Verlag Kettler

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Verlag Kettler

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Making an Imprint on the Future - 1

Making an Imprint on the Future


Kettler's publishing house and printing company have been producing top-quality art books for three generations


Gunnar Kettler is the third-generation head of a family-run business that employs more than 50 people. Kettler’s print shop in Bönen and the publishing house Verlag Kettler in Dortmund are well-connected both locally and far beyond. The company’s excellent quality and services are greatly appreciated by artists, photographers, and museums alike. In this interview, CEO and publisher Gunnar Kettler talks about the challenges and opportunities of the digital revolution, the laws of the arts scene, and the future of the printing industry.

Partial view of the print shop, 1930s.
Partial view of the print shop, 1930s.

Mr. Kettler, you are the third-generation head of this family-owned company ...

... Yes, I took over the print shop from my father in 2000. The business was founded by my grandfather, who opened a small store selling books and stationery here in Bönen in 1934. At some point, he began printing leaflets, brochures, and invitation cards using a small hand-operated printing press. In the 1960s, during the heyday of commercial printing, he ultimately gave up the stationery store to focus entirely on printing books. My father took over the company in the 1980s and continued developing it.

What has changed since you have been in charge at the printing office?

Everything. The printing industry has undergone a radical transformation in recent years. We are facing intense competition from Eastern and Southern Europe. The spread of digital technologies, the Fourth Industrial Revolution – we need to take all that into account. Customers’ demands and needs have changed. Of course, they can have products made abroad at lower costs. That is why we need to win them over not only with attractive pricing, but above all with our services, skills, and innovations. Over the last years, we have invested heavily in modern equipment, training our staff, and expanding our digital infrastructure. We are now able to offer carbon-neutral printing. In fact, we are not only a printer – we also provide comprehensive services, and we employ graphic designers, lithographers, and bookbinders. Our greatest assets are our people, as well as the fact that we are well established in the area. Our customers come in to see us at the print shop, they stand next to the press to check the accuracy of the colors. That is something that no online printing company can offer.

But it won’t be possible to stop the advance of digital technologies.

No, and that is not our objective either. After all, digital technologies also hold great potential for us. We created a dedicated department for digital printing a few years ago, over and above traditional offset printing. Last year, we added an HP Indigo 12000 to our array of presses, which is an incredibly versatile machine. Our online portal is a genuine alternative to conventional online printing companies, which for the most part only offer standardized products. By contrast, we offer a high level of customization even for very small print runs, i.e., bespoke formats, paper, and finishes. In particular, students and agencies in the areas of photography, design, and architecture value this kind of service when they commission us to print their theses and portfolios.

That means that digital printing will replace traditional offset printing?

I don’t think so. Both exist side by side and complement each other. Each method has its specific advantages. For offset, we have been using a Komori for some years now, i.e., a press with a UV coloring system. This reduces the time it takes for the printed sheets to dry, and we don’t have to use protective lacquers and powders, which allows for considerably shorter production times. In addition, it produces excellent results. The Komori makes print products that we just could not imagine before, especially in combination with metallized paper and uncoated natural paper, which is frequently used these days. Many of our customers choose us as their printer because of this very machine. We are a leader in the industry in particular when it comes to high-quality books. This is illustrated by the many awards we have won in recent years, as well as by the feedback we get from our customers.

Partial view of today
Partial view of today's print shop.

In addition to the printing company, you are also head of the publishing house Verlag Kettler.

My father was a passionate collector and maintained close ties to many artists. Early on, he collected works by artists such as Emil Schumacher, Markus Lüpertz, Günther Uecker, and Otto Piene. Ultimately, his passion became his career. The print shop began to specialize in high-quality art printing, and many artists came to Bönen to have their books produced. At some point, my father also started publishing books of his own. That was the starting point for today’s publishing house. When I took over the printing office, I continued to build up the publishing business as a second area of activity.

There must be a lot of competition in publishing?

No doubt publishing has come under intense pressure, just like the printing industry. But we made some clever decisions that allowed us to keep developing and become successful as a publisher. In 2014, the publishing company moved into a separate office in Dortmund. Of course, publishing is very different from the printing trade. The arts scene has laws of its own. You need to have an extensive network of contacts, care passionately about art, be out and about, go to exhibitions, and present your publications at fairs and events. A publisher needs to have a clear profile and good marketing. The artists need to feel they are in good hands and supported. Many artists still consider books as the ideal medium to publicize their art. As a printer, we are service providers, but as a publisher, we are partners on an equal footing. We develop ideas, identify and set trends, collaborate on the substance of a book, and engage and thrash things out with our project partners. It’s important to be passionate about your work.

That sounds like a balancing act.

Not at all. The printing office and publishing house work hand in hand. All books published by Verlag Kettler are produced at Kettler’s print shop. They are only a short distance away, and the quality is excellent. This is something that artists, photographers, and museums appreciate. They also find out about the printing office through our publishing business and entrust us to print their exhibition posters or flyers. The fact that our printing and publishing businesses are closely linked gives us an edge over our competitors who have shifted their production offshore, which means less flexibility, longer production times, and giving up control over the quality of the books.

Artist Christo with his book "Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Early Works 1958-64," published by Verlag Kettler in 2009.
Artist Christo with his book "Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Early Works 1958-64," published by Verlag Kettler in 2009.

Who does Verlag Kettler collaborate with?

When my father began to publish his first art books, it was mostly local artists. Even today, Verlag Kettler enjoys strong prominence in Westphalia and the Ruhr area. Over the last ten years, we have worked together closely with the Emil Schumacher Museum in Hagen, and we also publish the books of Baukunstarchiv NRW, which recently opened in Dortmund. We regularly cooperate with Marta Herford, Kunstmuseen Krefeld, and Museum Morsbroich. We are one of the few local art book publishers with international visibility. Other publishers moved to Berlin in recent years, but we deliberately decided against such a move. That doesn’t mean we don’t also have great international visibility. We specialize in art, photography, and architecture with a particular focus on the 20th and 21st centuries, so of course we also work together with big names on the international scene. Our prominent releases include titles by Jonathan Meese and Yves Klein, and we regularly collaborate with Christo. We have published catalogs for Bundeskunsthalle, Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, and Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul de Vence. Our international distribution partner is ACC Art Books, who is based in London and New York.

That sounds like a truly global perspective.

I have to admit that it’s gratifying to see your books on the shelves of a bookstore when you’re traveling in Japan or the US, or to be included in the shortlist of Germany’s most beautiful books by Stiftung Buchkunst. One of our titles won the 2017 Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Award – the highest international distinction in the field of photo books. Ultimately, that is our strong point. For some years, we have seen an increasing focus on regional products. For us this is nothing new, but has been our bread and butter for three generations. We are deeply rooted in our local context, while our reach extends far beyond it.

Photographer Mathieu Asselin during the ceremony of the Aperture PhotoBook Awards 2017.
Photographer Mathieu Asselin during the ceremony of the Aperture PhotoBook Awards 2017.
Published October 05, 2020


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