Conversation: Roger Willems, Roma Publications
If there’s an idea that resonates throughout my conversation with Roger Willems – graphic designer, publisher and founder of the quietly esteemed Roma Publications – it’s that a book is never just a book. Across an output spanning the best part of two decades, the Amsterdam-based imprint has published almost 300 books and editions that have subtly and propositionally tested the boundaries of what the printed form can achieve.
The individual results are a little more difficult to frame. Working alongside a loose community of protagonists across contemporary photography, art and the more lateral, process-oriented ends of graphic design, Roma’s visual, material and design languages speak to notions of continuity, reactiveness and progression, yet do so at a whisper. Willems’ ongoing collaborations with leading Belgian contemporary photographers such Jan Kempenaers (most famed for his 2010 book Spomenik and 2016’s Composite, which both pictured the striking Tito-commissioned abstract war monuments of the former Yugoslavia) and Geert Goiris (including the 2013 monograph Lying Awake and the out-of-print artist books Proliferation and Prophet) have resulted in some of the most astute and widely lauded photobooks of recent years. His long-term collaborations with artists such as Mark Manders – who, for many years, was a partner in the Roma endeavour – and Marc Nagtzaam, not to mention his wife and creative partner Batia Suter (see the much lauded Parallel Encyclopedia 2 from 2016) and leading Dutch photographer Dana Lixenberg (see the the 2017 Deutsche Börse Foundation Prize-winning epic Imperial Courts), have helped cement Roma’s reputation as a publishing house of great significance and sensitivity.
Founded in Arnhem in 1998 as a means to publish a book for Nagtzaam’s presentation for the Prix de Rome prize, the name Roma quite humorously found its basis in the first two letters of Willems’ and Nagtzaam’s given names, Roger and Marc. Willems and Manders would later establish Roma as a foundation in 2003, before Willems – a one-time assistant to legendary Dutch designer Karel Martens – relocated his design practice and the Roma studio to Amsterdam in 2004. Working alongside designer and publisher Hans Gremmen (of Fw:Books fame), who occupies the studio upstairs, Willems has since carved out his own space for an imprint that operates “more like an ideological platform” than a business.
During a recent visit to Roma’s Amsterdam studio, we spoke about the publishing house as an allegory for a network of friendships, the “luxury” of staying small, and the “gentle” manner in which books find their way into the world.
Dan Rule: Roma Publications has been incredibly prolific in recent years. You published around 30 books in 2016. You can’t still have the same level of involvement in every title. As someone who has built Roma from the ground up, is it difficult letting go?
Roger Willems: I say no to many things, so it’s still a very small selection or percentage of projects that we publish. I only feel good and feel that it’s right if I’m really comfortable with everyone involved. Making a book with Karel Martens, for example, is very nice because I’ve known him for such a long time and I’m proud that I can bring his book into the world. But I don’t feel comfortable if there are too many titles, because then I don’t feel attached to them anymore. If I’m at a book fair and have 30 books on the table, but only know 10 in real detail, then I feel insecure and I can’t really work with it. On the other hand, it’s also a luxury that I don’t have to design everything myself, because the publishing itself takes a lot of time, especially these more intense collaborations.
DR: When I visited you here in the studio a few years ago, I remember you talking about this idea of the “luxury”, as you put it, of staying small. I’m really attracted to that notion, especially in the scope of publishing.
RW: If you grow as a publisher, you need more people, more money, more funding, and then you get into this cycle where you need to produce more and more books. My rule is that if I feel like the situation is going wrong, then I do less. That’s my philosophy: if it’s a struggle, you don’t solve it by producing more, but rather by producing less. But you can only do that if you don’t have people on the payroll and your costs are low and your fixed expenses are not bigger than the income generated by the backlist. If you can keep all of that in balance, then it’s relaxed. You only need to think about opportunities, without that pressure.
DR: The notion of gradually growing a backlist is a lovely idea. As the backlist grows, the imprint begins to – quite organically – support itself.
RW: I also love the fact that a lot of the books haven’t sold out and people can still discover them – even something from 2001. Also, that all these books over all these years are part of one project is a nice idea. That’s something that doesn’t work when you produce 100 titles a year. I always try to make sure our new output relates to older publications, like the slowly growing series. The collaborations with Geert Goiris, for example – these are the ideal projects for me. They have a long history and people can follow it and perhaps discover another series simultaneously or other connected artists. Jan Kempenaers is another long-term collaborator, as is Marc Nagtzaam and Mark Manders.
