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[Podcast] Episode 2: 'Have a good fahrt' for a good life

[Podcast] Episode 2: 'Have a good fahrt' for a good life

Vale Jürgen Fomm: book designer, typographer and light traveller

I first met Jürgen Fomm in 1979 when he interviewed me for the position of Production Assistant at Tafelberg Publishers. As the interview was held in the Waalburg offices on a public holiday, I instructed my boyfriend to wait downstairs in case I had to make a quick getaway: what sort of man was this who invited me to an empty office? I needn’t have feared as the whole Production Department was working. I should have known then that Jürgen was a taskmaster and had high expectations of his staff and those working around him.

I was intrigued during the interview as Jürgen sat with his arms folded, his hands hidden under his sleeves. I wondered whether he had an ailment that caused him to hide his hands, but when I got to know him better, I realised that he was a little awkward and shy around women – even though he adored them. Jürgen spoke in a particular way using idiosyncratic phrases lovingly, ‘Now, my dear’; ‘Blunder!’; ‘The best medicine!’ – causing us to dub this eccentric use of language as ‘Fommese’.

Jürgen invited me to a second interview: lunch at Zerban’s Coffee Shop in the Gardens Centre. Jürgen loved café culture, quality restaurants, good coffee and fine dining. This lunch was the first of many meals together, most often at Jürgen’s beloved La Perla in Sea Point. In the publisher’s offices, Jürgen had to have a good coffee every morning, made by Linda Rademeyer, book designer par excellence – often accompanied by jam donuts from a Long Street café or croissants from the French Confectionery.

I was appointed to work on Die Galeie van Jorik, a complex facsimile edition of D. J. Opperman’s famous poem. In typical Jürgen fashion, we were pushed to complete the project in time for the launch in September. I remember visiting the dentist to cope with my teeth grinding – I was under so much pressure to complete the job. But we delivered a beautiful homage to D. J. Opperman for which he wrote me a note of thanks: ‘Vir Slobodanka malanka van Diederiek met danka’.

Jürgen was an innovator and visionary: during my fifteen years working with him, Tafelberg Publishers introduced the first ISBNs, bar codes, laminated covers, perfect bound softcovers, mass market paperbacks, complex colour scanning and books sales to book clubs. He welcomed the fax machine and the first PC – undaunted when knocked back by the Board in 1980, he returned in 1981 with the same proposal and was rewarded with permission to introduce one personal computer in the Production Department. 

Jürgen negotiated complex co-productions with British and European publishers like Dorling Kindersley, Marshall Cavendish and Nord-Sud Verlag. He set up and attended the Frankfurt Book Fair every year. He pioneered offshore printing, championing the Singaporean companies, Tien Wah Press and Singapore National Printers. In Cape Town, he commanded huge respect from Nasionale Boekdrukkery, Unifoto, Hirt & Carter and Syreline Process – spurning Christmas presents in preference for good service. 

Jürgen developed a methodology to calculate meticulous costings – in his beautiful handwriting – for every new title, often frustrating Swanie, the Marketing Manager, who bridled against the high costs. Jürgen protected the company from taking the cheap and easy option, earning regular high profits and pleasing Danie Van Niekerk, the eminent CEO at the time.

What Jürgen did best was to spot talent – and to bring talented people together. Think of Marita van der Vyver and Jacqui Colley; Etienne van Heerden and Jochen Berger – in both cases Jürgen commissioned brilliant covers to match the equally brilliant writing. Jürgen worked with high calibre artists: Cora Coetzee, Niki Daly, Paul Emsley, Fiona Moodie, and Jan Vermeiren. He had a lifelong collaboration with Willem Jordaan, Gerhard Last, Herman Koch and Bent Bjornstad, all outstanding typographers, designers and calligraphers. He enjoyed working with young authors: Zirk van den Berg, Koos Kombuis, Etienne van Heerden, Daniel Hugo, Rianna Scheepers – to name just a few. He supported talent in other areas, employing Faldielah Booley, Nazli Jacobs and Nazley Murray at a time when working with people of colour was not common in South Africa.

Jürgen instilled in us a high standard of book production, a taste for quality, style and culture. He epitomised this himself, always sartorially splendid in his double-breasted blazer, smart shirts, classy ties and of course the ubiquitous Gauloises cigarettes. He even commissioned the colour of the Galeie van Jorik dust jacket to match the blue of the Gauloises cigarette pack.

He couldn’t part from his Volkswagen Beetle for many years, but eventually changed cars entirely, opting for a Japanese model. He lived modestly in his beloved Camps Bay flat before moving to Mutual Place in Sea Point, enabling his regular walks along the Beachfront. In the 1980s, he visited Thailand for the first time, leading to a lifelong love of the country and its people, making friends and returning every year to spend time in a Golden Triangle retreat. 

In my early days at Tafelberg, I spent hours sitting alongside Jürgen as he explained the finer points of book production to me. I was a sponge for the knowledge he so generously imparted. With Jürgen I entered a magical world of paper, print and ink, marvelling at his ability with type and his knowledge of publishing in general. He valued his editorial colleagues’ skills: Annari van der Merwe, Nonna de Villiers, Amanda Snyman, Charles Fryer, Danie Botha – to name but a few – but it was in book production and promotion that Jürgen shone. I learnt everything I know about books, publishing and promotion from Jürgen – and for that I’m eternally grateful.

Jürgen and I had an exceptional relationship: part father/daughter; part patron and student; and part bickering old married couple. But throughout it all, we were colleagues and more importantly friends. I salute Jürgen: master book maker, typographer, publisher, talent spotter and a hugely decent man – the likes of which I doubt I will ever meet again. I thank you for everything you brought me – and in the halting English of Bismarck to Queen Victoria – a play on words that Jürgen and I always found very funny – ‘I hope you have a good fahrt’ as you journey from this life to eternal rest.

Gill Vieler, Gerda Pretorius, Jürgen Fomm, Bobby Vasiljkovich and Linda Rademeyer - 1979 in the Tafelberg Publishers office, Waalburg Building, Cape Town, South Africa

Gill Vieler, Gerda Pretorius, Jürgen Fomm, Bobby Vasiljkovich and Linda Rademeyer - 1979 in the Tafelberg Publishers office, Waalburg Building, Cape Town, South Africa

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