14.04.2016 carla duschka
Photo © Sven Ehlers

Katja von Ruville is an established designer and artist from Frankfurt am Main. Her work has been highly respected for many years and she has a number of Best German Book Design awards to show for it. While she is the go-to book designer of many German publishers, she also dedicates a considerable amount of her time to personal projects, such as a series of unique items of jewellery – “grassgrün”. In recent years she has also produced various sculptures and objects of which she stages regular exhibitions. 
Katja has given a number of seminars and workshops in Romania on the subject of book design. 
We caught up with her shortly before this year’s Leipzig Book Fair to ask her a few questions. The result is this substantial interview, full of sincerity and warmth, making for an extremely pleasant read. 

CARLA DUSCHKA How do you see a book as a whole and what is it you love so much about book design? 
KATJA VON RUVILLE Book design for me is a wonderful combination of intellectual and creative challenges – of handcraft, working with computers and, above all, tangible results. I love that it makes me familiar with such a wide variety of different texts and therefore broadens my horizons. The projects I did last year, for example, transported me back to the Japan of 1,000 years ago and the world of 18th- and 19th-century children’s toys. I enjoy creating the layout for a book, which, just like art, begins with the empty page or the blank document. The solution is never there from the beginning, it always needs time to evolve. I then enjoy working by hand, typesetting one page after the next. This can sometimes seem like a monotonous task, but it has a meditational side to it that I particularly enjoy after the research and layout stages. Then there’s choosing the material, touching the paper, selecting the binding linen and the embossing, and, finally, holding the finished product in your hand – that’s really satisfying.






Sei Shōnagon, Kopfkissenbuch, Manesse Verlag, 2015





Thomas Stauss, Frühe Spielwelten, LIBRUM Publishers & Editors, 2015


CD Are you happy in your profession? In today’s world full of gadgets and apps, you sometimes get the feeling that making printed books is considered old-fashioned and boring, old school even. How do you see this?
KvR Today, more than ever, I think it’s a wonderful gift to be able to work on something you can physically hold in your hand. Working by hand is on the rise again. And there’s always been a trend towards do-it-yourself. You read in magazines about how to mix your own laundry detergent – I just read about that in the latest edition of The Weekender while on my way to Leipzig Book Fair. As human beings we need to use our sense of touch, we need to be able to access all our senses to stop us from going crazy. I realised this at university. The title of my thesis was Von Sinnen [“Of the Senses”] and it was an exploration in book form of the five senses. (Incidentally, a copy of my thesis is currently on display in the Klingspor-Museum in Offenbach.) So, that’s why I don’t see book design as being old school, and, rather, as something particularly suited to today’s world.
We already had lectures about e-books when I was at university. They warned us that what we were studying would soon be dying out. And is it dying out? No, quite the opposite. The students’ enthusiasm for designing books remains undiluted.




Katja v. Ruville, von Sinnen, diploma thesis, 1995

CD In your opinion, what qualities do you need to become a good book designer? Did your education and university degree help, or did you learn more on the job and from your many years of experience?
KvR All these things come together. I learned a lot at university, both in terms of a technical understanding of typography and typesetting, and in terms of free thinking in design. My teacher, Hans Peter Willberg, was not in the slightest bit dogmatic. He taught us the fundamentals and then had us experiment. It was a lot of fun.
But then without my year as a production manager at S. Fischer Verlag, I wouldn’t know that much today. The world of book design and book production is big, it’s not something you can teach or learn in just a couple of semesters. I didn’t know how to calculate book cost, how to make typesetting rules and corrections, how to make layout indications or how to use proofing symbols. I only learned how a publishers works by working at one. It was an incredibly important step in my career, not least because it was also where I got to know a lot of different people, many of whom I still work with today. The world of publishing is small. Once you’re in, you’re in.
So, by the time I’d left these two “schools”, I was already an accomplished designer. But it was only when I first began doing my own projects that I became the book designer I am today. It was a further step forward for me, and it made me more confident and relaxed.

