Karel Martens: counterprint

For our assignment on “Judging a Book By Its Cover”, I chose Karel Marten’s “counterprint”, a collection of Martens’ independent and non-commissioned graphic design work. The book intially jumped out to me for its simplicity, its lack of adornment, and the seemingly transparent nature of the cover (seen above). At first glance, it’s hard to tell if the cover has a very subtle print behind the typography, or if the cover is made of a semi-opaque material that starts to reveal the patterns inside the book.

Before going to the Design Library to experience the book in person, I did a little background research on Karel Martens, his design work, and this book in particular. Martens is a Dutch freelance graphic designer, who specialized in typography, but also spends time developing magazines, posters, and his “monoprints’ series. His book “counterprint” focuses on creating colorful prints out of found objects, to include wire, car parts, disks, metal scrap – just about any industrial refuse that could provide a flat surface to print with. Most often, Martens would be drawn to objects that seemed to reflect some kind of typographic value or geometric shape (when asked about his own work, he claims that he’s much more interested in numbers than in type).  These found objects are coated with a layer of ink, one color at a time, and lets the object rest on the paper for 24 hours. Its worth noting that this process does share qualities with the practice of color lithography, where limestone would be covered with ink and pressed onto paper. The next day, the object will be coated with a new ink color and pressed again. This method is inevitably slow, but exact; some prints could take days or weeks to finish, but the payoff comes in the form of incredibly precise layers of color forming gorgeous patterns. I feel that this book doesn’t necessarily mark the beginning or end of a new style, but rather catalogues a series of deeper explorations into an  area of graphic art we’ve been exposed to before- in this case, layered color printing- by an iconic designer.

The piece seen above is one of a series of designs for Dutch telephone cards. Although these pieces were commissioned, this work closely reflects the style of his personal work in monoprints. In these pieces, every digit is layered over with multiple digits of other colors. Some are distinguishable – the red 5 and 4 near the center of the card jump out at the viewer immediately – but many are so layered with other digits and colors that you can’t make them out at all.

In my first encounter with a physical copy of “counterpoints” (as pictured above – I snapped a few photos of my favorite spreads), I was immediately struck by two things. The first was that the cover was not at all how I perceived it in digital photos – it was neither partially opaque nor did it have a faded print on the cover. The cover is a thin casing of white paper finished with a somewhat waxy or plastic-y coating, marked only with “Karel Martens | counterprint”. This copy in particular had a tear along the bottom edge of the cover, a sign of a well-traveled and thoroughly appreciated book. The second quality that surprised me was how small the book was. This is probably due to my own bias about “what an art book should feel like” ; my mind immediately jumps to the feeling of a heavy tome, hundreds of pages bound together between thick cardboard, bound in fabric or finished with gloss and a jacket. This, in comparison, felt much more utilitarian, almost like a magazine, or maybe an instruction manual, but with semi-thick matte paper rather than thin glossy pages.

Which brings me to the next thing that jumped out to me about the book’s physical form: the pages were connected, or rather, uncut, at the top edge. Initially my instinct was to wedge a finger inbetween the pages and pull it out lightly, as if it were a poster spread or fold-out, but I quickly realized that the insides of these pages were blank. It took my brain a second to adjust to this new convention; as I flipped through spreads I would unconsciously try to unfold a spread, then return to turning pages two at a time. Though unique, I can’t come up with a functional reason why the pages would be printed like this. My thought here is that the impact of the “uniqueness” of this quality doesn’t outweigh the missed opportunity to include more content on the opposite sides of pages. With leaving the tops of pages connected, you essentially cut your printable area of the book in half.

After getting to spend more time with the book, I started to pay more attention to the details. A notable quality about the book is that there’s very little text, maybe enough to cover four pages. The rest of the book is made up entirely of Karel Marten’s bright multicolored prints. The next thing I began paying more attention to was the precision of the reproductions of Marten’s prints onto the pages. The colors are vibrant, the lines are crisp, and there’s virtually no amount of bleeding or misprinting (at least to my eye – the last observation is subjective). The forms of prints vary from page to page; some take up an entire spread, other spreads (like the one I photographed on the last page) display two vastly different prints to display the wide breadth of possibilities within Marten’s seemingly simple approach to print-making.

The questions I have about the book have mostly to do with the format, the style of printing, and the brevity. One of the quotes from Martens that stuck out to me when reading more about him was this: “I am a strong believer in the power of absence, so that you suggest things instead of showing them.” I’d like to assume that the small format and utilitarian nature of counterprint reflects Martens’ own feelings about design. What the book lacks in printed word and information, it more than makes up for in visual art content. The prints featured in the book are brilliant and intricate, but also simple in the means of production. The format of the book is approachable to a new reader, but upon diving into its pages, suggests an endless amount of possibilities.

Discussion — One Response

  • Krithika Sathyamurthy 02/17/2018 on 11:21 PM

    I’m a fan of Karel Martens — when you have a chance, check out this short documentary (https://vimeo.com/31486228 ) on him.

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