Kevin Lippert: Genuine Polymath
Kevin Lippert, the founder and longtime publisher of Princeton Architectural Press, passed away this week after a long fight against cancer. His name may not be familiar to the broad public, but he was a vital figure in the conjoined worlds of architecture, design, and publishing.
He was both a mentor and a friend to me. I worked under him for more than a decade at PAPress, and we remained close in the years following. Although I joined the press after graduate school and a stint with the independent publisher George Braziller, I learned more from Kevin—about architecture, about books, about business—than from any other figure in my professional life.
Kevin liked to quote a maxim he attributed to Brian Eno: “When you reach a fork in the road, take it.” It was an impossible imperative, but he tried to live by it. He was a genuine polymath. Kevin could have been a concert pianist. (In addition to talent and intelligence, he had large hands.) He loved to garden, but he was also a computer wizard. He founded not only an architectural publisher, but a tech services company.
He achieved the impossible with both: The tech company, Design Systems, collapsed in the 1990s, at a moment when it seemed like everyone else with a tech business was getting rich. At the same time, Princeton Architectural Press blossomed. That was Kevin, but it showed you what he cared about most, besides family: architecture and books.
Kevin founded Princeton Architectural Press while he was still in grad school at Princeton. It was the era of Postmodernism, and students were borrowing details from books on classical architecture, and one of the favorites was Letarouilly’s Edifices de Rome. But Princeton only had one copy. Ever the entrepreneur, Kevin somehow convinced the school to let him borrow the book, disassemble it, reproduce it, and then return it reassembled. His classmate Eric Kuhne did the cover lettering for the new edition: gold serif type on black.
And so Princeton Architectural Press was born. He sold the books out of his car. After graduation, he moved the company to New York’s Lower East Side (before it was trendy), setting up in a brownstone down the block from Cooper Union. And so the name became an albatross: Princeton Architectural Press was not in Princeton, not formally associated with the university, not an academic publisher—and then there was the acronym: PAP. Ugh.
The classic reprint series was essential to the founding of the press, but Kevin was not a historicist. He was interested in new ideas, in new voices as well as old ones. There was a space between the academic, theory-heavy MIT Press and the coffeetableism of Rizzoli, and PAPress would fill that gap. It was the voice of the young practitioner, of the architectural avant-garde.
Kevin was the first publisher of a variety of critical figures, among them Steven Holl, Diller and Scofidio, and Lebbeus Woods. It wasn’t only monographs: history, theory, reprints, essay collections—the attack was broad. And it wasn’t just architecture. The downstairs neighbors were the brilliant design thinker/practitioners Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller, and they became regular collaborators. Lupton is undoubtedly PAPress’ bestselling author (and probably by a factor of 10). That association led to a focus on design beyond architecture, with authors including Michael Bierut, Ed Fella, Paula Scher, Tibor Kalman, Steven Heller, Robert Brownjohn, Lorraine Wild, Rick Poynor, and many more.
Kevin appreciated good writing, and he was an exceedingly good writer himself, although he rarely exercised that talent. An exception was the essay he would write for the inside front cover of every PAPress catalog. No matter what books followed, these were always my favorite parts of that production. They were conversational, thoughtful, and funny, and established the context for what we were doing, and who we (and he) was. I “edited” many of them, and by “edited” I mean didn’t touch a word. They were letter perfect, invariably.
Another exception was the introduction he wrote for a small monograph of the futuristic models, constructed of bric-a-brac, by the architect John Johansen. These charming visions, embracing modernity and technology but with great humanity, spoke to the can-do, optimism that was his own spirit.
Kevin was a wonderful, if utterly confounding, boss. He believed publishing was a collaborative project, and so every member of the staff was thanked on the credit page of every PAPress book. He was warm, generous, kind, funny. It was a pleasure to travel with him. But he hated to say no, which could be its own problem. He balked at tough decisions. And he was always, always late.
Kevin was first diagnosed with brain cancer nearly two decades ago. That we had him for this long was a blessing. And so the joke that we all made innumerable times now writes itself: Kevin was late for his own funeral.
Not late enough.
Featured image: Kevin Lippert at Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany. Photo by the author.