Pick Me Up Contemporary Graphic Art Fair 2011: Sam Arthur of Nobrow speaks at Mokita

A conversation between Sam Arthur of Nobrow Press and Kingston University illustration lecturer Geoff Grandfield, which took place on Tuesday 22nd March 2011.

Written by Amelia Gregory

Sam Arthur of Nobrow by Yelena Bryksenkova
Sam Arthur of Nobrow by Yelena Bryksenkova.

Since Nobrow burst onto the scene in 2008 I’ve been a massive fan of their beautifully produced books and magazines – somehow they’ve managed to print a huge collection of work in just a short space of time and for the past two years they’ve been showcasing their wares at Pick Me Up. This year several of their featured artists were also amongst the newer names showing in the Ones to Watch section on the first floor so I was intrigued to hear Sam Arthur, one half of Nobrow, in conversation with Kingston University illustration lecturer Geoff Grandfield with interjections from Adrian Shaughnessy and Valerie Perezon. Below is a rough transcription of the conversation that ensued during the Mokita Symposium.

Nobrow 5 - A Few of My Favourite Things
Nobrow 5 – A Few of My Favourite Things.

Geoff: How did you decide that there was a market for your work?
Sam: We were inspired by publishers such as Le Dernier Cri, Bongout, and Fantagraphics: small places with an avante garde output. And we felt we could do something similar in this country. We’ve both been through the art college system, but I felt that most illustration was very industry based, always destined for a client. No one was generating their own material, for their own sake, so we felt there might be a gap in the market that we could exploit. Our aim is to get illustrators to do their own work – we just set a theme and a colour palette. We were unsure it would take off but we knew it was really important to print everything nicely.

Nobrow 5 - A Few of My Favourite ThingsNobrow 5 - A Few of My Favourite Things
Pages from Nobrow 5 – A Few of My Favourite Things

Geoff: In a way you turned the clock back.
Sam: We have a mix of influences, but we love all the old methods of printing. I guess these anachronistic methods of production have met the internet with Nobrow. People say that we have a very strong look but we love lots of different types of work and I think the similarity comes from the way we print things, and our restricted colour palettes. We look at every bit of work that comes to us and store it in memory bank for later. Then we might come back to it at the right time and ask does it communicate the right idea and can we work with this person on an individual basis? We are drawn to relatively expensive ways of printing, which is quite risky really but we want our stuff to look good, smell good and feel good.

Ford Almanac 1964
One of the images Sam chose for a slide show: a famous cover of the Ford Almanac 1964, illustrated by Charley Harper.

Geoff: Like scratch ‘n’ sniff?
Sam: There is definitely a shift back towards attention to detail; I had a paper merchant in recently and she was trying to push coated paper stock onto me, but of course I wasn’t interested. She moaned that no new graphic designer will ever uses it – I guess it’s because we like to be different and coated stock seems so common.
Geoff: Who is your audience?
Sam: In terms of an easily identifiable market it’s mainly students and working practitioners – there is a danger that we will never turn a profit and it will always be that way… For the people that aren’t so easy to label I’m sure there’s some marketing speak for them… maybe Rainbow Sky Crap Thinkers or something! But for us the most important thing is to remain close to our customers via our website and social networking.
Adrian: Mark Valli of Magma said he set up the shop because he realised that there was a big non professional audience, so maybe that is changing?…

Nobrow 5 - A Few of My Favourite ThingsNobrow 5 - A Few of My Favourite Things
Nobrow 5 – A Few of My Favourite Things.

Valerie Perezon: What is your editorial line?
Sam: We don’t mind how you describe yourself, we just chose what we like. Online we can be more adaptable, for example in a blog you can put across whatever idea of yourself you like. You can be illustrator or an artist one week and then a circus performer the next. But it all starts with being able to draw and communicate. For example we saw Jack Teagle at his graduate show and he immediately grabbed us. We are quite often drawn to print making because we like the restrictions of spot colour techniques but I think our tastes are quite diverse: we’re currently working with John Sibbick, who over the years has worked on dinosaur pictures and heavy metal covers.

The Bento Bestiary, illustrated by Ben Newman, former Amelia's Magazine contributor
The Bento Bestiary, illustrated by Ben Newman, former Amelia’s Magazine contributor.

Geoff: Do you ever tackle themes of social change?
Sam: We like to keep our themes interpretable, so that leaves them open to tackle social issues if people want to.

The Bento Bestiary, illustrated by Ben Newman, former Amelia's Magazine contributor
The Bento Bestiary, illustrated by Ben Newman.

Geoff: Did you know that 40% of the printed matter in world is Manga?
Sam: Because the magazine we produce is made up of collections of images on a theme it does tend to limit our mass appeal.
Adrian: There has generally been a huge move towards a very visual culture, but in UK we are still very much a literary culture – we value the word above all and image is not valued as much, apart from the F-word that is, photography… which is revered and valued.
Sam: The French publishing industry is underwritten by the government but here illustrated books are still seen as for children.
Adrian: I think the biggest drivers of imagery come from subcultures where the image is revered, but is it a weapon or a platform? Because something comes from a subculture does that mean by definition that it has a limited period of interest?
Sam: Yeah, and if I become too trendy then I cease to be… but I’m not trendy so that’s fine. Even if we did sell Nobrow Magazine in WHSmith no one would buy it so we know this title will always be relatively niche.

The Bento Bestiary, illustrated by Ben Newman, former Amelia's Magazine contributor
The Bento Bestiary, illustrated by Ben Newman.

The Bento Bestiary is out now and the fifth issue of Nobrow magazine has just been released with the title A Few of My Favourite Things.

Read my transcript of James Jarvis’ talk at Mokita, my review of the whole Mokita symposium or my review of this years Pick Me Up exhibition.

PS: I did scratch ‘n’ sniff for issue 04 of Amelia’s Magazine.

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