David Jenkins: Extraordinary books with artists and designers

Words by
Stephen Bayley

Photo by
Andrew Meredith

A koan is an epigrammatic thought used by Zen Masters to express the paradoxical nature of existence. One of my favourite koans is: ‘Whatever is true, the opposite is truer’.

Right now, this applies to publishing. No one can quite decide whether the old-fashioned p-book is nearly dead or about to enjoy a significant renaissance. I like to think the latter. The fastidious are dismayed by the intellectual triviality and moral corruption of the Internet and are returning to print journals: sales of intelligent titles such as The Economist and The New Yorker are rising dramatically.

And something similar is happening in book publishing. Certainly, the p-book remains the most flexible, interactive, data retrieval system. (Which has the additional attribute of being readily recyclable when you are fed up with it.) And they can be things of beauty too. As the novelist Anthony Powell declared, ‘books do furnish a room’. David Jenkins knows this. 

With the imperturbable air of a (Welsh) Zen Master, Jenkins presides over Circa Press, a specialist publisher of high-concept, beautifully produced architecture, art and design titles. In a mere four years, Circa has created a list of rare quality and distinction: I know this because I am a part of it. 

Jenkins’ creative credentials are impeccable. He trained and practised as an architect, possessing a sensibility that’s defined by the moral absolutes informing the Modern Movement in building design. Namely, there is a correct way of doing things.

Forsaking architecture, Jenkins joined Phaidon Press. Béla Horovitz’s and Ludwig Goldscheider’s Phaidon was, in Vienna in the 1930s, the original art book publisher, commissioning the leading art historians and establishing an influential and lasting template of what an illustrated book should be. But by the early 1990s Phaidon had lost its way and lapsed into trite editorial and poor production values. Jenkins and his contemporaries quickly imposed a new authority and a very fresh vision, building a new list that made Phaidon indisputably the world’s most distinguished publisher of beautifully designed, covetable art books.

From Phaidon, Jenkins moved to the studio of architect Norman Foster, a meticulous taskmaster of global repute. Here he did not design buildings, but began publishing in-house titles which set a new artistic standard for an architect who, everyone agrees, is one of the most demanding people in the whole, wide world. If Foster’s office has very attractive ‘brand values’, Jenkins’ books helped cement them. Circa Press is the next evolutionary step.

Jenkins and I had been circling each other for years, but only met properly over lunch in a Soho restaurant three years ago. He had a list to build and I had a project to sell. 

My project was an idea about a book on the cultural history of car crashes, a preoccupation of mine. I had pitched it to several mainstream publishers who had all dismissed it as queasily macabre, uncommercial and possibly even disgusting.

Jenkins, however, toying with his fritto misto, beamed in a subtle fashion and said ‘Fantastic! Let’s do it!’ So we did. The result was Death Drive – There Are No Accidents. 

My first book was published nearly forty years ago and there have been many since, but none has gained such rhapsodic reviews as Death Drive. Nor has any been so well designed with such altitudinous production values. I am pleased to say that people seem to enjoy reading it, but I also know they prize it as a beautiful object too. 

My point here is that at Circa Press, David Jenkins has no taskmasters and no shareholders. He can take outrageous publishing risks and seems to enjoy doing so. He can be uncompromising about quality and make interesting and impressive commitments to ambition. At a time when mainstream publishers are seemingly joined in a race to the bottom, headed for mindless consensus, Jenkins can publish books to a brainier standard. 

I might add that he is also a very amusing companion for fritto misto. We now meet and eat regularly. And as a result, there are more beautiful, intelligent and stylish books to come. Getting back to the koan, at Circa Press, good books are enjoying a significant renaissance.

Stephen Bayley was commissioned by thisisabout.com