Lara Kothe

Lara Kothe's captivating, cerebral practice draws upon critical discourse outside of design to create books and print-based works with intellectual depth and a distinct visual character. We caught up with Kothe to discover how her design approach is shaped by research and philosophical enquiry, and discuss the value of looking outside your own discipline for inspiration...

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Das Lethe-Kompendium, 9 x 14.5cm, 624 pages

Describe your work in three words...
That’s easy: mélancolique, moral(e), merveiilleux (-euse)

What first sparked your interest in design?
There is no specific point or event in my past that I can remember sparking my interest in design; I kind of grew up with it. But I guess my grandfather played an important role. He was an artist and graphic designer, and his house was full of abstruse-seeming artworks and installations. Everybody in my mother’s family is very artistic, musical, kind of gypsy-like with a fascination for everything fantastic and strange. My grandfather had the ability to inspire people with his art of living, and the house was open to everyone who came to hear one of his famous stories. This has definitely created the basis for my passion for art and/or design, but more as a way of living, and as a means of communication. By contrast, my father’s side of the family is characterized by a clear, prosaic objectivity combined with a bright enthusiasm for medicine. This objectivity enables me to think clearly in situations where normally my emotions would increase alarmingly. I guess this is also responsible for me demanding a research-based character of design, and not being only a simple service, which is also the reason for me doing my master’s degree part-time in design research at the HKB Bern at the moment.

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Vi har en yxa, 10.5 x 14.8 cm, 124 pages

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Vi har en yxa, 10.5 x 14.8 cm, 124 pages

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Vi har en yxa, 10.5 x 14.8 cm, 124 pages

What attracts you to the form of the book as a vehicle for ideas and a tool for experimentation?
Recently, someone described my style as contemporary with an attitude of ancientness. It was not a description of my designing style, but it suited me very well. It corresponds to my own personal attitude, my personal beliefs. Something ancient clings also to the book, since the beginning of the modern age, but the self-publishing and artistic book design trend is extremely contemporary. For me a book represents a huge field of research. It is a symbol of deceleration per se, which I highly appreciate in a world of digital acceleration, of pluralistic opportunities, of seemingly infinite diversity and dispersion. It is something solid and truthful; I trust the printed word.

In addition to that, I grew up with a library full of books which were more than just a pure text collection. Most of them were commented and supplemented with cut-out newspaper articles, photographs, handwritten notices and drawings. Within these books completely self-contained worlds were created, which had to be reflected. A book is a static object, once it is printed and bound, it is there: it is not easily changed like you can do with a website. At best, what you create will last forever. Therefore it is only logical to express a certain moral stance within your role as a book designer. I don’t want to create objects which serve only one purpose, often to increase both sales and profits. I want to design something which is sustainable, with a high demand on growth in knowledge for research and personal development, and I am not talking about the obvious growth in knowledge which results from the study of the textual content but about the associative, the invisible so to speak.

Thus, the books I create are, most of the time, not only textual books but holistic systems which not only transfer knowledge, but try to convey a certain feeling through the different combinations of heterogeneous material. It is kind of a media-philosophical work with the aid of book design. Let’s call them epistemic Agens. However, there are legitimate reasons to criticise the medium of the book. As Socrates said in Plato’s Phaedo, books just convey lifeless knowledge, and truths can only be transported in a lively conversation. If I am able to create books people are talking about then I have achieved my personal aim.

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Cut Out Catalogue, 21 x 29.7 cm, 250 pages

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København, 12 x 23.5 cm, work in progress

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København, 12 x 23.5 cm, work in progress

Are there any particular visual or conceptual references that you draw upon, or ideas that you try to explore in your work?
At this point I can mention the books or essays which impressed me with their conceptual, systematical doctrines and probably influenced my work even without me knowing or necessarily wanting them to. For me, it is important to learn how to transform a creative idea into a systematical method, so the thoughts of John Berger, John Cage, Richard Buckminster Fuller, Karl Gerstner, Niklas Luhmann, Marshall McLuhan, Walter Benjamin, Wilhelm Ostwald and others are definitely interesting in relation to that way of thinking. I highly recommend Hannah Arendt to anyone interested in dealing with moral issues. The best ”worlds“ are created by Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. To add some of my visual references, to which I always return because I think they are very well-designed: die Lange Liste designed by Christian Lange, Parallel Encyclopedia designed by Roger Willems (I must confess I love nearly every Roma Publication), Ornithology designed by Jeremy Jansen, Flusseriana – An Intellectual Toolbox designed by 2x Goldstein+Fronczek, Holy Bible by Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, The Destructive Character: Het Destructieve Karakter designed by Remco van Bladel and, of course, the Whole Earth Catalog – and so many others! The list of my favourite books is very very long, the best thing would be for you to visit me in my own library at home where everybody could spend a few days.