CD How much security, or insecurity, is there for a freelancer working in Germany today? What relationship do you have with the German publishers? Do you prefer working with some more than others?
KvR Things are not easy at the moment. Some designers continue to earn a decent living, while others are struggling. Publishers are under enormous pressure. This, in my opinion, has to do with the fundamental change taking place in society. In the past, everyone knew that the German word for publisher, Verlag, came from the verb vorlegen, meaning to pay up front, so you needed significant working capital to run a publishing business, and that in no circumstances could you expect to make a profit. Publishers would invest the money and would be happy just to break even. That’s how they financed books and paid people’s salaries. But there are hardly any independent publishers left in Germany today. They all belong to publishing groups and are run just like any other business. They are expected to make a profit and they all have to cut costs. They commission far fewer books and are just as miserly when it comes to the printing and binding costs. This jeopardises the printers as well as us book designers.
The market will change. The market for book design will shrink and the demand for good book design will come from a completely different place. Books won’t die out, but they will only be commissioned and produced by others.
But even if there is a cold wind coming our way, I still like all the people I work with in publishing houses. The industry refuses to let the current hardships affect things on a personal level. I’ve always seen it as a great privilege to work with such great people at all the publishers I work with.

CD What’s your opinion of Best German Book Design and Best Book Design from All Over the World? How important are these competitions for you and what did it mean for you to win? What importance does this competition have for Germany as a whole? 
KvR As students this competition was our benchmark and winning the be-all and end-all. We did our level best to produce the most beautiful books and envied those who won prizes. Today, having long since been prize-winners, we’re a lot more relaxed about it. I still see it as a great accolade, but I no longer take being eliminated so seriously. Having myself been on the jury, I know how close the decisions can be and I’ve become less harsh in my opinion of the competition.
On a national level, the competition is only really known of within the industry itself. That’s probably because we’re not such a design-orientated country as, say, the Netherlands is. I find this a great shame. I’d like more attention paid to the competition in Germany.
Incidentally, I’m very happy to see that this competition has also been held in Romania for some years now, and that in 2015 a Romanian book won an honorary mention in the international competition. This says a lot about the development and appreciation of book design in Romania. A lot has been achieved since we held our first seminars in Romania back in 2003. There was always plenty of talent in Romania, but you lacked the necessary platform.
I find the international competition particularly exciting, as it opens up a whole new world to us. I really love looking at the books in the international competition in Leipzig.

CD And how do things look from the point of view of a jury member, something you’ve been on multiple occasions?
KvR As I said above, naturally I have a better understanding of the work of the jury since becoming a member.
The first jury stage is a really hard slog, as you have to look at so many books, though it’s still very easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. Making the selection for the second round, however, comes with great responsibility. You have to be careful not to overlook a potential winner, especially as some design concepts are harder to decipher than others. The second jury stage is great, because you are almost only looking at well-designed books. And you get to discuss a lot about the design and content of the books, which is something I really enjoy. Being on the jury is certainly not easy, and the decisions are hard, given the high standards we find at this stage. But since there are always seven of us in the second jury stage, I always stand by the results. You cannot put forward your own personal favorites, if the others don’t agree, which is a sad but it’s the right way. The most beautiful books are always chosen by majority decision.

CD Is there a clear division between art and design? Or is it more a collaboration of the two? You have your own art projects while also designing unique items of jewellery. Do these activities complement each other, or are you looking to balance one against the other?
KvR Of course, art and design are different disciplines. But they’re also closely related. And this is just as true when you’re learning. There’s a lot of overlap between the fundamentals they teach you; this is something I have particularly noticed since I began attending classes at the Städelschule Adult Education Programme in 2011. As a trained designer, I bring a lot of basic knowledge with me. The difference lies in the application and the fact that both book layout and design are services. We serve the content of the book, while we work for the client.
In my case both seem to complement each other perfectly. On the one hand, I’m much more relaxed than an ordinary service provider would be, because I’m able to let off steam by working on my own projects. I’m no longer as sensitive when it comes to corrections – as a very young designer I used to take it as a personal insult. On the other hand, I now design better since I started my own independent art projects.


