“We like to tell stories and do it in an innovative and beautiful way,” says founder Sam Arthur. “From the beginning we set out to make the most of illustration and illustrators, and we found when we started that they were very understated. In the way that we listen to writers and politicians, there’s some incredibly talented illustrators out there that have amazing ideas, and we said, ‘Yes, let’s hear those, and lets give you the platform to tell people about them.’ Approaching publishing from the visual was a way of giving something new to the market. And that was exciting to us, and still is.”
They showcase just how versatile and diverse the illustration world is
Nobrow’s magazines are beloved by artists and art directors alike, and back before the widespread coverage of illustration online were an essential source of new talent – a “go-to for brilliant drawing”, as Arthur says. But their appeal goes far beyond the creative industry, resonating with anyone that appreciates visual culture and great storytelling. Nobrow’s themed issues – which have covered everything from Gods & Monsters to Studio Dreams, for the latest edition – give illustrators enormous freedom to respond, and are dedicated solely to the stories artists want to tell.
“I can’t really think of anything in the UK like Nobrow that existed, when I was growing up,” says artist Ben Newman, who’s been working with the publisher since it started. “There was nothing produced in that way, with that loving attention to print and paper quality to make something that’s this treasured item. The Nobrow magazine allowed illustration to exist in a format that was readily available, but also tactile. They made it more accessible..”
“When I was a student in college, everyone saw Nobrow as THE illustration magazine,” adds Sally Deng, whose book about the female pilots of WW2 has just been released by Nobrow’s childrens imprint, Flying Eye Books. “I believe they’ve really set the bar high in terms of what an art magazine can be. They showcase just how versatile and diverse the illustration world is.”
However, while Nobrow is now known and loved, it launched during uncertain times. Arthur set up the company together with Alex Spiro on the brink of the recession, signing Nobrow’s Shoreditch office lease just before the Lehman Brothers collapse – something he says he might not have done, had it been a week or two later. “We were starting at a time that was terrible, really, for a business,” he notes.
Spiro was an illustrator himself, and Arthur was working as a director at the time – jobs they continued for a couple of years until Nobrow had found its feet. To begin with, the publisher managed a few screenprinted editions a year, but has since expanded its output. 2018 will see it deliver 37 new titles, with Nobrow books distributed in the US and Australia, and licensed in more than 20 different languages. And these days it’s not just book and magazine sales, with the company having expanded in all directions including launching children’s imprint Flying Eye, and investigating ways of bringing Nobrow characters to life on-screen via digital studio Minilab.
A Netflix series is also in the pipeline – which brings founder Arthur right back round to his former career as a director – and Nobrow has recently shown work from its latest Studio Dreams issue at the 2018 East London Comic Arts Festival. Work spilled over from the walls, also existing as three dimensional installations, and on a series of limited editions T-shirts made in partnership with Everpress.
I always wanted to tell stories and entertain people
“I don’t really feel like I’ve massively changed what I wanted to do,” says Arthur. “I always wanted to tell stories and entertain people, and I’ve gone from doing that with film to books, and then those books are finding their way back into TV and maybe film as well.” And despite running the company for ten years, the magic of publishing hasn’t worn off yet for Arthur. “When everything clicks, it’s incredible,” he says. “When I see a book come to fruition and a vision that an illustrator has had an inkling of go from a little seed of an idea to a finished book out in the wild, that is amazing.”