⟨ Unexpected Welcome ⟩

The Book Maker

Renatus Wu

Words / Ron Lam
Translation / Iris Heung

3月16日,我收到香港一家小出版社Mosses其中一位負責人的臉書短訊,說他正在替攝影師殷家樑籌備攝影集的出版,請我協助翻譯工作。預計三月底會陸續寫好稿件,書中需有中英日文版本,4月初得送印,以趕及在4月14日京都國祭攝影祭開幕前,他們親自將書由香港帶到京都來。由籌備至發行,才一個月多的時間,而且攝影集對印刷的要求甚高,需花大量時間調色跟進印刷工序,我心裡這出版社負責人一定是瘋了。不過,最瘋狂的是攝影集真的如期出版了,並於展覽之前便於京都的書店上架。

這位出版社Mosses的負責人,就是胡卓斌(Renatus Wu)。他是書籍設計師、設計公司Edited的老闆、書店Book B、展覽空間Common Room & Co.的創辦人之一。在他手裡,似乎甚麼事都可成真。

On 16 March, I received a Facebook message from a small-scale Hong Kong publisher Mosses, telling me they were preparing for the publication of Kallen Yan’s photography collection; they got in touch to discuss about the translation work for the photo book. The plan was to finalise all the articles by the end of March, and to have them translated from Chinese into English and Japanese before sending for print in early April. To target launching the book during the KYOTO GRAPHIE International Photography Festival that opened on 14 April, they personally brought the articles from Hong Kong to Kyoto, so that they could reach my hands earlier. Having learned that they allowed only one month time for the entire planning and production, I was astonished by their guts, for photo book is very demanding regarding the printing quality, and hence requires more time for modifying colour saturation and et cetera. However, when seeing the photo collection was launched on time, and was sitting on the shelves in bookshops in Kyoto, my astonishment was enhanced to an inexpressible level.

Renatus Wu, one of the representatives of Mosses, was the one who reached out to me for the photo book’s translation. Not only is Renatus a book designer, owner of Edited design firm, founder of Book B bookstore and Common Room & Co. exhibition space; Renatus is also a person who can make anything come true.

W:胡卓斌
R:Ron Lam

R:是甚麼驅使你成為書籍設計師的呢?
W:因為我喜歡看書,我很喜歡黃碧雲的,但她的書設計得很醜。字很小,又很難翻。既然我懂設計,為甚麼我不設計自己喜歡的東西呢?

R:不如談談你入行的經過。
W:我是從一家私立設計學校畢業的,完成了中五會考之後,我想快點學習設計,於是選了這家只要一年多就能畢業的學校。我小時候便會造網頁了,不知天高地厚,覺得網頁自己都會了,不如學平面設計,學習後才知道平面設計跟自己想像中不一樣。還沒畢業前,我便跟隨Tommy Li(香港著名設計師)工作,約四年多吧,便「被辭職了」。

R: What drove you to become a book designer?
W: I love reading, I really like words written by Wong Bik-Wan. The beauty of her words is however not shared by her book design. Her books were so poorly designed with overly small font size, flipping the pages are difficult too. Then I thought, being a designer, shouldn’t I design something in line with my passion?

R: How did you become a designer?
W: I graduated from a private design school. Upon finishing HKCEE in secondary 5, I chose this school as it only took around a year to finish the entire programme and graduate. I have already learnt to create a website at a young age, then I got too confident and thought, graphic design could be my next step after website design. Once started learning, I realised graphic design was nothing like I imagined it to be. I started working for the acclaimed Hong Kong designer, Tommy Li, even before my graduation. I had been in his firm for more than 4 years before I was invited to resign.

R:被辭職?發生了甚麼事呢?
W:我跟他說我很想做書籍設計,他聽罷跟我說:你離開試試吧,不成功便回來。於是我便辭職了。我其實很感激他。

R:一時間要獨自接到設計工作也非易事吧。
W:某天三聯出版辦了個講堂,去聽的不過三數人,我做準備才去聽,問答環節時想盡方法吸引當時仍是副主編的李安注意,又跟她自我介紹說自己也是做出版的,現在想來那時的自己臉皮真厚呢。結果我便進入了三聯當書籍設計,卻只做了半年便又離職了,只做了兩本書,兩本都得到獎,其中一本名為《易經講堂》的,賣得不錯,再刷了幾次。

R: Invited to resign? What happened?
W: I mentioned to him my interest in designing books, he told me, ‘Just give it a shot. Come back to us if it doesn’t work out.’ That was how I resigned. I always remain thankful to him.

R: Did you have troubles getting design jobs as an individual?
W: There was a lecture organised by Joint Publishing, which as few as 3 people, including myself, attended. I did a hard work researching beforehand, and did all I could to impress Anne Lee, the associate editor then. I even introduced myself as a publishing practitioner; now that I think of it, I was rather cheeky. That was how I got myself into Joint Publishing, where I stayed for only half a year. I worked on only two books during my career in Joint Publishing, but both of them were award-winning designs. The I Ching Lectures was one of the two that were well-received and got reprinted for few times.

