. Manss is now working on a pioneering book project for Sir Norman Foster. “This is re-inventing the book,” he promises. “It will be amazing.”

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