10?’s with Counter-Print book store owner & publisher, Jon Dowling
Counter-Print is the place to go for books on and about design (well creativity in general), always stocking the most exciting titles and curated selections and even producing and publishing their own books. It’s clear to see the passion that the owners, Celine Leterme and Jon Dowling, have for books and design and dedicate themselves to sharing their appreciation.
Clearly, books are special to you, so what is your first memory of a book?
My Dad reading books of knights and battles to me in bed. Ghost stories by torchlight with my two brothers. Beatrix Potter with my Mum. As I reflect on it, the books they chose to read with me reflected their familial roles – protection, play, and nurturing. They’re fond, nostalgic, core memories.
Can you remember what was the first ever book you sold as Counter-Print?
Yes, it was Wim Crouwel’s ‘Kunst + Design’, a catalogue of the designer’s work from 1991. We found it in a shop in my wife’s country of birth, Belgium. We brought it back to my office, where I worked in a branding agency, and all of my colleagues wanted one. So the next time we went over, we picked up a bunch of copies and sold them to them.
Obviously, it wasn’t for profit, but it did provide a lightbulb moment. Is there an opportunity here for a website selling hard-to-find/out-of-print design books?
Related to that, are there any books you regret selling/wish you’d never sold?
When we started out, we only focused on vintage books, so there have been a number that have come through the office, in and out of my hands. The one that springs to mind is ‘Herb Lubalin: Art Director, Graphic Designer and Typographer’, which we found at the bottom of a pile of cookery books in a ‘book village’ in Belgium; almost every shop in the village was a bookshop, which was a strange experience – but heaven for us.
It’s a culture of sharing that gives my work purpose.
Counter-Print also stands out as a publisher for its strong sense of curation that people trust and come back to. How do collection and curation manifest in other areas of your life? Are there objects or things you like to collect?
We’ve always been avid collectors of visual ephemera. We collect, kokeshi dolls, Pez dispensers, boxes, bottles, sweet packaging, toys, badges, beer glasses, stickers etc.
It’s something that goes back to childhood for my wife and I. We gain pleasure through beautifully designed, and even badly designed things, in the same way someone might from tasting food, listening to music or reading. So it makes sense that we would wish to keep the things we find which stimulate this sense.
We all know the expression, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, but as designers, our job is to judge the design of everything. To take the expression literally, do you agree with it? Should we as designers let our guards down and embrace the contents more over the cover? Or is the cover truly as important as we believe it is?
This is a tricky one to answer. Personally, if I’m reading for pleasure, I don’t buy the book for the cover, it’s secondary to me than the content. That said, I run a design bookstore that sells primarily through social media, so the cover is key. The cover will either attract the customer to read further or scroll on, so we spend a lot of time with our covers ensuring that they are simple, direct, explain the content within the pages and work at a small size.
We have a lot of customers from the US, it’s our biggest market outside of the UK, and customers there often tell us they are purchasing the books from us because the covers we sell differ from those produced for the US market. So it must matter to people.
Counter-Print grew from your design studio, Leterme Dowling. Can you give us an insight into the story there from a design studio into an online bookstore? Are the skills of a professional graphic designer transferable to retail?
The timeline is a little complicated but my wife and I were both working in London as graphic designers at separate agencies when we set up Counter-Print as a side project (2008). It was because the proceeds of this were roughly covering our mortgage, that it gave us the confidence to quit our day jobs and set up our own agency. This was what we thought our future would be, running a successful design agency in London, while slowly cooling off the Counter-Print book business.
However, after roughly five years, we were getting pretty stressed juggling the two and there came a tipping point when Counter-Print became more profitable than the design business. It was also all anyone wanted to talk to us about. We had to make a decision as to whether our plan B might need to become our plan A. We ditched the design company and pushed Counter-Print. That is when we expanded our own publishing endeavours, got rid of the vintage books and began selling new titles from other publishers.
