Since its beginnings in 2010, Ghent-based Art Paper Editions, founded by husband and wife duo Jurgen Malfeyt and Caroline De Malsche, has stretched the definition of artist books as we once knew them, unassumingly pushing the boundaries in publishing perfection through astute artist collaborations and a distinctive design tone. We paid a visit to the pioneering imprint to talk family, fun and future.
Art Paper Editions actually started out as a hobby for couple Jurgen Maelfeyt and Caroline De Malsche out of their Ghent-based graphic design studio. In 2010, Jurgen was already making books and other graphic design-related work of his own, and had just finished an enticing poster inspired by cult classic The Shining. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” in bright colours. Just as he was considering distributing it, an art institution approached him to publish a book under his name. And it is this conjunction of triggers precisely that basically spurred APE, the country’s pioneering art book publisher. “So suddenly me and Caroline had a publishing house, put it online and got invited to Offprint, which is one of the most important art book fairs in Paris,” says Jurgen, recalling his delight when selling out every single book he brought with him. They begun with three books a year, and today publish about 20 a year. Thanks to their success at art book fair Offprint, APE quickly built a reputation for itself, which meant collaboration proposals from artists began flowing in. They also took it upon themselves to get in touch with artists they wanted to work with, and they today oversee an impressive stable of artists with whom they are close and frequently collaborate. Truth is, they were, and still very much are, open to suggestions, such as the time Wiels curator Devrim Bayar spoke about artists Jean-Baptiste Bernadet and Xavier Noiret-Thomé’s ongoing challenge of purchasing art on flea markets for less than five euros, which resulted in a beautifully-produced Riso print publication on underrated flea market art.
Things always happen pretty organically at APE. Structure-wise, Jurgen handles artists and graphic design duties whilst Caroline oversees RIOT, their recently-opened bookshop and art gallery, fair participation and administration. Jonas, who joined three years ago as an intern, and Stef, whose digitally-orientated end-of-year project impressed Jurgen at Kask, where he is a professor, complete the team both as graphic designers. Interns, as is the case in many creative practices, are indispensable to the studio, something Jurgen is keen to emphasise. “The last Italian intern practically organised the Ghent Book Fair all by herself,” he says.
“APE’s style is like a Sonic Youth riff: minimalistic, sharp and bold. Almost like materialised music.”
At APE, the book is seen as an environment for exhibitions. Granted, the architecture of a book is completely different than that of a white cube gallery space of course. But both treat their blank canvasses as spatial entities brought to life through art, the same way a curator works an exhibition space. Characteristics inherent to the book format, such as fold-out spreads or different paper stock for example, can create a more engaging experience for the reader in the same way as lighting or scenography will do for the exhibition viewer. This attitude explains why Jurgen is no fan of e-books. He does acknowledge the importance and challenges of working digitally, but only as autonomous projects existing alongside the printed book. “A screen is one image, a book has two pages. These are just too different to reconcile,” he explains. Digital productions at APE mostly comprise websites, of which they have been doing a lot lately. “We were doing a lot of InDesign mock-ups in the beginning, which were then translated into actual websites by programmers. Let’s say we were never quite satisfied with the results.” Luckily they now have a few digital dons within their ranks, such as Stef, which allows the studio to design websites from pit to programming, thus owning the process from start to finish. In terms of hierarchy, everybody works on a horizontal level on the same projects, which are stored in a shared Dropbox. All team members can provide input and at the same time, “it’s sometimes necessary to take a distance from it,” explains Jonas, another full-time member of the team. “If you’re constantly working individually, it can get a bit claustrophobic. But through a collective approach, ideas are opened up and we get to influence each other.”
“Even though A.P.E. expects carte blanche, it also finds inspiration in working with artists who have a feel for books, and who come with their own ideas and input.”
“It was and still is about graphic design more than anything else. This really is our core business,” says Jurgen. When asked for a description of their visual identity though, describing it isn’t as easy as one would have thought. Jonas and Stef think the expertise lies in the fact that the books will never look overdesigned. So a certain tendency for restraint, then. Hana Miletic, the contemporary Belgian artist who has collaborated with APE since 2011 and who was in the studio to talk about an intervention she was planning to do on the Beursschouwburg’s website for an upcoming solo exhibition of hers, put it somewhat more succinctly. “APE’s style is like a Sonic Youth riff: minimalistic, sharp and bold. Almost like materialised music.” Content-wise, photography probably makes up half of what is being published, since books and photographic series are pretty much a match made in heaven. But Jurgen is determined to reject the limitation of working in only one domain, with publications on design, on textile and even their first architecture book for 51N4E. “I think it’s more interesting and thought-provoking to open it up, to have a crossover between several art disciplines.” Not all artwork needs an art book. For the past few years now, there’s been somewhat of an obsession with art books with seemingly every artist and his assistant publishing a limited-edition, signed, numbered and whatever-the-fuck else special edition. But, according to Jurgen, sometimes a book is simply not the best option. When it is though, the way the book takes shape squarely depends on the first conversation the team has with the artist. From there, they can figure out what the goal is, and what kind of statement the artist is hoping to evoke. And even though APE expects carte blanche, it also finds inspiration in working with artists who have a feel for books, and who come with their own ideas and input. Stef recalls the collaboration with Mariken Wessels for example, who suggested working with stickers in her picture story Taking Off. Henry My Neighbor about a perverted middle-aged couple and their failed marriage. “This is something we would never have thought of and which turned out great.”
“It was and still is about graphic design more than anything else. This really is our core business.”
At first, Jurgen and Caroline also handled distribution, which quickly became a bit of a drag. They had to approach bookstores, offering them to sell in consignment, which meant a lot of time-consuming administration and follow-up. After being with Berlin-based distributor Motto for a while, they now work with Idea Books, with whom they have a close relationship. International book fairs are also key moments on the calendar, with APE participating in the most important ones – London, Paris, New York, L.A.
Above and beyond the commercial advantages of reaching bigger markets, attending these international gatherings also allows the imprint to widen its network, maintain its international standing and connect with artists on a more local level. And although fair participation is a daunting prospect commercially for independent publishers to take on, initial investments seem to have paid off. Indeed, following a few loss- making years, APE has finally reached break- even nirvana, with some books even turning out a little butter. “It’s actually logical when you’re making over 25 books yearly, but for us the most important thing is that we can finally pay the artists,” says Jurgen. Last year, Jurgen and Caroline added a tangent to their growing independent empire with the opening of RIOT, a bookshop and contemporary art gallery. Located in a building they acquired back in 2012, it has allowed them to support their publishing practice with the kind of physical space and official releases – such as exhibitions, talks or even performances – crucial to putting out books. With the gallery, the idea is to invite artists to collaborate on temporary exhibitions, not necessarily linked to APE or graphic design, with Jurgen mostly taking on the role of curator. In many ways, this new chapter in the business’ life perfectly crystallises its many different facets, giving it a physical outlet most independent publishers could only dream of.
When APE first appeared on the scene, the market for independent artist books was still relatively at an infant stage, and the imprint can definitely lay claim to having elevated the medium both locally and internationally. Indeed, its distinctive aesthetic and uncanny voice of subject matter, as well as its many books by everyone from Max Pinckers and Pieterjan Ginkels to Stine Sampers and Erik Kessels, has made it a darling of the independent publishing world, one who has shown how to run a successful and growing business whilst retaining its independence. “The fact that we’re still small-scale gives us the opportunity to work with emerging artists and build personal relationships,” finishes Jurgen, making it clear that creative freedom comes first.