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Das Lethe-Kompendium, 9 x 14.5cm, 624 pages

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Das Lethe-Kompendium, 9 x 14.5cm, 624 pages

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Das Lethe-Kompendium, 9 x 14.5cm, 624 pages

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Das Lethe-Kompendium, 9 x 14.5cm, 624 pages

How have your recent studies helped you develop as a designer, and what are the most important things you've learned so far?
The question is relatively simple to answer: I have learnt a lot about how cliché-ridden this profession is, including the people who exercise it. There is an enormous desire for individuality, but at the end everybody looks the same and designs the same. This is just boring. I know that we are all children of our age and want to follow the visual trends. But if this happens without a connection to the content, and without any knowledge of the visual design-historical references and roots, it makes me sad. The most important thing I’ve learned so far is that everything you think you have invented on your own has already been done, and most of the time in a far better way than you did, so know the roots. Don’t lose the belief in yourself and in your art, even if it doesn’t achieve recognition. The design process hurts and it should do so, so you are able to feel the resulting euphoria. And last but not least: know the rules, so you are able to break them.

Are there any particular designers, teachers, or other figures who have hadan impact upon your own practice as a designer?
Yes, there is somebody I will be eternally grateful to. Her name is Prof. Dr. Mirjam Schaub, she worked at HAW Hamburg as a professor for aesthetics, art and cultural philosophy. She encouraged me to go my own way, to visualise the way I feel, and to trust in myself. In addition, she was the first who told me about artistic and design research, which was a revelation for me to be able to add a sense of meaning to my work. I also learned from Remco van Bladel, a fabulous designer in Amsterdam who I was fortunate to work with, that design could be a conflict, which takes its time often until late at night and seven days a week. Seeing – literally – I learned from Beau Bertens, a young beautiful woman who has incredible talent. But besides these people, I guess there aren’t any particular designers, teachers and so on who have had an impact upon my work. It is rather a certain way of thinking that touches me. I am a very inquisitive person who loves to read theoretical discourses that come from a different fields of research than my own, and I try to adapt the thinking system into visual language. My own critical self-reflection has probably had the biggest impact upon my work. I deal a lot with my inner conflicts.

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Fallstudie zur Tätigkeit des Sammelns, 14 x 21cm, 297 pages

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Fallstudie zur Tätigkeit des Sammelns, 14 x 21cm, 297 pages

Tell us about a recent project you've particularly enjoyed...
The opportunity to work on the Finnish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in Remco van Bladel’s studio was definitely one of my highlights during the past year. I had never once in my life thought that I would be able to be a part of such a huge project. Also in addition, small fine projects like the photobook Vi har en yxa, which I did together with Annika Loebel for the scenographer Hanna Scherwinski, have been very fulfilling, especially when you are able to work completely independently and it is up to you how you want to interpret the content. The most important project for myself, which I completely enjoyed, was the book Lethe-Kompendium. It was made with one hundred percent blood, sweat and tears. And I am happy that even after more than a year since its genesis, the book is still very much in demand.

What would be your dream project?
This is a very difficult question. It is not that easy for me to describe at this point a certain specific project which I dream of doing. I am a very focused person who doesn’t wait for things to happen. If I know I want something, I try my best to achieve my aim as far as it is permitted by the conditions. What I want is to design and write books, which I have already done. But be careful with your wishes, because at the end you could be disappointed – I guess this attitude suits me. I try to avoid this kind of disappointment and instead concentrate on the possibilities I am able to influence.

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Fallstudie zur Tätigkeit des Sammelns, 14 x 21cm, 297 pages

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Fallstudie zur Tätigkeit des Sammelns, 14 x 21cm, 297 pages

What are you working on now, and what's next for you?
There is a lot going on at the moment: I am doing my Master’s degree in Design Research at the HKB Bern part-time, and am working at the HKB Grafik Atelier. There I am responsible for the whole visual outcome of the HKB music department and the editorial design of the so-called HKB Zeitung, which is a a lot of fun. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to join the research group of a collaborative research project, Swiss Graphic Design and Typography Revisited, as an associate researcher. In addition to that, I am working within my Masters on a book about self-published and alternative magazines from the 1960’s which were not produced under professional circumstances. I am quite interested in finding out whether left-wing orientated aesthetics exists; whether aesthetics can have a political stance; and if its present understanding is due to a background of cultural education. I am also trying to create more books in the same style as the Lethe-Kompendium but published by myself, so stay tuned in.

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Das Lethe-Kompendium, 9 x 14.5cm, 624 pages

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Das Lethe-Kompendium, 9 x 14.5cm, 624 pages

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Das Lethe-Kompendium, 9 x 14.5cm, 624 pages