Without a grounding in graphic design, we couldn’t have achieved what we have with Counter-Print.
I edit, design, write and publish the majority of the content we produce in Adobe Creative Suite by myself. I’m also in charge of the site and how it looks. We photograph all the books and social media content ourselves and produce our own merchandise. I’m basically working as a graphic designer but with myself as a client.
The closest thing I can liken it to, if you studied on a design course, is when your tutor said you needed to do a self-initiated project... Counter-Print has been a fifteen-year string of self-initiated projects. It’s fun but it’s a lot of pressure and I have to be very self-disciplined.
The world saw a rise and fall (thanks to e-books) and then a rise again in the purchase of printed books. It must fill you with great confidence that books will always hold a strong place in our culture. Does that new rise inform how you approach your business differently to pre that? Are you more confident/make bolder choices than you were because of it?
People always ask me if I’m concerned whether people will still read books in the future. When we started, the Kindle and iPad had recently been launched, so it seemed like a terrible time to get into publishing. However, because of this, we’ve never known anything different. I suppose I could have made a lot more money if I’d been born 30 years earlier but we can only work within the perimeters of the existing timeframe we are living. So I try and look at it from the perspective of being incredibly lucky to live in the age of social media, which has been instrumental to the success of Counter-Print and our ability to market our books.
People fear change and how it might affect them. They fear they won’t be able to cope or adapt. Now we are talking about Apple’s ski goggles, previously it was AI, and a year or two ago it was NFTs. The book endures. So, to an extent, it always will. Of course, the amount of books sold reduces as our attention is pulled this way and that.
However, the physical book does provide one thing – a valuable rest bite from all of this screen time. It is also a beautiful object – its visual appeal, tactile nature and smell can’t be replicated digitally.
What is your ‘holy grail’ book?
In terms of finding a book in a second-hand bookshop, it would have to be Wim Crouwel’s ‘Mode en Module’. My partner and I always joke, when we leave a charity shop, ‘no Mode en Module’. They are so rare and I’m yet to snag a copy.
In terms of our publishing work, there is no unicorn. I don’t think you will ever see us publishing books for a big gallery/museum like MOMA or a giant name like Warhol or Banksy. Counter-Print, I think, is about exposing people to new things. Uncovering the work of exciting new designers, illustrators and artists you might not have heard of and sharing them through beautiful, affordable books.
What’s it like working and running Counter-Print as a couple? Do you have to set certain boundaries not to let work occupy too much space?
We’ve always imagined Counter-Print as a lifestyle business. When I was younger, in my twenties, I always envied designers that had a studio in their garden or home. A place filled with light that they could potter to with their cup of coffee to create and write. I wanted a house that was filled with art and children that were brought up in this atmosphere, who would become curious about the world. That’s what we are trying to achieve.
There is no real separation between life and work – we work from a converted garage in our house. Our walls are filled with prints and gifts from the artists we have worked with and we have a son who loves to create and joins us on our work travels. This is the dream. It’s not for everyone – it’s also stressful, all-consuming and balance must be found – but it’s been an amazing ride.
I think they should send us a message, tell us what they like or what they’re looking for. We get messages like this all the time.
It reminds me of at college, when you’d go in and show a project and the tutor would say, ‘oh, have you heard of this artist, or this design group’. You’d go away, explore and have your mind blown by a new artistic movement, musician, film etc. I don’t think there is one book I could recommend – go to the site and explore it.
Tell us about what’s missing or what we should check out. I’d love that.
Jon Dowling is the co-founder and owner of the online bookstore, Counter-Print; a design-oriented publisher and retailer based in the United Kingdom who, since 2008, specialise in producing and distributing high-quality design books, journals, and magazines, as well as a range of design-focused stationery and accessories. Their mission is to showcase the best in contemporary design and to inspire and inform designers and design enthusiasts around the world. In addition to publishing activities, Counter-Print operates an online store offering a curated selection of design-focused books, magazines, and accessories