grassgrün jewellery – schneeweißchen und distelgrün series, 2013


grassgrün jewellery – waldaugen, 2014

grassgrün jewellery – laut und leise, 2015


leaving traces, Kachel_08, 2015, ∅ 25 cm, porcelain, black rice, pigment, glaze


Quadratserie_05, 2014, 30 × 30 cm, plaster, sago, wood 


Quadratserie_09, 2014, 30 × 30 cm, resin, pigment, mung beans, wood 


sorg Installation, 2014, 120 cm  25 cm × 45 cm 
eggplant, plaster, tapioca

CD Where do you get your energy from? What things, people, events inspire you?
KvR That’s something that has changed. As a young designer, I was always on the move, I had to be everywhere, to see everything; I’d be at the Forum Typografie conference every single year. That’s not so important anymore. Now I look more to have some down-time – so I can process whatever it is I’m researching. I now understand much better that taking breaks and “leaving ideas to sit for a couple of days” are all part of the creative process.
I take my inspiration from nature. You can see this in my work with jewellery, where I treat and cast things found in nature. The variety of forms that occur in nature is simply unbelievable and so inspiring. Sometimes I wonder why we humans try so hard to develop new forms and designs. Nature always outdoes us.  
Sometimes I do strange things, just to clear my head. I go into a crowded Asian food store and take inspiration from green-coloured noodles and weird-shaped sweets. Or I climb to the top of the highest tower building in Frankfurt to look down at the world from above. That’s my inspiration, that’s where I have my best ideas. And, of course, art is also my inspiration. A trip to the Museum of Modern of Art is always a feast.
When it comes to book design, my only fixed dates during the year are the two book fairs, in Leipzig and Frankfurt, and the class reunion with my former fellow students and colleagues. We have remained friends and meet up once a year to exchange experiences at Friedrich Forssman’s place in Kassel. I wouldn’t miss that for the world.


CD How much time do you get on average to work on a book? Can you make a living in Germany from designing books alone?
KvR That really depends. Some projects last three to four months, or even half a year; others are over in a month or two. Naturally, it depends on the subject matter and the level of complexity. I get work because I’m able to design and set the type quickly, and I don’t grumble when revisions come in just before going to print. I also get work because of my staying power and because I’m not afraid to do four rounds of corrections of over 400 pages. I like this mix of short sprints and long-distance running. And I like that the world of publishing works to very civilised schedules and you can plan projects properly. It’s the polar opposite of the advertising industry, in which I wouldn’t like to work.

CD During a workshop in Romania you mentioned that it only made sense to accept a commission if a minimum of two out of three criteria are met: fun, fame and money. Do you still believe this? Do you have anything to add?
KvR That’s a principle that Olaf Leu instilled in us at university and which helps you decide which jobs to accept and which to refuse when there’s plenty of work around.
We often get requests from people who for various reasons are not able to pay much for our services. In these cases it helps to ask whether the project will bring fame (for example, a project in which you have a lot of creative freedom to make a beautiful book) and whether, in addition, it will be enjoyable. If so, then you can well take the job on. Jobs from clients who pay badly, but still make themselves a nuisance and ask for lots of corrections, and which don’t bring you much fame should be refused. With underpaid work you also can make it clear from the outset that a reduced price means a reduced level of service – only one draft, one proofing pass and the client must format the text properly beforehand so the typesetting goes smoothly.

I still find this a useful principle to have – except, that is, in crisis situations and when there’s not much work about. Then, naturally, you should only accept commissions that pay well and refuse the fun/fame projects. At the end of the day, we have to be able to pay the rent on the studio.



M.Lenz, Offene Unruh, S.Fischer, 2010

All images © Katja von Ruville


English version Samuel W. Onn
carla duschkaattended the graphic arts department at the University of Arts Bucharest and studied book design at the Weissensee Kunsthochschule Berlin. She works as a graphic designer at Atelierul de grafica Bucharest and is assistant lecturer at theUniversity of Arts. CD is co-founder of the GF project.
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