R:為甚麼那麼快便離職呢?
W:出版社的體制是,很多個部門都可以對書籍設計作評論的,編輯部、發行部,每人一句,我無法適應那文化。

R:之後就獨自成立公司了?
W:後來一個在德國工作的中國設計師看到我的作品,為籌備書展找我到德國工作,我便把手上所有的案子都交托給朋友,打算出發時,竟發生冰島火山事件,無法起行,到可以出發時書展也完了。沒了工作,我拿著二千港元到雲南旅行,因為正值金融海嘯,我有點躊躇著自己的前路,該找工作呢,還是怎樣。在雲南時某天突然受不了,好想工作,於是買了張硬座的火車票,就這樣回到香港了。我想,反正大部份公司都資金短缺了,那我不如給予自己一年時間,只做自己喜歡的工作,只設計自己喜歡的書,看看是否能靠書籍設計餬口。那年我做了五本書,全年收入只有四萬元。

R:說起來,現時書店Kubrick出版的書籍大部分都是你設計的呢,你是怎樣開始跟Kubrick合作的?
W:我就在那一年認識了Kubrick,並當了他們的設計顧問,算是有了穩定的案子,由2010年開始,他們出版的書有九成都是我設計的。後來我又認識了替蘇富比拍賣行,替他們設計目錄。我發現原來做書籍設計也是可行的,並非如大部分所言的前路灰暗。

R: What made you resign so soon?
W: I am not a fan of the publishing house’s structure, where people from various departments, for instance editorial or distribution department, can all say something to criticise the design of a book.

R: After that you started your own company?
W: A Germany based Chinese designer saw my work and invited me to Germany to help preparing a book exhibition. I handed over all my work to friends and was ready to set off. Then came the unfortunate volcanic eruption in Iceland, air travel was made impossible in many places in Europe. I couldn’t be there on time for the exhibition and lost the job as a result. With only 2000 Hong Kong dollars in my pocket, I traveled to Yunnan with a frustrated mind. Hong Kong was badly hit by financial crisis, my future appeared to be grim. But one day in Yunnan, the craving for getting back to work struck me hard. I bought a train ticket for the cheapest class and returned to Hong Kong. Many companies were adversely affected by the economic situation back then, so I figure I might give myself a year to focus on jobs that I could enjoy, to design only books that I like. I wanted to see if I could make a living by designing books. I have designed altogether 5 books that year, and earned as little as 40 thousand HK dollars in total for the whole year.

R: Most of the books published by Kubrick Bookshop are designed by you. How did you build up the relationship with them?
W: I got to know Kubrick Bookshop in the same year when I returned from Yunnan. Being their design consultant gave me a certain stability. From 2010 on, around 90 percent of their books are my designs. Soon after that, I was acquainted with Sotheby’s and began designing their catalogs. These opportunities taught me that being a book designer is not a hopeless path as many imagine it to be.

R:在做了這麼多本書籍設計之中,最印象深刻的是哪本呢?
W:應該是羅展鳯的電影音樂研究書籍吧。因為她會邊做邊修改,有時會突然加一篇訪問,內容增加後,我常覺得自己做得不夠好 ,又會重做,常得花上一年才完成。很感謝出版社Kubrick願意容許我們這樣做。

R:經驗中出版社在收到稿件後,大都在半年內便急著將書籍出版的,一年真的頗長的呢。這是你花最長時間完成的設計嗎?
W:最花時間的應該是由陳慧、黃仁逵、韓麗珠等七個香港作者撰寫的《年代小說.記住香港》吧。他們每人分別寫一個年代,由1950年寫到2010年,故事角色是一樣的,內容則不是連貫的,像在描畫香港過去的藍圖一樣。因為同事有七位作者,七種風格,很難為設計定調。後來我把封面做成像是七個書背般,版面也因著每個年代不同而有所改變。像由黃仁逵撰寫的1950年代,由於當時印刷技術尚未成熟,我也用了較大較粗的字體,紙張稍為印成灰色,60年代時紙質稍為白一點,其後的又漸漸印成灰。每個年代的灰色都有輕微的差異,但若不點明,大概很難發現吧。這其實是我個人經驗的反映,香港是從黃金年代,緩緩步進較為消沉的年代的。

R: Among many of your book designs, which gave you the most memorable time?
W: I would say it is Angela Law’s books on cinema and music. She continues editing even when I have already started designing; it is possible for her to unexpectedly add an additional piece of interview to the book. I sometimes feel my design is not good enough to cater the increased amount of content and opt to start all over again. It often takes as long as a year to finish working on her books. I am truly grateful for the tolerance of Kubrick Bookshop.

