There’s a ghost that haunts the backstreets of Zurich. It’s called Knigi. Turn at the right moment as you walk along Ankerstrasse and you’ll see him floating on the side of a building. Nestled behind the unassuming walls on which he’s painted are the headquarters of indie zine publisher Nieves.
The scene within is a microcosm of modern-day Switzerland: the shabby building sits opposite a restaurant renowned for its schnitzel, and flanked by an ancient wooden barn that houses a hip-hop record store. Behind the large glass window is a space that is just as concise, simple, and rough-around-the-edges as the booklets the publisher is famous for.
For over 15 years Nieves has been quietly building its reputation as a source of these charming zines. Published two or three times a month, they’re available individually or as a treasure trove of an annual bundle. Unwrapping one could reveal a collection of scrawled illustrations, song lyrics, photographs, and many other things besides. No two editions are the same, and there’s certainly no formula.
The man behind Nieves, and Knigi’s creator, is Benjamin Sommerhalder, who “just liked the idea of having my own publishing house. I don’t know why…” While studying graphic design, the idea began as a way of distributing his art magazine, Zoo. “When it started it was me getting in touch with people. Now it’s a bit more two-way. By 2005 I realized there was a little bit of money coming in and enough people were interested in it.”
In the years since, collaborations have come thick and fast, and the list now reads like a cross-disciplinary cast of cult characters. Director Spike Jonze submitted a series of stills from his short film I’m Here, and Sonic Youth guitarist and songwriter Thurston Moore created “a proper punk zine” as supplement to Kim Gordon’s photography book, Chronicles Vol. 1. In collaborating with Gordon, Sommerhalder achieved a life’s ambition.
Sommerhalder has a long-standing collaborative partner in artist Stefan Marx. Having has lost count of how many times they’ve worked together, he counts him as a friend and vital part of the Nieves story. One conversation with Marx resulted in a striking collaboration with Los Angeles-based singer Ariel Pink. “I didn’t know much about Ariel Pink at the time,” says Sommerhalder, “but Stefan was a big fan.”
Sommerhalder sees his role as arbiter more than designer. “The concept is to have as little graphic design as possible. Ideally the title and credits are all written by the artists, and I try not to interfere with any text inserts or anything.”
The resurgence in the popularity of zines was preempted by Sommerhalder: “When I started it wasn’t a big thing, people didn’t know what they were.” Over time that’s changed, and Nieves has ridden that wave. Zurich’s recent independent publishing fair, Volumes, saw producers of prints, magazines, and books coming together with similarly lo-fi approaches. As Sommerhalder describes, “The city somehow accommodates publishers—maybe it’s tradition. The infrastructure is amazing, the post office works, and it’s kind of small…”
One part of this infrastructure that played a key role in enabling Nieves to thrive is Swiss supermarket chain Migros, who run a cultural center for creatives who lack their own production equipment. It was here that Benjamin created his first zines, and even today he still uses the photocopier at his local print house to reproduce most of the books.
The constantly evolving property landscape in Zurich has also played its role. Previously Nieves was housed in the legendary Perla-Mode art commune, on Langstrasse. This area is home to strip bars, ad agencies, and fine dining, and now almost completely gentrified. Perla-Mode’s legendary parties defined a generation of young Swiss creatives, but the building is now to become part of a chain of vegetarian buffets.
Nieves’ current home is also scheduled for demolition—“it’s not efficient enough”—but has a few years of life left. “This is my favorite space so far, as I’m on my own. Before I’ve always shared with other people, and it’s always a compromise. You have to see what works for everyone and water down your vision.”
A modest desk serves as Sommerhalder’s workspace. The center of the room is dominated by two large Dieter Rams chairs by Vitsoe—Sommerhalder’s office serves as their showroom in Zurich. Sunk between their leather arms one is dwarfed by towers of zines, books, and prints stacked on modular shelves, of which Sommerhalder is a devoted fan.
His time in the studio is spent at his modest desk facing a wall of zines, allowing him to easily find the location of specific books from memory. When visitors join, the magnificent leather chairs come into their own, but any more than two visitors at a time and the tiny space reaches capacity.
The space is used as both an office and a showroom, but Sommerhalder insists it’s not a shop. “Sometimes people confuse it for a book shop, but it’s a showroom and office combined, with a selling area. You could call it a shop, but it’s always closed.” It is open on Saturdays though, when tourists tend to be the only customers. “The Swiss feel a bit awkward about it.”
More often than not, people are attracted either by Ingo Giezendanner’s chaotic mural painted on the shop’s side, or by our friend Knigi. Now Nieves’ logo, the ghost can be spotted on stickers and canvas bags around the more bohemian areas of town, and has become such an underground favorite that Sommerhalder has given him his own children’s book.
Sommerhalder is coy about future collaborations, reluctant to jinx any he might be working towards. Recent publications with Geoff McFetridge could be seen as a step towards populism, but then again, the latest release is a book of existential urination illustrations called Peelosophies. As long as Nieves remains subject to Sommerhalder’s eccentric taste, anything is possible.