Roger Willems is a graphic designer and the proprietor of Roma Publications, which specializes in books made with artists. In this conversation, we discuss his origins as a designer, launching a business in The Netherlands, the value of personal relationships to making books, and the importance of staying small.
Frontier: In an early interview, you said that making books with artist Piet Vloemans while in graduate school taught you the value of making books, independently, with artists. I’d like to begin by focusing on a few words in that statement. Why is working independently so important to you?
Roger Willems: When I began studying graphic design I had no clue what it could be. I went to art school and was taught painting, drawing, sculpture. But after a year of foundation work, I discovered, through a graphic design course, that I was better when responding to questions than when creating from nothing. So I took more design classes: printing techniques, typography—it was totally open and exciting.
Only in my later years at school did the push toward professionalization begin. They aimed to prepare us for a job in an agency, or something similar, and I was … disappointed. I tried my best but I wasn’t interested, at that time, in making visual identities or working in series. I began focusing more on photography and returned to socializing with art students and I became friends with a few people, including Vloemans, who was a bit older. On the side, separate from my coursework, I made photocopied zines and booklets. My graduate thesis was a series of publications that explored Vloemans’s drawings; in the end, I presented 117 of them on a table.
Working with him and with Marc Nagtzaam taught me how much I enjoyed collaborating with artists. They both make “elementary” work—drawings in black ink on white paper that fit perfectly with notions of simple reproduction and with the most basic experiences of design and distribution. Those lessons stayed with me, and I kept finding new artists to work with, as I made my way in the world and did all kinds of work for hire—mostly printed matter, but a few identities, too.
Gradually, collaborating with artists took over my life and work. Fifteen years elapsed between it being my hobby and it becoming my full-time job. All the while, I used the name Roma Publications. And it all began in school.
Fifteen years elapsed between it being my hobby and it becoming my full-time job. When you start a little band, you want to play your own songs—even if you’re only playing for a few friends.
Frontier: Can you characterize the working relationships you have today?
RW: For me, it always begins with a desire to make something new, one-to-one, with a collaborator. I work outward from personal relationships, from friendships, and try to connect as much as possible. So I give all my attention to a person and a project. There are few distortions. While audiences are important, I try to not think about them strategically; I also try to downplay or temporarily put aside institutional pressures and other restrictions. I tell myself Roma is a free space.
For a long time Roma was an active collaboration between me and artist Mark Manders, and it was therefore situated somewhere between his practice as an artist and my practice as a designer. When you start a little band, you want to play your own songs—even if you’re only playing for a few friends.
Frontier: You began in Arnhem and are presently based in Amsterdam. How has Dutch government support, which I believe historically has been generous, played a role in the “freedom” you describe?
RW: It took me a while to make my own living as an independent graphic designer, but I never had to find another job because I was also receiving government grants. They came at important moments: when I felt I needed to focus on autonomous work, especially jobs that didn’t bring in money.
The whole network behind me in the Netherlands helped me to maintain my stance and develop my independent practice. I didn’t pay lots of money for a university education, as I would have in the American system. I didn’t fall into debt. I could live cheaply. In a way, I continued as a “student” after I graduated, something that was only possible because I felt comfortable and supported. I don’t know if I could have built up Roma the same way in another place.
Frontier: Let’s return to the second half of your formulation: why is it important for you to work with artists? What can artists express in book form, or what value do they derive from books, that is harder to accomplish in their chosen mediums?
RW: It varies from artist to artist. Despite new technologies, many artists are still interested in making books, in making something physical that can find its own way in the world. It also depends, of course, on the nature of their work. Painters often think from a distance: about reproduction quality, about scale, about questions of fidelity. For photographers, of course, the book can be a perfect medium. Mark Manders makes sculptures, but we’ve nonetheless translated that work into about forty publications over the past twenty years. It’s something like an addiction. I think they also appreciate that there’s something democratic in publishing.
Frontier: How much of your work is based upon being able to meet in person with the artist? How is the current situation affecting your work? Will the books made in these months bear an imprint of the pandemic?
RW: They will, inevitably, at least a little bit. I try to think about this positively: the time and space generated by the pandemic has allowed me to take on a few larger projects that I had not previously taken up for lack of time. If a photographer friend in New York sends me two thousand images, previously I would have said, “I don’t know. Let’s talk about it when I’m in New York.” Now, in enforced isolation, I can say, “Let’s give it a try.” Ari Marcopolous and I spent a few weeks editing remotely and the eight-hundred-page book just went to print.