R: From my experience, publishing house usually allows only less than half a year for a manuscript to be ready for printing. One whole year sounds a really long process. Was that the book that took you the longest to work on?
W: As far as I remember, it should be Our City, Our Decades by 7 authors including Chan Wai Yee, Wong Yankwai and Hon Lai-chu instead. The book spans from 1950 through 2010, each of the authors was responsible for one decade; the book tells unrelated stories of the same characters as if sketching history of Hong Kong. It is hard to conclude 7 authors and 7 styles into a single design, therefore I went for a book cover that looks like 7 book spines being placed side by side. Different layouts were as well applied to different decade, for instance, bigger font size and greyish white paper were used for Wong Yankwai’s 1950s, as printing technique was not matured back then. Each decade has its subtly distinctive paper colour, 60s was the whitest among all, those coming after all have different shades of light grey. The difference might be too subtle to tell, but what I wanted to express was my observation of how Hong Kong slowly departed from the golden era and moved towards the depressive decades.

R:談談對你影響最深的設計師吧。
W:若說設計師的話,定是陸智昌了。但真正影響我最深的人,其實是哲學家Alain de Botton。他教會我「造書」其實不是Stand Alone的,而是一個整體來的。像他的書,也是用非常立體的方式來敘事。例如他在《我愛身份地位》中,他竟然由血統切入,談及以前人因階級分別,因為不會感到自卑,反而現代人有努力向上的想法,靠考試制度來分出高下,考不好的人就被視為廢、懶,但其實不一定的,因為制度不一定完善的。他以這個方法告訴我們,現代人追求的,並不一定是真理。< R:Alain de Botton常以故事來談哲學理論,是他的多樣性思考給予你啟發嗎? W:嗯。我若只想著設計的書,可能只會想怎樣把版面做得漂亮,但現在我會想,我做設計其實有甚麼用處呢?可能會令人在書店把書拿起,但三中商(香港三大書店:三聯書局、中華書局、商務書局)只會把我設計的書放在書架上,當眼處放的全都是他們自己出版的書籍。我把封面做得多漂亮都是徒然的。我不希望我的書籍設計成為廣告,很多人會說,封面只要能夠吸引人買書就好了,這是對的,但我不想這樣。我希望自己的設計就像茶器,茶器不會告訴你這杯茶有多好喝,不是銷售,而是跟茶相配合的。 R:所以你後來除了設計公司外,還開了專賣獨立出版物的書店、出版社,又辦藝廊,就是要把出版做得更為全面吧? W:可以這樣說。

R: Which designer has influenced you the most?
W: It must be Luk Chi Cheong if we’re limiting the question to designers. However, if you asked about the person who has the greatest influence in my life, my answer would be Alain de Botton. He reminded me making book is not a stand alone process; it exists as part of the greater unity. His books are written in a very comprehensive manner. In Status Anxiety, he uses ancestry to discuss how people in the old times did not get discouraged by their underprivileged social status; elevating one’s social status through the system of examination is in fact a modern society practice that screens out the so-called unsuccessful ones. Every system has its flaws and is doomed to be imperfect. De Botton explains to us the modern society ideal is merely one of the many systems, and should not be treated as ultimate truth.

R: Alain de Botton tends to explain his philosophical through storytelling. Were you inspired by his non-linear way of thinking?
W: Indeed. If I limit myself to the book I’m designing, it is very likely to get obsessed with  making beautiful books. But now I tend to explore the use of my book design. Do I design for the sake of making the book standout? The three major Chinese publishers in Hong Kong, namely Joint Publishing, Chung Hwa Book and Commercial Press, only promote books published by them. No matter how hard I try, the books I design can never win the best spot in their bookshops. Although it is to a certain extent true when people measure the quality of cover design based on how good it sells, I personally do not want to turn book design a form of advertisement. To me, I wish my book design functions the same as tea ware; tea ware doesn’t help to sell any type of tea, instead, it is a container that can well match the character of tea.

R: Besides the design firm, you also run a bookshop dedicated to independent publishers, a publishing house and an art gallery. I assume these are all efforts to help improving every aspect of publishing?
W: I guess you’re right.

R:你覺得書籍設計最重要是甚麼?
W:書名。我重視書名多於設計呢。設計是假設和計算,這樣的書名勾起我這樣的假設,書名改了又是另一回事。所以我是一個會要求改書名的設計師,跟編輯及作者一起討論。像《易經講堂》原名為《如何打開易經之門》,但既然是入門書,好該簡單一點。我覺得設計師該懂一點編輯技巧,編輯也該懂一點設計,才能把書做好。對了,我想做的其實並不是設計,而是書本身。

R: What is the most deciding factor of book design?
W: The book title. I have a greater stress on book title than book design. Book design is a result of hypothesis and calculation; my design is based on the hypothesis I obtain from the book title. Therefore when designing a book, I sometimes discuss with the editor and the author hoping to refine the book title. The I Ching Lectures was initially named To Open the Door to I Ching. Since it is a book for beginners, I believed we should make it more clean and direct. A good book requires the joint effort of a designer with some editing knowledge, and an editor with some designing knowledge. So to speak, what I am doing is not merely designing, but to participate in making a book.