Hugh Merrell Interview

From photography, cats and cars to home interiors and architecture, the eclectic mix of topics covered by Merrell Publishers have brought the company varying degrees of success. Hugh Merrell shares his experiences of the publishing industry with WAN Interiors + Design and explains how to identify a winner.

It’s a beautiful sunny day and I’m at The Chelsea Arts Club in South West London with Hugh Merrell of Merrell Publishers, an independent publisher with 15 staff and headquarters in London. Merrell publishes around 25 new titles a year on an eclectic range of subjects, including interiors and design.

“I still get a thrill out of smelling a new book,” Merrell says “and because of the Kindle movement, it’s more important than ever that we pay attention to making our books feel beautiful. I’m a firm believer that books are friends and I know it sounds really pooky, but each book has a memory attached to it. Anyone who has read Walter Benjamin’s Unpacking my Library, will know exactly what I mean.”

Born and brought up in Berlin “because my father was in the tanks” (International Tank Brigade), Merrell returned to Berlin again just after the fall of the wall. This time he embarked on a journey that would take him through Europe on an exploratory trip of the continent’s market halls. He started off in Budapest, snaked through Vienna and Czechoslovakia (as it was then) into Poland, to Berlin and south through Germany to Munich and then back to London.

“Vrotslav was great because, as far as I understand, it was the first example of concrete parabolic arches inside this very gothic-like exterior of a market hall building,” he says. “It is a wonderful indefensible central European city with an incredible history and a remarkable market hall!” Sadly, Market Halls of Europe was a book that never quite saw the light of day. However, Merrell has no regrets because “it was great fun researching it”.

Merrell is one of the few remaining publishers worldwide that publishes under its own imprint. Importantly this means it has the autonomy to publish whatever it wishes. “We’re truly independent, which is fantastic, but it can make life difficult sometimes. We have to be pragmatic and that includes publishing interior books that will appeal to a wide audience, as well as more eclectic titles,” explains Merrell.

Of all the books he has published, Merrell says his favourite was Building with Light, The International History of Architectural Photography, which combined two of his interests; architecture and photography. “I still think it is one of the most beautiful books and I’m very proud of it, but sadly it was never a great seller, which I still don’t understand. Photography is so important to architects, it’s how most people will consume a building.” He goes on to cite Foster’s Reichstag project in Berlin, which he says “had six photographers working on that building, and each photographer gave it a different perspective”.

Fortunately, Merrell’s series of books Dream Homes, has done extremely well, but he admits that he never intended to publish a book on interiors, because it is such a populated market. “If you can do a book with real attention to detail, and get the structure, the price and the design right you can do very well with it.”

Merrell goes on to say that he also publishes books on gardens as opposed to gardening. “But again it’s very visual, it’s about colour, it’s about design, it’s about history,” he says. “Our first book on gardens very, very satisfyingly won The Sunday Times Garden Book of the Year 2007. It’s very exciting that a small publisher can do that.”

But it’s not an easy industry to judge. He adds: “You can make mistakes in publishing, it’s very easy to get it wrong and then your warehouse is absolutely full of unsold books, and that is the ultimate indictment for any publisher. There can be a number of reasons why you get it wrong; either another book comes out that’s cheaper, and or better or you’ve simply missed the market, it can be hard.”

I asked if Merrell had ever had a situation where he had turned down a book that went on to be wildly successful: “Not that I know of, but I did want to do a book on car parks, and everyone just roared with laughter,” he says. “I remember being at a dinner party in Florence talking to Sir John Pope-Hennessy, who said in a squeaky voice ‘oh my dear, I think that’s a frightfully good idea’, but it didn’t happen”.

One of Merrell’s competitors did go on to publish a book on car parks, which was not a big commercial success. Merrell sighs and says: “I still wish I’d done it. Sometimes you just

have to, because you think it is important, and you want to make a statement, but you can’t afford to do too many of those.”

I question Merrell about some of his less cerebral titles, notably Shelter Cats. “I swore blind never to publish a book on cats, but as a publisher one has to be eclectic, unless you are in an academic behemoth like Wiley, which only wants to publish books which are like a facility post-grad’ meeting.”

Warming to the theme Merrell goes on to say: “I want publishing to be out there to communicate passion and interest from designers, photographers and architects and actually share it with other people and get them to open their eyes. So many people are completely blind; they go round their daily lives without actually looking at anything.”

Merrell is critical of the communication skills of the great majority of architects insisting that their communication is solely aimed at other architects. “Architects must learn to communicate with non-architects and non-designers, because they have to work with developers, clients and council authorities who have no background in design. Yet these people are making decisions, and how do architects communicate with them? I would suggest they communicate extremely badly.”

He goes on to ask: “Have you ever met with a structural engineer who has anything nice to say about an architect? But if you left it to structural engineers, many of whom are brilliant, everything would be square box sheds.” Merrell adds: “The books that we produce on architecture are not aimed exclusively at architects; we’re just talking to Ken Powell about a new book that will be our eighth book together. Ken is a great communicator and he doesn’t use an architectural discourse. There’s nothing wrong with an architectural discourse, because each profession must evolve its own language to advance its subject area, but if you want to communicate to mere mortals, to people whose eyes you want to open, as I do, then you have to get a good communicator on-board”.

Merrell is adamant that his books appeal to the educated reader, essentially people who are aware of their surroundings: “There’s no reason why the books I publish wouldn’t appeal to anyone who is intelligent and that’s really important. We want to transform and inform.”

I ask Merrell about his popular series of architecture titles New London Architecture, first published in 2001. He admits that he commissioned the book because he was so excited about the capital’s architecture at the time. “It felt like something had been shrugged off in London and that we really had embraced all that was possible with architecture and design, finally after many, many years really good buildings were being commissioned.”

When asked if he still felt as optimistic about our capital’s architecture, Merrell says: “Well, we published 21st Century London, The New Architecture, again with Ken Powell and this is our reprise of that look at London ten years on. Obviously there aren’t as many ‘Capital Le Grand Projet’ – as Mitterrand would have put it – in London this time around because of the recession and the Millennium thrust, which produced so many of those buildings."

“But I think there is a greater diversity of building design now across all building types, and there are some very good projects coming through.” Merrell adds: “Renzo Piano’s Shard, which I look at every time I go in and out of my office, is an extraordinarily brave design.”

Merrell’s offices are based in Southwark, one of London’s more diverse areas, not far from the now famous Borough Market. “Southwark Council are to be congratulated in what they’ve done over the last ten years,” says Merrell. “When I first opened Merrell Publishers in 1993, in an 18th Century hop warehouse in Borough High Street, it was absolutely desolate.”

Inevitably the subject of book fairs comes up and Merrell is scathing about the London Book Fair, saying that it is “appallingly badly organised”. But he is far more complimentary about the Frankfurt Book Fair, which he estimates he has been to around 23 times. In the past Merrell has taken his precious Harley Davidson, but more recently has chosen the more stately train service “I must be getting old,” he sighs. Somehow I doubt it.