Printing under his studio roof in Germany, he prints some of the world's most beautiful art, photography and literature books by hand, personally checking off every sheet. Not only does he act as printer and publisher, but as a designer. His exceptional eye, the pursuit of perfection of his craft and commitment to quality has made him a cult figure worldwide, with a client list that includes Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel, Paolo Roversi, Carine Roitfeld, Grace Goddington to name just a few.
He creates some of the most striking work I have ever seen and it was as much surprising as it was pleasing to find that his high-end practice is economically sustainable. With Chanel as their biggest patron (who seemingly keep every independent artisan in Europe afloat), you wonder what will happen when Karl Lagerfeld’s generation retire. Will there actually be any patrons of artisan and luxury left? Even Steidl’s client-list of artists and designers were all predominantly over 70 years old and you got a sense that values of craftsmanship and community were literally going to die with them.
It also got me thinking about how our sense of luxury has changed so much. It has become so attached to brands now, with their monogrammed leather and celebrity endorsements being the measure of refinement. However when I think about luxury, I think of something that has had no corners cut, something laboured and personal, the mark of the artist, designer or artisan alive in the product in some way. It doesn’t have to be glitzy or branded, just authentic.
Immense care needs to be taken in the making of a truly great product. As Steidl shows in the film, this involves some key ingredients; time, skill, patience, a hands-on production model and of course giving a shit. Quite basic elements that are now true luxuries themselves. As we all now know, most independent value-oriented, artisanal businesses are almost completely defunct. I can’t help but feel that there’s an irony to the fact that we can’t even spend the time, money and effort needed to do our jobs properly anymore. Far from being elitist, the ‘luxury’ of being able to assemble something to a high standard seems pretty basic to me.
A few designers I know are currently studying the idea of how solo, small and self-made product companies might be sustainable in the future. It’s an interesting notion to think that after all these years of globalism and tireless capitalism, that we might all consider paring back to one or two staff members, or perhaps just the founding members. Even the concept of just selling to a local market is an interesting one. Why do you need to go global? Can you run and maintain a business with out capital? Can you make it yourself? What about quality? Why do you need to appear big? Is large scale actually more profitable? I have only questions at this point.
I guess it’s a kind of a pared back approach to luxury, which is hot-right-now in branding but remains to be seen in terms of actual business models. And that’s because it’s an extremely difficult conundrum that our generation will have to work out. With the economic numbers not adding up anymore, we’ll be faced with rebalancing the economy for decades. It will be an interesting road to see if we can continue the approach of someone like Steidl in to the future. God knows we need great things to remind us that life is worth living.
Watch the film pretty please, it’s fantastic.