DR: I’d like to hear a little more about these relationships with artists and the collaborative back-and-forth.
RW: With Geert in particular, I started by doing some small prints and editions in 2003 or 2004. These were on the Roma list, but were not distributed books; rather they were leporellos, posters or other editions. But this is how I got to know Geert, by producing these more exhibition-related publications. As time went on, there was this tension growing that there should be a book. That’s what you see quite often: an artist or a photographer feels that it has become time to create a book that really covers a body of work.
For us, it took a long time because Geert didn’t want to show-off in a way and he didn’t want to force the process. He was very busy, but he wanted to be very precise, so this was kind of quite a load on our shoulders, to make this first book, which was Lying Awake. Once that major book appeared, it opened up new possibilities to make Proliferation and Prophet and this more limited, project-specific series of books. It allowed us to loosen up and be quite free about it. I feel like we found a good formula with Proliferation and Prophet. It is encouraging to me that they are both sold out. It becomes a self-fulfilling process: the book just becomes a way of distributing your ideas.
DR: I feel as though there’s a very subtle, almost elusive visual language to a Roma Publications book. Are you able to articulate a set of aesthetics or attitudes that populate one of your books?
RW: I am aware of a visual language, but I also try and ignore it. Instead, I try to keep the circumstances and relationships surrounding the publication right. I know where Roma’s aesthetic comes from: it’s a combination of a design tradition – with examples of Karel Martens and others – a Dutch tradition of book making, and an affinity with artists who are not so much shouting about theory, but rather concentrating on working on the same thing for a long time and continuing their practice in an almost monomaniac or autistic way. I feel very comfortable with that kind of practice and this certain level of abstraction.
So it’s about tradition and affinity and friendships, but at the same time I realise when I look around me – outside of Roma – that it’s very hard to create these circumstances. The artists are struggling, the publishers are struggling, everyone is under pressure. But I try and work with these people and with my own ideas about design, without this pressure, as if we are completely free and can do what we want.
DR: So tell me about that process a little more…
RW: Well, I might come to Belgium or Jan [Kempenaers] might come to Amsterdam and we will talk about the work and about books with entire freedom. We don’t talk about the funding or the logos. I try to keep that away from the process of conceiving a book. This is something that creates a kind of atmosphere, which is also my sort of monomaniac approach.
I have set a goal for myself. If you look at the normal commissions you can get as a designer, I know I could make more money, but I also know that I am far less happy in that environment than in my own environment within Roma. My goal is to keep this going for as long as I can still work. This idea of happiness is something that makes a lot of things possible, because if you have this in mind, you don’t distract from your goal. All the time, I have this in mind and then at the end of each year, I’ll have 10 or 20 beautiful publications. Not everything will be the same quality, but that doesn’t matter. You take risks and you never know in advance what exactly is going to happen. But you’ll always have a good feeling afterwards and have enough resources to continue. It sounds very simple, but it’s quite a task.
DR: It’s a life project rather than a strictly creative or intellectual one…
RW: It started as a hobby, a side-project, which very slowly evolved into my core business. I hardly do other jobs now and I don’t teach, but I have to make my living out of it. Because I’ve done it since 1998, I know a little bit about what I have to do to make it possible. I would have problems if I didn’t have good collaborators. It’s something you have to take time to do, because there’s no all-or-nothing in this business. It’s not even a business, really. It’s something that you have to try and make possible. It’s better if you take a lot of time and that you really get to know why you enjoy it.
DR: I feel like Roma Publications is almost like a metaphor for a wider network of relationships and like-mindedness. Tell me about the Roma Publications exhibition you curated at Fondazione Giuliani, Rome, in 2014.
RW: It’s very important, once in a while, to share this wider project with people. There are all these individual books and collaborations with artists and many of them know of each other, but they are sometimes, without knowing, part of this bigger thing. It was a really fantastic moment to celebrate Roma as a kind of reunion. People notice, also, what the entire project feels like. This is something that I direct – and I direct with the artists – but over the years I’m the only person who has Roma in his mind all the time. So when I think about Roma and I think about a particular book or have a meeting with someone, I always carry that with me as my reference and my guide. Sometimes I forget that this is not so clear for other people.
The idea of showing all this in the form of a group exhibition and inviting artists to join and show work that relates to the books gives us a chance to share that experience, which is the driving force of the whole thing. It’s not always physical and not necessary to show all the time, but it’s good to express it once in awhile. It feels like you are sharing something really in-depth together, like an attitude, almost like a political statement, but without using any words. It’s more about showing its presence and continuing on. Luckily the books are also an economic machine in their own right.
