The Redstone Press: Books in Boxes
International Herald Tribune
Cynthia Rose

From Nancy Cunard's Hours Press to Bloomsbury's Hogarth Press, small publishing firms with notable pedigrees are a British tradition. Even now, during a prolonged economic downturn, Britain has more than 75 private presses. Eclecticism is evident in the mere names of these imprints: Gregynog, Rampant Lion, Libanus and Chimaera. None, however, enjoys such prominence as The Redstone Press - a one-man operation which publishes "books in boxes".

Six year-old Redstone boasts a startling roster of projects. It has published paintings by Mexico's Frida Kahlo, poems by Russia's Mayakovsky, games by the French Surrealists. It has collected temple paintings made for the Indian goddess Kali (in the Kalighat box), as well as woodcuts by Japanese master Shiko Munakata. In addition to 16 boxes, it has also published five Redstone Diaries, calendars which have featured both Russian Futurism and Aztec codices.

Every Redstone box hides piquant, offbeat artefacts. Mexico's Day of the Dead includes a tin skeleton brandishing a scythe. Surrealist Games contains a twisted version of the children's classic Jeu de l'oie - plus a set of removable tattoos. The Paradox Box comes crammed with optical illusions and "puzzling pictures".

Such treats mirror the taste of Redstone's founder-proprietor, the 45 year-old Londoner Julian Rothenstein. Rothenstein began his press in 1986, when he found a set of unknown wood-engravings by Franz Masereel. Once he decided these works deserved a special format, Rothenstein scoured the Yellow Pages for a box-maker. After clearing reproduction rights with a Zurich bookshop, he loaded and labelled his boxes, and carted them round London's bookstores. To his complete delight, the labour of love sold and sold.

Maybe it was no suprise; Rothenstein has ink in his blood. He is the eldest child of the late printmaker Michael Rothenstein - who was the son of Sir William Rothenstein and the brother of Sir John. Portrait painter William ran the Royal College of Art, and served as Britain's official war artist for both World Wars. Sir John was Keeper and Director of the Tate Gallery through 1964.

Thus young Julian was raised amid debates about the proper presentation of art. "My father's studio," he says, "was very romantic to me. I loved helping him; even the ink smelled special." During school, Julian had a printing press of his own. But when he started work, he became a designer for hire.

In 1975 Rothenstein, by then Art Director on the trendy paper Bananas, was asked to speak at the Royal College of Art. In the crowd which flocked to hear him was a lively Chinese student born in Penang, Malaysia. Rothenstein liked her paintings almost as much as her personality. Shyly, he remembers asking Hiang Kee for a light. Nineteen years and two children later, their unusual union gives Redstone much of its style.

Kee smiles at the memory of their initial meeting. "My British colleagues saw Julian as tremendously racy! But to me, he seemed public-school and puritanical. I come from a background of great material decadence; I had always lived around beautiful pots, flowers, calligraphy." Kee's life had firm roots which stretched back to China. "In the East, no one ever mentions such a thing as 'talent'. There is just a way of living; what one talks about is survival."

Hiang brought new aesthetics into Julian's British life: viewpoints and objects which absolutely fascinated him. The home they made together in London vibrates with this cultural merger; it is filled with primary colours and witty, exotic ephemera. Here one will go to supper - or to celebrate Chinese New Year - and meet novelists, artists, even a visiting Mexican wrestler.

Unlike the Bloomsbury crowd, the Redstone coterie is hardly Anglo-insular. It includes highbrow Britons (such as Dr Jonathon Miller and the critic Marina Warner). But it embraces also Indians, Mexicans, Asians and Americans, not to mention friends of the film director Stephen Frears - who is the husband of Rothenstein's sister Annie. Frears has just written the introduction to Redstone's new Diary, which features drawings by assorted film directors.

Such a circle gives the Redstone Press a very special profile. Says Eileen Hogan, Dean of Camberwell College of Arts and founder of The Camberwell Press, "Julian's history and reach are unique. Not only is Redstone's work singular in quality; its range of subject matter is absolutely exceptional."

Eighteen months ago, Redstone gained a heavyweight US partner - the independent, international Shambala Publications. Previously, Rothenstein's "best-seller" was Frida Kahlo, which sold 12,000 boxes over five years. Last autumn's The Paradox Box, done in tandem with Shambala, sold 4,000 British boxes in a mere five weeks - while shipping over 10,000 in America.

Rothenstein can now afford an elegant Chelsea office (for years, he worked out of his wife's small studio). But its white Edwardian walls will not cramp his idiosyncrasy. He is already working on a box concerned with Time Capsules - and one on Kong Teik, the Chinese funeral practice where paper models of worldly goods are ritually burnt. Meanwhile, his Kalighat box has spawned an art exhibition (Kalighat: Indian Popular Painting 1800-1930 opens April 17 in Oxford, at the Museum of Modern Art). And on June 22, London's Victoria and Albert Museum opens a show of his accomplishments - The Redstone Press: An Exhibition of Work.

Such official acceptance is nice, Rothenstein concedes. But he intends to stick by his creed of working from instinct. "Right now, for instance, I only want to hear about Time Capsules. If I had to support a staff, I could never stop and do that. This is really the true luxury; how many publishers get to stop?"

This article may not be reprinted.