Who is the Brother in Elysium?
The name of Jon Beacham‘s Brooklyn based publishing imprint, The Brother in Elysium, came from a book written by the poet William Bronk titled “The Brother In Elysium: Ideas of Friendship and Society in the United States.” It focuses on that subject in relation to the authors Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. Outside of Beacham’s interest in the content and its focus on these three writers, he says he was “moved by the gesture of a young man trying to write such a book, and by Bronk dedicating it to his friend and teacher.” This gesture has been the cornerstone of his small press, “and has been at root in every book I have published thus far.” His letterpress publishing is dedicated to a love of words and how they are communicated. Beacham is one of a small army of revivalists who bring tradition and innovation to the vintage means of production. I recently asked him about his passion.
How did you establish yourself as The Brother in Elysium? Outside of making visual art, I had been making a living after finishing school in the used book field. I began selling books on my own in 2007 focusing primarily on small press poetry publications of the post-war period up through the 1970s. This led me to the feeling of wanting to not only make books, but include printing as a medium of working in my art-making practice. I had no knowledge and experience of printing, but knew the feel and tone of the books I wanted to create. I bought a tabletop platen press and a few cases of type to begin with, and then slowly began acquiring more tools. I met Dan Morris, who runs The Arm in Brooklyn, NY, and since then we quickly become very close friends. He schooled me in the basics of the machines and technical aspects of printing in a very short period of time, and after that learning curve, I just immediatly began making books.
You are retaining and upholding the small press traditions. What prompted this dedication to printing and books? I was very influenced by working in used bookstores in San Francisco and New York City. This is where I came across most of the material that has turned me on. Much more so than studying in school. I made money through being a book scout, and was always going to used bookstores looking around and coming across books I didn’t know about, and that piqued my curiosity. I felt there was a mystique to books and this experience, and decided it was a medium I wanted to explore. When I began to learn about small presses and that tradition, I was taken right away by how vast it was. There are so many interesting and important presses of the 20th century creating books and small publications, that I am always learning of new ones as my interests grow and shift. To recognize the context of why people were making these books was important to discover, and to try and join this tradition and create and leave behind books that are of quality is very important to me.
How and why do you select the manuscripts and art that you do for publication? I select material to publish solely on my relationship to the work and my personal connection to the author. I have published two books on the poet d.a. levy (1942–1968) who, like myself, was from Cleveland, Ohio, and worked solely from that location during his life. I did those works based on a number of reasons. My connection to Cleveland was a major influence, and the fact that there were so few good titles in print of his work. The spirit and energy of the work he created I felt akin to, especially in regards to coming to printing as an outsider with no real formal training and instruction. One collection in particular I did titled (can we hold hands out here) was a collection I edited, and wrote an essay on his life and work. There were two editions to that, the second edition being a more revised, and more thorough book published in 2013. Initially I went and researched special collections libraries in Ohio looking at most of his printed and published output. This was an attempt to do something very thorough as an editor and publisher on someone who I admired and respected, but only after really sitting with the work for years beforehand.
Two other books I have published (with the poet Joshua Beckman, and artist Herbert Pfostl) came out of friendships, which called for the situation to make a serious work together. Both of these books were collaborations, but could only exist on the idea that if we are friends, and we are making things—something needs to be done about it. The amount of communication that went into those two books could only happen with a deep love and respect for each other. All of the books I am doing are completely done by hand. Setting the type, running each sheet through the press, folding each sheet, sewing all the signatures, etc. I am doing these books in trade editions of 300 copies. It is a severe physical commitment. There has to be a very strong intention to even complete the process, and I feel somehow this comes out in the physical object that people pick up on whether they know what’s behind it or not. You cannot create or force energy and feeling like that unless there is really something behind that.
You also offer Letterpress services. Am I right in assuming that while this is of greater interest to designers, the polymer shortcuts may be undercutting your service? The interest in letterpress that has resurfaced in the past decade has been a complicated phenomenon. There is more confusion than ever about what letterpress printing actually is. Photo-polymer plates have caused a lot of this confusion. The practice of letterpress is informed by the possibilities and limitations of its tools. There is both a freedom and limitation in this that speaks directly to me and how I think and work, and is the reason why I have become so involved in it. Traditionally letterpress printing is working with metal and wood type, and with illustrative and artwork capabilities possible through carving blocks, and making magnesium cuts and copper image blocks. Polymer plates are suited to digital files. We are in a time now where the majority of designers have no experience in letterpress and are working exclusively in digital. Most often now, designers are not familiar with these capabilities and limitations, and it seems to me that many of them are not interested in learning about them. They just want something “made by hand” that usually has no relationship to that idea, and think that almost anything can be printed letterpress. Personally, I try hard not to work in polymer for job printing, and get clients to work in type. As a medium, I feel polymer does not print very well, especially in comparison to quality metal type. Many people do not know the difference, and partly because they have not had the chance to really look at a lot of printing from type. I try to work with people and explain the process of letterpress and type. When working with clients, I like to have them come into the studio and look at proofs, especially the actual type forms in the bed of the press. By doing this, people then start to understand more what it is, and have a greater appreciation for it. I find this to be a much more fulfilling relationship in the end.
What are the books you are working on now, and how do they fit into your larger philosophy of printing? Currently I am working on a letterpress pamphlet and ephemera subscription where people subscribe, and I send them works through the mail. It’s a one-time enrollment fee of $40, and it does not expire. Subscribers get 3–4 items per year. It’s an ambitious program, but the intention is to have a sizable following taking part, where financially it can still function. My goal is that a large amount of people will end up with an interesting body of work from my press, and through this there will be a connection. I have always been interested in ephemera. It’s a word and format I think some people are becoming unfamiliar with as we move away from material, so I like pushing that medium and ideas related to it. Having the background and tools that I do, the idea of this program came naturally and at a good time for the press. I feel it’s a very direct way for people to support the press, stay in the loop with what I am doing and walk away with something that you cannot quantify monetarily. So far this subscription program has 50 subscribers, and I would very much like to see that list double within the next year. The act of making work, and sending it through the mail to people who have expressed interest in what I am doing feels really good. I have been getting really good feedback so far. Additionally, there will be another full-length book publication in 2015, but I’m keeping that under wraps for now.
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About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →