Talking Eds

Taking Stock of Books with Inventory Press

By Wes Del Val October 20, 2020

Always pay particular attention to books when designers are the publishers and therefore get to make all choices about them. We are in an especially rich period of small publishers doing fantastic, important books (take good news anywhere you can find it these days!), with more than a few of the best being overseen by designers.

Included in that category is Inventory Press, which Adam Michaels and Shannon Harvey co-founded in New York in 2014. Four years later, they opened an independent design and editorial studio in Los Angeles called (aptly) Inventory Form & Content (IN-FO.CO). Seeking the ideal marriage of form and content in everything they work on and create, they see the two ventures as allowing them to test different strategies for different purposes, ultimately keeping their design and editorial sensibilities at peak levels, whether they’re making books for clients or for Inventory.


From Blueprint for Counter Education, facsimile edition of 1970 original (Inventory Press, 2016).

As for what they’ve published under Inventory, these are my five favorites: Mail by Mungo Thomson; A *New* Program for Graphic Design by David Reinfurt; Steven Leiber Catalogs, edited by David Senior (co-published with RITE Editions); Mary Corse, with texts by Suzanne Hudson and Alex Bacon (co-published with Kayne Griffin Corcoran); and a facsimile of the 1970 Blueprint for Counter Education.

Support independent design and publishing. Buy a book. Share what they do. Make sure Inventory Press is on your list.

I recently had a conversation with Adam and Shannon to discuss books and design and the designing of books.

Wes Del Val: When you think about or encounter topics that excite your design mind, what besides financial realities are your criteria for determining if there is a book that can be produced?

Adam Michaels: I’ve always been most excited by books that reflect an uncommon worldview and approach—falling between disciplines and genres, or hybridizing them. Not so much as a search for novelty, but for inspiring genuinely different kinds of thought. I respect numerous publishers that are committed to an established genre and doing it very well (e.g., high-quality photo books), but we’re on a bit more of an oddball path over here. There are numerous titles that we’ve produced with a sense that no one else would have taken them on (our expanded reprint of the elaborate and obscure Blueprint for Counter Education is a good example of this).

David Reinfurt, A *New* Program for Graphic Design (Inventory Press, 2019). 

Shannon Harvey: When looking at a potential project we are also looking for a rich content range that can be shaped into a cohesive whole. Key questions for us are: does this project say something new (either in its form or content), significantly expand an existing conversation, or as in the case of Blueprint, reignite a latent radical potential?

WDV: Yes, big kudos for what you did with Blueprint. I think readers here would also be particularly interested in your book with David Reinfurt, A *New* Program for Graphic Design. How did you find the project, how has the reception been since its release last year, and did it open your own eyes to anything about the practice of the kind of design you do?

AM: In a sense, the project’s origin stretches back nearly 20 years; at the time I had recently left my job at Architecture magazine, and noticed an article by David Reinfurt in an early, then-current issue of Dot Dot Dot. As he was the sole NYC-based contributor, and I was trying to find similarly minded designers in the city, I dropped him a line. We had the first of many interesting conversations, and a short while later I began working occasionally at David’s studio O-R-G in midtown near Port Authority, both collaborating with David and working on my own projects (this eventually led to starting my former studio Project Projects, though that’s another story). Anyhow, at the time, and even more so in retrospect, I saw David’s work as among the best of early 2000s NYC graphic design; I wasn’t alone in this opinion, though I always thought the reach of the work ought to be broader.

Moving ahead 10–15 years—after establishing Inventory Press as a viable publishing platform, it occurred to me that the time was ripe for a book with David. I was aware of some of the details of his teaching, both from being a guest critic at one of his classes in Princeton, and from inviting him to speak about his Muriel Cooper research at a class I was teaching at Parsons. It seemed worthwhile to extend the reach of David’s curriculum beyond his immediate students, and I proposed the idea to him of a book directly based on his Princeton classes. He was both quickly interested, while uncertain about how to fit in the act of sitting down and writing the book—which is when we came to the whole enjoyably complex approach of compressing the three semesters of teaching into three days at the IN-FO.CO/Inventory Press studio in LA (then housed in Richard Neutra’s former studio).

Mungo Thomson, Mail (Inventory Press, 2020). 

