Behind the zines
The life and work of independent publisher Benjamin Sommerhalder
Words: Kassia St Clair
Photography: Nicole Bachman
“It was always a dream of mine to have my own publishing house,” Benjamin Sommerhalder says, pausing self-consciously. “But it was almost like, not a joke precisely, but kind of a crazy idea. You think of Diogenes here in Zurich or Taschen, and it’s absurd to think of an individual like me, in my early twenties, just starting something like that.”
If it ever seemed absurd, it certainly doesn’t anymore. Sommerhalder, now 45 years old, has been the sole proprietor, creative director and guiding light of the Nieves publishing house since 2001. When we speak, he is in his office, one of two rooms – the other being his shop – in the tiny Nieves HQ on a hip street in Zurich, right around the corner from a café called Bros Beans & Beats. He is softly spoken, shy but friendly. He half-laughs often, usually at himself. Each time I ask him a question, he pauses just long enough before answering that I begin to doubt if he has heard me: it takes a few minutes to adjust to the way he leaves space for thought.
Today, Nieves produces several artists’ books and around 20 artists’ zines a year, usually in small batches a few times annually. “When we started there were three zines per month, but now it is more sporadic: every three months we’ll release five or so.” On the day we speak, three have been released. There is no rigid production schedule to be followed: Sommerhalder, sometimes aided by an intern, is free to be guided by the rhythms of the individual artists he is working with.
For collectors – and he has built up something of a cult following – Nieves’ zines, although each is a standalone work, function as a series. They’re A5, staple-bound, roughly the same length and printed in limited editions of up to 150 using a black-and-white photocopier; the artist is free to choose the paper colours. The content of each issue, however, will be unique. “It could be an artist from Japan, Switzerland, or anywhere in the world: they won’t have anything in common.” Artists with a Nieves publication to their name include Ari Marcopoulos, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Yukari Miyagi, Rita Ackermann, Stefan Marx and the American skateboarder-illustrator Ed Templeton.
Zines emerged from the tight-knit world of science-fiction fandom in the 1930s, becoming a space where people could share ideas and collaborate. A generation later, the format became a staple of the counter-culture movements of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in the US, where they were co-opted by the Beat and punk scenes, helping connect like-minded people across the country. For Sommerhalder, it was initially their speed, fluency and low cost that drew him in.
He began producing a magazine called Zoo while still at art school in Zurich but grew disenchanted with the time and expense involved. It was on a trip to Japan, while visiting a Tower Records store in Tokyo, that Sommerhalder came across the zine – by the American artist Chris Johanson – that inspired him. “I really fell in love with the concept of these little books: you don’t need a lot of money, you can put them together quickly, by yourself. All you need is a copy shop.”
Although Nieves is perhaps best known for its zines, his exacting nature and diverse artistic tastes soon led him to begin producing books too. “I am not a fan of colour photocopiers. I just don’t like the quality: it has a glossy, greasy feel to it. And the colours are really not nice.” This presented a problem when Sommerhalder came across artists whose work necessitated colour. “Now I can approach them to do an offset book or possibly a risograph, which gives such a great texture, and the colours are almost like silkscreen prints.”
Sommerhalder’s guiding concerns in all he does are quality, simplicity and instinct. The editorial policy is guided by his own taste. “I always say that it needs to touch me, but it’s tough, because there’s so much good stuff.” Sometimes he meets artists in person, but most communication is done by email. He likes his publications to be simple, perhaps built around a theme and stripped of distracting commentary or superfluous text. He’s particularly proud of a recent risograph publication with the Gothenburg-based designer Andreas Samuelsson, whose work has appeared everywhere from the cover of the New York Times magazine to Aesop packaging. “We’ve worked with him on a book before, and were thinking we could do a zine, but settled on risograph. It’s only in black and white, but it turned out so well,” he enthuses. “Just the ink on the paper and the texture and the quality of the print…”
This minimal aesthetic is mirrored in the spaces in which he lives and works. The Nieves office and shop, furnished with Vitsœ, are a five-minute cycle ride from his home. He’s proud of it: he only moved in six months ago. A connecting door links to the clothing store “by”, also furnished with Vitsœ. Before that, he had always worked in places that felt temporary. “One felt like a squat, another was in an old house that was going to be torn down.” This one, however, he tells me is a “proper shop”, capturing the spirit of his own favourite bookstores even if it does only sell Nieves’ own publications.
As Sommerhalder talks, it is clear his work still holds the same wonder and pride for him as it did when Nieves was first launched. “It’s nerve racking to get a book or zine back from the printer. The feeling of opening the boxes has never changed. Sometimes I just let the box sit there for a day or so, then when I feel ready, I can open it.” He pauses, perhaps looking down at the unopened boxes at his feet in the office. “It’s great when they arrive and they’re just perfect and how they’re supposed to be. That is always a happy moment.”