DR: What is Mark Manders’ involvement in Roma these days?
RW: Mark is too busy with his art work, which is just going so well, so he cannot spend much energy on Roma at the moment and he is not as active as he was, but it’s certainly not over between us. He’s a great inspiration because he is so stubborn in his beliefs and he is still very important because of the whole history together, the way he can still respond very freshly to things
The upside of Mark stepping back a little is that I have started to see the other artists more often and become more involved with them and I have a bit more space for them. Marc Nagtzaam is the one who I have been working with for the longest time – even before Mark Manders – so for me he is a very steady base and I discuss more things now with him than I do with Mark Manders. He put together the exhibition in Rome with me.
DR: Tell me about your relationship with Hans Gremmen of Fw:Books. You share the same building; you work on similar projects; you do book fairs together. Is it refreshing to have a like-minded practitioner in the same space, so as to bounce ideas back and forth?
RW: It’s more than refreshing. For me, it’s super important to have Hans around. I don’t know how you say it, but it’s more like family. We’re very, very good friends. It gives me a foundation. When I come to the studio in the morning, we have a chat and a coffee, and if he’s not there for three days I really miss him. He’s also calling me sometimes – like, ‘Hey, are you coming in today?’
With Marc and Mark, I always have these very intense conversations about the content, but not so much on the practical level of the working day. Whereas with Hans, we can leave each other to be perfectly free in the choices we make in terms of content, but on a practical level and in a daily routine, we support each other immensely. If the bell rings and there are three boxes to bring inside from the post or a courier that I can easily bring in myself, he will still run down to help. And when he has something, I help him. It’s so essential. Otherwise, you just feel lonely. It’s really a very, very important thing to feel that you’re doing things not alone and you can count on friends.
DR: How did the relationship develop?
RW: When I graduated, I began teaching and Hans was one of my first students. I didn’t really treat him as a student because he was very independent, and I just said ‘Do what you need to do. If you want to show up to the lessons, it’s fine, but if not, it’s also fine’. Then he also took an internship with me and we travelled to New York together to do something with Mark [Manders]. Then he joined us in Arnhem and we shared studios and since then we have always been in the same neighbourhood. Now, all my kids’ clothes go to Hans’ kids.
DR: I feel like you’ve already answered my next question, but I would like to ask it anyway. What do you understand as a publisher’s job? What is it to be a publisher, beyond this idea of an expanded attitude?
RW: I certainly do have an opinion about how publishers should work. Many people approach me and I cannot be their publisher for whatever reason, and many people would like to make a book. So a publisher must be able to make a good selection that makes sense, and take care of good distribution. We could do with a few more good publishers. I think our concept is maybe a little bit of a strange concept. It’s not something you can decide to create, but more something that grows organically. But I think it’s also important to have a vision and an idea of what you want to be like as a publisher
DR: There’s that wonderfully covert aspect of publishing too. Books allow an artist or publisher to gradually make their way into the wider discourse. It’s not like having a huge exhibition that only lasts for a month. Books kind of make their way out into the world slowly.
RW: That’s the really great thing about it, and it is a great return. That is the main reason for making books – the gentle way they can be distributed and the life they can have. Something that really gives me a good feeling is when I see a book that I made more than 10 years ago in a second-hand bookstore. You can see that it has been touched and handled and sometimes it’s a bit damaged. I see an increasing beauty in that. It’s not something that I look for, but it just happens sometimes.
When I see the blue Mark Manders book [Coloured Room with Black and White Scene, 1999] in an antiquarian bookstore or at a flea market, I know that it still has 100 years left. That’s a beautiful feeling. I like that the books are getting older and changing, just like we are.
Text: Dan Rule
An earlier version of this interview was published in Photofile #97: The Photobook Issue.
Perimeter x Heavy is an editorial collaboration exploring contemporary photography, art, design and their various relationships to the published form. Produced in-house by the team at Melbourne-based bookstore, publisher and distribution house Perimeter and Sydney-based photography magazine and online platform The Heavy Collective, Perimeter x Heavy comprises book reviews, interviews, studio visits and features. While further expounding the published output of artists who feature across both Perimeter and Heavy's inventories, the platform aims to provide thoughtful insights into the wider here and now of contemporary publishing practice.