Wilhelm Oehl’s infatuation with artist edition books and finely produced art and design books began with a humble business card. The principal and partner at Eight Inc, the retail design firm behind brands including Apple and Virgin Atlantic Airways, was introduced to a contemporary fine book and letterpress publisher, Arion Press, by his business partner to have their cards printed, and the spark was ignited. “I visited the press in 1997, and we soon started purchasing some of their books as gifts for our clients,” says German‑born, San Fransisco-based Oehl (pictured above right).
Soon after, he began buying Arion’s contemporary artist edition books for himself – starting with Invisible Cities (1999, $1,750) by Italo Calvino, with 12 drawings by Wayne Thiebaud, and The World is Round (1986, purchased for the original price of $200) by Gertrude Stein, with art by Clement Hurd. “Then I became a subscriber, which allowed me to have a replenishment of these beautiful books twice or three times a year.” Twenty years later, Oehl is now a board member of the Grabhorn Institute, Arion’s nonprofit organisation created in 2000 to preserve the historic letterpress printing operation that Arion Press uses.
These exquisitely produced tomes proved to be the springboard for what is now Oehl’s library of more than 500 beautifully crafted books about design and photography and those featuring original art. Andrew Hoyem (pictured far left), the creative force behind Arion Press, has been instrumental in helping him build this collection, of which Arion books make up around 10 per cent. “Fine books do not depend on using luxurious or rare materials or a particular printing technology – handwriting and photocopying have been famously used in artistic books,” says Hoyem. “But there should be no design formula: every single element of the book – scale, paper, text, artwork – should be thought through, with the goal of them coming together perfectly. One holds a fine book and is aware that myriad small decisions went into its creation.”
Hoyem founded Arion Press in 1974, but it was not until 1981 that the publishing company launched its first series of artist books – specially illustrated re-editions of rare or iconic books – starting with The Apocalypse, from the King James version of the Bible, with woodblock prints by artist Jim Dine. Since then, the press has produced at least one limited-edition artist book per year (in runs of 100 to 400, or around 40 for those with additional art prints, which can cost up to $10,000), working with the likes of Jasper Johns (who illustrated Poems by Wallace Stevens, 1985), Richard Diebenkorn (whose drawings graced Poems of WB Yeats, 1990), Robert Motherwell (for James Joyce’s Ulysses, 1988) and, more recently, Kara Walker (for the libretto of Porgy & Bess).
Oehl and Hoyem meet about every other month for Grabhorn Institute board meetings, but also at events and art openings – and on his extensive travels, Oehl often seeks out exhibitions by contemporary artists whose work Hoyem has introduced him to, such as William Kentridge and Julie Mehretu. Over the years, as Hoyem has imparted his passion for art, design and typography, Oehl’s interest in finely printed books has broadened.
Hoyem has specifically pointed Oehl towards favourite typography books by the great German type designer Rudolf Koch, who took the Arts and Crafts movement into the 20th century. These include Koch’s Das Zeichenbuch (The Book of Signs, Gerstung, 1936), Das Blumenbuch (The Flower Book, Insel-Verlag, 1930) and Das ABC-Büchlein (The Little ABC Book, Insel-Verlag, 1934). These iconic books now form the cornerstone of Oehl’s design collection, which has a strong emphasis on Arts and Crafts, furniture and product design, and also features finely printed art editions by more mainstream names such as Gestalten, Taschen and Phaidon.
More recently, Hoyem recommended contemporary artist Gaylord Schanilec’s Lac Des Pleurs (Midnight Paper Sales, 2015, $7,800, pictured above), a beautifully illustrated book made using centuries-old woodblock printing. Other sources for Oehl’s collection include niche bookstores such as William Stout Architectural Books.
Prized possessions include the two-volume edition of Don Quixote (Arion, 2009, purchased for $4,000), which includes 97 prints by artist William T Wiley; Godot (Arion, 2006), with hand-coloured prints also by Wiley; and a 1996 Gaetano Pesce colour-printed, illustrated exhibition catalogue with a resin cover (Centre Georges Pompidou). These sit alongside out-of-print works such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971-1995: The Project Book (Taschen, 1995) and The Story of Eames Furniture (Gestalten, 2010, collectable editions of which now fetch up to £1,000). “No two books are alike,” says Oehl. “There may be similar techniques, but the difference is in the binding, the materials used for the exterior, the types of paper, the fonts, the artists… it’s such a pleasure going through them. I don’t buy and collect them because I want to read them front to back. I’m coming more from an artistic or creative angle – appreciating the materials’ qualities.”
On his wishlist is a copy of Moby-Dick, or The Whale, printed by Arion in 1979 and illustrated with 100 wood engravings by Barry Moser, and Squarings (Arion, 2003), comprising 48 poems by Seamus Heaney with 48 drawings by Sol LeWitt, signed by poet and artist. “I buy with my heart and follow my instinct,” says Oehl. Financial appreciation is not a primary consideration (“I enjoy the books – touching them, looking at them”), despite substantial price increases for limited-edition art books on the secondary market. Indeed, outstanding examples include the Oehl-coveted Moby-Dick, which broke auction records for a contemporary book by reaching $28,900, after being originally priced at $1,000; Marc Chagall’s Couleur Amour, from 1958, featuring 13 pochoirs by the artist, which sold for $15,000 via online specialists Abe Books in 2014, $9,000 more than it hammered for in 2006, while Taschen’s 1999 Helmut Newton monograph SUMO, with an accompanying bookstand by Philippe Starck, jumped from £1,000 to $304,000 in 2000 for copy number one, signed by over 100 of the book’s featured celebrities.
But, as Hoyem emphasises, “[The market is] very unpredictable, so it’s probably wiser to invest in real estate. I say to people: buy the books because you love them and they’re precious to you.”