SH: The three-day performance David gave was in front of a live audience of graphic design students, educators, and design enthusiasts. There was a real energy in the room (fueled by donuts, falafel, coffee, and juice), which we tried to capture in the informal, spoken quality of the book’s text. Between the accessibility of the content, the approachable tone of the book, and its intentionally trade-paperback-inspired cover treatment, a nicely broad audience has been interested in the title and the reception has happily exceeded our expectations. We’ve also had interest in licensing the book in China, Korea, Japan, Mexico, and Switzerland…

WDV: What have you learned, which you only could have, from publishing your own books rather than creating them with and for clients?

AM: Turns out it’s a complicated business, publishing…! That said, I found it was only occasionally possible to do what I wanted to do as a designer while depending exclusively on external commissions. While it’s exceedingly complicated to make each of our titles happen, from finding funding to selling finished books, as a designer, I’m able to engage with precisely the materials that I’m intrigued by, and believe are valuable for larger audiences.

SH: Adam and I have always been focused on the synthesis of form and content in our work (to the point where we included this in our studio name when we founded our new studio together in 2018). As designers, we find the most successful projects are those where the design and content support each other, which is only possible through a deep engagement with the work. Publishing allows us to work through and shape all aspects of a project; over time we’ve been able to hone our processes and ways of working with a close-knit group of collaborators which makes developing formal and editorial aspects in tandem possible.

WDV: Do you think younger graphic designers can become exceptional at what they do if they rarely consult physical books or know and see the industry’s rich history that is contained in them?

AM: The cultural landscape and media are vastly expanded these days, and inspiration can come from many places, formal and informal; books remain a crucial part of this for me, but I don’t doubt that other designers could come up with something amazing while coming at it from a different perspective. Knowing history is essential, though there are so many different histories to take stock of, and books aren’t always readily available or in existence.

SH: I agree, and am really excited to see new visual perspectives emerging that will surely take us to new forms of understanding. I do think the form of the book remains relevant as a tool for sharing knowledge—this has been said many times before, but the physical form of the book, the focused space is creates, and the length of argument it supports, was honed over many centuries, and has yet to be surpassed as a vehicle for preserving thought.

WDV: Are there aspects of making books from before the internet and today’s design technology which if brought back would greatly enhance any stage of the process?

Jordan Peele, Get Out (Inventory Press, 2019). 

AM: I was going to say working more slowly, on fewer projects at once, with greater focus and concentration; though on second thought, publishing has surely always been a tricky business proposition, and I have no idea whether more focused conditions would have actually been part of earlier times…

SH: I would say that in addition to more focused conditions for making the work, more focused conditions for its reception would be beneficial as well! As publishers we still rely on some degree of momentum to get the word out about our projects. This often takes the form of an exhibition, or events—moments of coming together to help readers understand a project in more detail, share it with others, and hopefully develop a meaningful (and memorable) connection of some kind. We’ve had some successful digital releases this year in terms of attendance, but I can’t help but feel like these events don’t have quite the same impact as being in a room together.

WDV: What has benefited your titles most regarding marketing and publicity? Every publisher of course still dreams of the New York Times wanting to do a big feature on a book or author of theirs, but as you well know when you seek out on the oddball path you’re often not going to get those single impactful hits.

AM: The best case scenario, at least in terms of sales, has been when we’ve been able to work with like-minded people who perhaps unexpectedly found themselves with some amount of media pull; this was certainly the case in our collaborations with Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, for which we were thrilled to receive some New York Times coverage (albeit not the bestsellers list). That said, even for our more obscure titles, we’ve been generally very happy that our books seem to find their audience.

SH: Interest in a given title of course spikes when a book is first launched, and there’s a concerted marketing effort around getting the word out. What we’ve been pleasantly surprised by is the way interest in a book can resurface over time, and inspire new projects long after a book’s release. In some cases a project might originate from an exhibition, and in some cases a book’s existence might help inspire an event. Museum of Capitalism was a catalogue for an exhibition in Oakland, California. The visibility and wide reach of the book helped the organizers subsequently secure an impressive range of venues for the exhibition around the world. Another recent book, The Detroit Printing Co-op by Danielle Aubert, originated as an exhibition that we saw reviewed online. We then worked with Aubert to translate the project into book form; and just this past week an expanded version of the exhibition is now on view at the Cranbrook Art Museum, generating a whole new audience for the project.

From Museum of Capitalism (Inventory Press, expanded 2nd edition, 2020).

WDV: What bookstores have you spent the most time browsing in their art and design sections?

