Malkit Shoshan. 010 Publishers 2010

The most beautiful book in the world by Jana Huisman

Each year the prizes for “the best designed books from all over the world” are awarded at the Leipzig Book fair. A report from the award ceremony, including an interview with the author and the designer of the prize-winning book.

Amidst stands of various art academies, 20 meters from the “Antiquariatsmesse” (antiquarian fair) at the heart of the buch+art section of the Leipzig Book Fair, lay the stand of the Stiftung Buchkunst: a German foundation with the sole goal of promoting excellence in book design.

On Friday the 18th of March, the stand was changed into a small theater, accommodating the award ceremony of the “Schönste Bücher aus aller Welt” competition (“The best designed books from all over the world”). The 14 prizes (Golden Letter, Gold medal, 2 Silver medals, 5 Bronze medals and 5 Honorable Mentions) are awarded annually since 1963 and are considered the most high-ranking awards for book design worldwide.

A total of 596 books from 32 countries were sent in for the competition, all of them previously judged and awarded in their respective countries.  From these 596 books an independent international jury selected the 14 most beautiful and exemplary in design, conception and manufacturing.

The award ceremony

The award ceremony was opened on a serious note: in a rapidly changing world and with the rise of the eBook, many publishing houses are redefining their marketing strategies and their position regarding excellent book-design. The resources for the book-design contest are being curtailed, forcing the contest to enact higher participation and catalogue fees. “If it gets better when it changes I don’t know, but that it must change to get better, that’s a fact.” said Thedel von Wallmoden, director of the publishing houses Suhrkamp- and Inselverlag. “Do not greet these changes with resistance, but please help us through your interest and continued submissions to the contest. […] But now let the festivities begin: let’s celebrate beautiful books and excellent book-design!”

The whole opening ceremony of this international competition was held in German. Only after half an hour the first words were spoken in English: “Welcome to our international guests and award winners”, said Uta Schneider, the managing director of Stiftung Buchkunst. As the spokeswoman of the Jury she presented the rest of the award ceremony. Quoting from the jury report, she said: “Worldwide book production seems to have slowed down. This years submissions were more sober than in preceding years. They do not leap to the eye, but are excellent in a quiet way, grand after a closer look.”

Although this is an international competition, 13 of the 14 awards went to European books: four went to the Netherlands, three to Germany and Switzerland respectively, and the Czech Republic, Poland, Austria and China received one each. This raised the question whether book-design is indeed more important in western countries, or if the composition of this year’s Jury, consisting of six Europeans and one Australian, had a deciding influence. Whatever the answer to that question is, this year’s winner of the Golden Letter is a beautiful book named: “Atlas of the Conflict”.

Atlas of the Conflict

To quote the jury: “For more than 10 years, Malkit Shoshan, an Israeli architect, has worked on the question of how to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict visual […] In the past few years, designer Joost Grootens has collaborated with Shoshan to transform her work into a book for 010 Publishers (a Rotterdam based publishing house). The success of this collaboration of two designers, each with their own perspective and expertise, can clearly be seen in the result, the “Atlas of the Conflict.”

But the jury ruled thus only after receiving an email from Shoshan; originally the prize was awarded solely to Grootens, leading to a conflict between Shoshan and her publishers. To award both is an elegant solution and a fair change, because – as is a central value in modernistic design – form follows function. Design and content go hand in hand, when executed well, amplifying another to great height. Nowhere is this clearer than in “Atlas of the Conflict”.

The main components of this book are the innumerable maps and graphs documenting the becoming of the state Israel. Malkit Shoshan, author of the book, started this project in 2001 as an architecture student in Israel.  “During my studies, I developed a need to understand the events that led to the formation of Israel and later, to take a personal and professional position in it. […] I am an architect, I design space. But one cannot design space without relating to the space and its history.” This drove Shoshan to collect visual materials and draw maps documenting the spatial movements of Israel: she made a territorial analysis, shaped by a complex geopolitical, ideological and human context. asked Joost Grootens, designer of the book, how he got involved in this project, and how he proceeded with the design: “Shoshan approached the publisher and then the publisher approached the printers and me because we had already worked together successfully on a number of different atlases”, Grootens explains.

“My design bureau (7 people) has been working on this for a total of 3 000 hours over the course of 3 years.  […] We have experimented with the colors and type of paper for quite some time. To present the maps as a coherent and strong image we printed the entire atlas in two colors: one for each side of the conflict. We also had to make sure that when printed on top of each other they would make black, for the text. In the end we chose blue for Israel, because it’s the color of the Israeli flag, the color that’s printed on top and brown for Palestine, because brown is the color of the earth and the source, the native people.”

The final words were for Shoshan. When asked her what would be next, she told us: “I’m still not finished with this project, I will never be. A lot of new information is available due to Wikileaks, and there are a lot of new maps to be made. Not only about the Israel-Palestine conflict: the same analytic method can be used on the conflicts in Georgia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo among others.”