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60 years of Best Finnish book design

The Nordic Book Arts Committee was founded in Oslo in 1946. The objective was to organise an annual Nordic exhibition displaying the best of the published books.

The objective was to divert public attention to books also as works of book arts, to inspire and educate workers to achieve even better results, and to learn from the achievements of neighbouring countries by way of interaction.

In 1947, the Union of Graphic Industry appointed the Finnish Book Arts Evaluation Committee, which had representatives of the Finnish School of Arts and Crafts, the Helsinki University Library and the largest Finnish printing presses, publishers and book stores. The Committee was later joined by ten representatives of sector institutes and organisations. This is still the basis for the selections. A Working Committee was appointed to prepare the selection work.

The objective has been to nominate a selection of 25 best books. However, in the early stages this was not always achieved. In the post-war years, the standard of published books was so weak that it was not possible to nominate a selection to be sent to Nordic or international exhibitions.

In the fifties, standards rose and the position of book design strengthened. At that time the Committee was already forced to screen the best books out of the high-quality ones. Nevertheless, the Committee has always been critical with respect to the level of know-how in different fields of book production, and has also adopted an encouraging role as an advocate of the importance of book awareness.

The 1960s were a period of growth in book production, and an era of new approaches to illustration and design. The artistic design of books became more and more diverse, and new needs, forms and genres emerged in book publishing.

Books are evaluated on the basis of their purpose. Designers, publishers, printers and other production facilities of books nominated in the Distinguished Books Selection receive diplomas. The earlier term "beautiful books" was abandoned in 1970 as it was deemed a one-sided valuation, and the term "Distinguished Books" was adopted instead. Since 1988, one of the books of the Selection has been awarded the title of "Best Designed Book of the Year."

A book is born in the focal point of graphic design, publishing and graphic technology. Achieving harmony between the areas is not always simple, as all of them are subject to constant change. Book printing has gone through all the technological revolutions of the past sixty years, always as the first in line. Very often these changes have been quantitative but not qualitative. Sometimes changes have even resulted in a noticeable drop in quality, such as with photosetting and offset-printing in the 70s, which weakened image quality. Digitalisation in the 80s was fatal in the sense that some classic typography know-how perished with its adoption. Producing a good book that carries the message of its authors and opens up to readers in a way that gives them room for personal experiences is thus under great pressure.

A good book is fortunate to get a wise reader, for it is precisely the reader that gives a book so much of its nuances, meanings and feels. A book is a meeting place of different worlds. Publishing, designing and producing a book is the act of enabling these meetings, resulting in increased understanding and the comprehension of life and existence.

In spite of everything, this mediator of human civilisation that is over five hundred years old is doing relatively well. The number of titles is growing. Books are more and more being tailor-made to suit their purpose. Participants at the Nordic book week in Aulanko in 1967 were concerned about how to preserve the individual character of printed matters in the age of mass production. The same concern still remains the primary one.

The book can prosper only if it understands the value of its tradition and respects that tradition while renewing itself in the ever-changing world.

Tapio Vapaasalo,
Professor, University of Art and Design Helsinki


Sources for the history of the Finnish Book Arts Committee: Martti Lehto: Alkusanat. Suomen kirjataiteen komitea 1946-1996, 50-vuotta suomalaista kirjataidetta: juhlajulkaisu 1996; Marja Engman: Suomen kirjataiteen komitean työstä, Kirjapainotaito / Graafikko n:o 6, 1986.

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