SH: I had the great pleasure of working at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal for some years, which has what I would consider the best art and design focused bookstore in North America. Also housed at the CCA is a phenomenal research centre, where books are treated with the same care as objects in the collection; the bookstore’s focus was similarly broad in reach, and an incredible resource for smaller run and hard-to-find publications from Europe. Here in Los Angeles, Arcana books is our favorite resource for out-of-print and art books.

AM: I still greatly miss Skyline Books (it was on 18th St. btwn 5th & 6th Aves in Manhattan), which closed back in 2010. It was the sort of place where you would be frustrated if seeking something specific, but you would always leave with something amazing and reasonably priced. I also used to spend countless hours at St. Mark's Books (always worked close to there, and moved to the East Village partially for bookstore access…). Spoonbill & Sugartown and Mast books are great in NYC, as are Arcana and Hennessey + Ingalls in LA. More formatively, I grew up in the Chicago area, surrounded by numerous wonderful, dusty used bookstores, from which I still have numerous titles.

WDV: Have design decisions you’ve come upon in books ever made you laugh out loud at how clever or original they were?

SH: I always love when there’s some aspect of a book that breaks out of a standard format, and offers a sense of play. Bruno Munari’s play with the form of the book in particular always brings me such joy.

AM: One example that comes to mind is The Most Beautiful Swiss Books 2004 (Niggli). I was visiting Paris and stumbled upon a show of those books at the Swiss Cultural Center, and was thrilled to bring the catalogue back to the U.S. with me. The design scheme involves a large page size and a tape binding, holding together signatures printed separately for each featured book—i.e., a section of each book was shown at actual scale, actual paper, with actual printing. All of these books were difficult and expensive to track down from the U.S. at the time (same for The Most Beautiful Swiss Books volume itself)—so this was an amazing, generous resource, and must have been a feat of logistics to pull off as much it is a smart design scheme.

Danielle Aubert, The Detroit Printing Co-op (Inventory Press, 2019).

WDV: What design books in your life have you opened the most?

AM: Numerous Max Bill monographs; Designing Books by Jost Hochuli and Robin Kinross; Active Literature: Jan Tschichold and New Typography by Christopher Burke; the Willem Sandberg book designed by Jan van Toorn, as well as his own monograph. Assemblage, Environments, & Happenings, written and designed by Allan Kaprow, is currently on my desk and is an incredible object. That stuff is all from a certain canon, so I should also point out that countless records, zines, exhibitions, performances, etc., helped shape my perspective at least as much. I remain thrilled to own PiL’s Metal Box.

WDV: You’re given a tall stack of recent illustrated books from publishers which are new to you. What are the first elements you look at to see what impresses you?

AM: Signs of care and consideration, spanning from overall concept, to editing, to design, to physical materials, to printing and binding, to typesetting. Just that whatever a publisher has chosen to do, they’ve chosen to do it well—in some ways this is more impressive than attempts at the virtuosic. Beyond that, it’s wonderful to be surprised by a fresh subject and/or editorial and design approach.

WDV: So who and what is continually surprising you?

AM: Thinking of the Printed Matter NY and LA Art Book Fairs, which we’re very much missing right now (among other book fairs)—for years we’ve looked forward to seeing new titles from Primary Information, Kodoji Press, Spector Books, Roma Publications, Hardworking Goodlooking, Dent-De-Leone, Occasional Papers, and many others. I suppose it’s not coincidental that nearly all of those presses are run by, or closely associated with, book designers...

WDV: Which studios at any time in history do you wish you could have worked in?

AM: It’s an interesting question, not something I’ve really thought about; there are so many studios (and publishing houses, record labels, etc.) that I deeply admire, but see from an appreciative distance in a different time and place. I always really liked the scenes in the essential LA punk film The Decline of Western Civilization where you see some of the inner workings at Slash magazine; kind of imagine that anywhere would feel similar (people typing, talking on the phone or to each other; doing paste-up back then, or layout on the computer, etc.), but that somehow this adds up to something incredible under rare, special circumstances.

SH: I think it’s hard to know what it would really be like to work at another studio—there’s so many factors at play in a great collaboration. In terms of the conditions that might have been ideal, I’ll always remember a quote from Ken Garland about his studio comprising “designers designing”—no front desk person, no coffee runners etc… and never more than a handful of people working together at any given time. This remains our ideal too: to always stay focused on the work at hand.

comments powered by Disqus