WORK/LIFE: Fourthwall

WORK/LIFE: Fourthwall’s Bronywn Law-Viljoen and Oliver Barstow

The publishers of exquisite South African art books discuss their working lives


Editor and writer Bronywn Law-Viljoen and designer and writer Oliver Barstow founded the Johannesburg-based Fourthwall Books in 2010 to raise the bar in South African publishing by producing exquisitely designed, written and crafted art books. The imprint recently launched  Slow Fires, a collection of poems by Dan Wylie accompanied by Roxandra Dardagan Britz’s etchings. Other recent titles include Jason Larkin’s After the Mines and Hotel Yeoville by Terry Kurgan.

WORK/LIFE: Fourthwall

Describe the various facets of your working life?

Bronwyn Law-Viljoen: Daily, I read, edit, look at images, write, talk to people about their work, answer a lot of emails, ask for money, and then do all of that all over again. Sometimes I go on press, compose rude emails that I then edit, go to book launches, go to New York, give talks about publishing art books, and find editorial mistakes in a book we have just published.

Oliver Barstow: Officially, I handle the art direction and book design at Fourthwall. As a business owner, my responsibilities extend into the day-to-day running of what we do: marketing and publicity, distribution and sales, warehousing, accounting and general admin.

What Fourthwall projects are you working on at the moment?

OB: Nagmusiek a three volume book, part biography, part fiction, part artist’s book by Stephanus Muller; HandBook – South African Artists, a book of hand portraits by New York based artist Gary Schneider; Wake Up, This is Joburg a  photo/text series of 10 booklets to be released over two years with Mark Lewis and Tanya Zack; a photo book on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange by Lisa King with an essay by Sean Christie (we’re still working on the title); Losing Ground, a book of landscape photography set in the Natal Midlands by Matt Kay; 2nd Hand Reading, a large artist’s book by William Kentridge.

BLV: We’re also doing a book on the Johannesburg gasworks and Wopko Jensma’s Complete Poetical Works.

WORK/LIFE: Fourthwall

Preparations for Wake up, This is Joburg (above) and William Kentridge’s 2nd Hand Reading (below).

WORK/LIFE: Fourthwall

Describe your workspace.

BLV: Approximately 80 cm x 90 cm x 120 cm (which is the bubble of space I occupy with my laptop when I am seated at a small table. It’s a space that I carry with me rather than go to everyday, since I work in several venues every day.

OB: We have just closed up shop at 44 Stanley Avenue and are in the process of renovating a new shop/studio at 5 Reserve Street, Braamfontein. It used to be a clothing store (“SM Clothing”), is next door to a dentist’s rooms and across the road from a Shisa Nyama. We hope to be in there by 1 May, and have exciting plans for the space. Until then I am working from home.

The most important instrument you use?

BLV: Definitely my laptop, though I suspect it will soon be my reading glasses.

OB: The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst.

WORK/LIFE: Fourthwall

Barstow’s work space at home (above) and the street outside Fourthwall’s new space in Braamfontein which opens in May (below).

What’s your most productive time of day?

BLV: There are three productive time slots: 9 am to midday, 3.30 to 5.00 pm, 8 to 10 pm.

OB: Early morning, after tea.

What’s your favourite thing about your job?

BLV: Two things: editing a good text; working out with Oliver what the book will look like when we put images and text together.

OB: International book fairs. When we can afford them.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

BLV: I buy a Magnum ice cream (the Classic with vanilla ice cream and milk chocolate).

OB: Boxing. There is a boxing gym down the road from home.

WORK/LIFE: Fourthwall

Preparations for a photo book on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange.

How do you relax?

BLV: I walk my dogs.

OB: At night – whiskey and television.

Who and what has influenced your work?

BLV: Donald Judd’s 100 milled aluminium boxes in Marfa Texas, Eikoh Hosoe’s photographs of Yukio Mishima, the Japanese taiko drummer Eitetsu Hayashi, Laurie Anderson’s 1984 album Sharkey’s Day, the US track cyclist Kirk Whiteman.

OB: Initially, a strong influence was the work produced by Hyphen Press under Robin Kinross. Their approach to typography and design, which places the reader first, second and third, has been key to my own understanding of how books should work. Through Hyphen Press I also came across the work of typographer Fred Smeijers. Currently, I find myself reading less about design and more about the book’s ability to function as an art object.

WORK/LIFE: Fourthwall

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

BLV: Don’t race like Ivan Lendl plays tennis.

OB: Dig where you stand.

Your favourite ritual?

BLV: Sunday morning breakfast with my husband and daughter.

OB: Making tea.

What’s the hardest thing about your job?

BLV: Filling in funding applications.

OB: Carting around boxes of books. One of the definite advantages to digital publishing.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

BLV: I have a violent streak that I don’t (always) like.

OB: That I find it impossible to sleep late, even on weekends.

What are you afraid of?

BLV: Forgetting to invite the author of a book to their own book launch.

OB: That what everyone told me when we started out – there’s no money in books – is proving to be true.

What advice would you give to people starting out in the same career?

BLV: Send the launch invite to the author first.

OB: There’s no money in books.

What’s your greatest achievement?

BLV: Taking a group of kids on the Fish River Canyon hike.

OB: Meeting my future wife on a dance floor.

Fourthwall’s new retail and event space opens on 1 May at 5 Reserve Street, Braamfontein, Johannesburg.



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