I miss the book fairs. I’m beginning to miss face-to-face encounters. But not quite yet.
Frontier: The other in-person activity you’ve participated in is exhibitions. Thinking spatially, in a gallery, is different from thinking in two dimensions and in a fixed sequence. Can you talk about the intellectual process of making exhibitions?
RW: Roma is kind of one big, ongoing project. I make lots of books, and make series within Roma with particular artists. Once in a while, I like to bring everything—and everyone—together, like a reunion. The exhibitions are never systematic, as I prefer to choose a few points of focus or a few artists. But I nonetheless want to show that Roma is a body of work, is me—at least every once in a while. The nicest way to do it is by putting everything in a car or a rental van, driving to the venue, and, with two or three people, lock yourself in the gallery for a week and lay it out. It’s kind of how I approach book-making.
Frontier: And what have these moments of stock-taking taught you?
RW: Well, that what I do is very intuitive. Sometimes I think, “Shit, this is going in too many directions.” Or that Roma is getting too big. There have been a few times when I became exhausted running Roma alone, as both designer and publisher. But, in the end, the exhibitions in particular have taught me that the work is always rewarding.
Frontier: It’s interesting to hear that you could have stopped Roma, because you have also said that when you feel like things are going wrong, you deliberately choose to do less. Can you talk about staying small and how that shapes your relationships?
There is no reason to go bankrupt if you keep things in proportion. I’d rather keep Roma alive and healthy and small than take a big risk and blow up the whole thing.
RW: I never envisioned Roma as a business that had to make a profit. It’s structured in such a way that if I need to do less, I can; for a long time I could survive even if I chose to only make, say, three books in a year. I saw publishing houses that oriented themselves according to abstract goals go bankrupt. Same with some printing houses.
There is no reason to go bankrupt if you keep things in proportion. My goal is to do this for as long as I can. It means growth, but not in terms of returns on in the number of employees I hire or books I publish. I’d rather keep Roma alive and healthy and small than take a big risk and blow up the whole thing.
Now that I have hired two additional people, I keep them in mind as I make decisions, of course. But we’re organized more like a small design office than a publishing house. We don’t have a publisher’s typical overhead. We don’t do the usual promotion or publicity: there is only a small amount of text on our website, we only advertise in two small art publications. We hope, instead, that people find our books organically. I do put energy into book fairs, but that’s because those events also return a lot of energy to me. I meet our audience, see the response to the books, put the artist behind the table, check out what your peers are doing. That kind of energy helps me keep the whole thing going.
Below, Willems offers a story related to some recent or capstone titles in the Roma Publications catalogue.
“Karel Martens introduced me to Mark Manders in 1993. Six years later, we became founding partners of Roma Publications. After having done many books and other printed matter together, we had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to design and publish the book Room with Broken Sentence for the Dutch Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennial, which was curated by our friend Lorenzo Benedetti. Mark managed to install the entire exhibition one month before the official opening so we could carefully do a book on time. The project was as simple as it was complex. I still own Mark’s drawing of the initial floorplan of the installation, reproduced on page 14 of the catalogue.”
“Since 2017, Roma has collaborated with the The Serving Library and publishes its Bulletins in the form of an A4-size Annual. Founded in 2011, The Serving Library was a continuation of Dot Dot Dot magazine, which was founded in 2000 by Stuart Bertolotti-Bailey. At that time Stuart and I were both living in Arnhem and shared a studio at the Werkplaats Typografie.”
One Wall a Web is the first book by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa. It grew out of a long-term conversation between us and I believe it cements Stanley’s work and his position in the field of photography. To me, it’s a good example of taking time and being precise about what you put into the world.
In 1996, when Robin Kinross’s Hyphen Press published the first edition of Printed Matter, I was Karel Martens’s assistant. Since 2013 I have been his publisher and have released Full Color, Reprint (2015), Prints (2016), Motion (2017), and, most recently, Re-Printed Matter (2019), along with a surprise black-and-white edition.
For more information, visit the Roma Publications website.
Articles and an email newsletter on creativity and purpose.