SmSh: This is the two heads and one voice behind PLUSMINUS, an indie publishing and design agency based in Shanghai. Luna is a Chinese artist and illustrator, and Maurice is a German creative designer. Together, under the banner of PLUSMINUS, they also run "Union Press", which is an indie publishing label that curates an annual zine showcasing emerging illustration talent from all over the PRC. 30 artist, 80 pages, 600 editions. Along with the annual zine, they also publish one-off zines like the guidebook “Sightseeing China", illustration series’, and other random screen-printed things that will stay on your coffee table and / or the back of your toilet for the rest of your life.
For their commercial work, they take on branding, design, and advertising projects, working with clients mainly in the fashion industry, creating branding, digital content, and apparel.
For more of them, search out "PLUSMINUS UNION" on WeChat. And check out their Instagram: plusminus.union.
Maurice: I’m Maurice from Germany — originally from Germany — but grew up moving all over the place with my family. And Luna here is from China. She is an artist and illustrator. And I guess I would call myself a creative designer.
Originally, my father came to China to open a studio at the Shanghai Institute of the Visual Arts. He was invited over. This was round the time of the Shanghai Expo. End of 2009. At the time, I was still pretty young and thought that China sounded exciting. I just wanted to come over and check it out. So, I came over with my father and never really left. Thats also how I met Luna; she was studying at SIVA. Now, my parents have left a long time ago but we’re still here.
I had started a magazine in Brussels with my friend Danny who is also here now. We started Fuck You as more of a satirical, Vice Magazine sort of thing. We wanted to make it glossy, like a satire of a fashion magazine. Also, we wanted to be able to give it away and not have a publisher behind it. So, we were in that whole free zine sort of world, y’know, trying to get advertisers to pay for it. We wanted to do it monthly and it looked pretty good for the time, considering we had no money behind it.
But every month… that’s not easy. So this one we’re working on here [Union Press' annual zine] we just said, “let’s just do one a year.’ [Laughs.]
Union Press, we founded last year, in connection with this first zine which was released in 2020. So, the idea is that Luna and I have our other advertising and branding agency, PLUSMINUS, but with Union Press, we wanted to just do something out of passion, and also get involved with and support and promote the underground illustration scene in China.
So it’s non-commercial. Its become our moniker for our self-published stuff and our self-produced artwork -- everything that we do artistically — the yearly zine, the silk screen prints, the other tour guide book -- everything that we self-initiate independently without commercial backing. All of it is small-scale. Like 20-25 hand-printed silkscreen prints.
So, the zine we started, because our daily life was doing digital design, video photography, and WeChat content for our client brands, who are mostly in the fashion industry. We are pretty passionate about fashion but at the end of the day it’s commercial work. Also, we started noticing after a while, that when you work in branding and advertising, the work you do, it tends to fade away only after just a few days even. People just digest it on their WeChat Moments or whatever — their digital lives — and then just move on to the next digital content.
So we wanted to create something outside of a digital platform and something that can stay and still be relevant in a few years time. The thinking was, that digital content is hard to surface after a few years because it gets buried, but with a physical media, you can forget about it on your coffee table or on the back of your toilet and it pops up again. Hopefully, you open it up again and it makes you laugh or you encounter a new way of thinking about an artist in the zine that you experienced earlier.
We also just wanted to invite all the artists we thought would be really cool. So it’s kind of curated by us, and hopefully works as a kind of showcase for illustrators and artists around China to get their work seen by more people . To cast a wider net and reach farther. This first one, I’d say for the contributors maybe 70% of the artists were already within our network. For the next one is more like 50%. We're trying to reach farther out.
After publishing the first one, we really pushed it, traveling to all the fairs, book fairs, and art markets. We kind of did a big tour, trying to show off this release. We only printed 600 copies — super limited — but for the larger book fairs, you’d get like 1000 people coming through and flipping through the thing. So, the reach is much wider.
The basic premise is that we have a theme, and we ask the contributing artists to create something inspired by that theme, So the theme for the first one is “All My Idols”, which is eight artists addressing the concept of idolization — heroes, childhood influences, professional influences, religious. Positive and negative. So, it gives the artists the opportunity to not only show their artwork and style, but their thoughts.
Theophil is just a really great artist. In this book, he has these portraits of director / auteurs as their famous characters. John Waters as Divine, David Lynch as Dale Cooper.
Morecrew is a local graffiti artist. The funny thing about him is his easy to understand iconic style. You instantly know who it is when you see his work on buildings around China.
For our commercial work we do lots of different things — key visuals and annimation for project launches, for digital or maybe even in-store. The other side is more related to our artwork and creating some apparel. For Converse, for exampl,e we designed this shoe in collaboration with Lay Zhang, who was the celebrity face of Converse at the time.
The challenge was that this musician, face of Converse, wanted something that represented him as a Chinese artists. In the end we came up with this simple porcelin-inspiired look. Super clean look. We’re also doing a new collection of t-shirts from them. For China, inpsired by China.
In general, fashion has become such a central thing in China, and especially in Shanghai. You know, people are really considering how they show their taste, how they show their style, how they show their wealth, through how they dress and show themselves to the world.
I feel this hype is sort of dying down. It almost gotten to the point where everyone is looking pretty cool these days. I feel that the next step is expressing yourself with how you live in your own home. What am I going to put on my walls? How can I express myself there? Affordable art. Affordable art from this new generation of artists. So, I think its a really good time to have this project and help to grow this movement.
We’re sort of on the outside of the fine art / gallery scene here in Shanghai. We have a hard time fitting into the mould and it’s all very commercial. If you want to work with a gallery, they’re going to want the classical set-up of the gallery takes 50% for a curator or gallery fee. And it’s hard when you are coming from a grassroots perspective and working in smaller scale to an audience that can’t afford high prices.
So, we don’t go to galleries, we just do our own exhibitions. We also have this idea that we want to be able to do shows that anyone who comes in is able to walk out the door with a piece of art. Which is just not possible if you’re charging 50,000 RMB for an original work. I mean, Luna’s artworks, the originals are 20-30K, but we will silkscreen prints. You can still get something handmade by the artist for 500 RMB or so. Digital prints are even cheaper. It’s all about making it accessible.
The guidebook came about because we applied to be a part of the book fair for this book, the zine “All My Idols”, but then we though ‘oh, we need more books’. So we wanted something super fun and quick. It grew into a bigger project with 50 pages of illustration. In the end we were really happy with it.
The concept is that it’s modeled on a tour guide book — one that you would buy as soon as you came into the country. And it’s just the strange sights — coming from a foreigner’s perspective at least — that you actually see when you explore the city and country. Funny tour groups. Elderly people with gigantic cameras taking photos at the park. Water calligraphy on the streets. Sights that you think are amazing, inspiring, insane, but quite happy to be able to experience. So the illustrations are these sights but twisted in a way. “Loosely” inspired by our own experience.
Where do we eat in Shanghai? Street noodles but they’re all gone. Actually, we used to just go sit out in front of the Family Mart and drink beers. Bottle of vodka with some orange juice and street barbeque but they took it away from us!
Home cooked Chinese food now…
We’re lucky that we live at Suzhou Creek because they just finished this whole walkway here. This river-side development. So, we pretty much go for a walk every day. We just work all day at home and then we go for a walk. That’s our daily routine.
But we love to travel and explore China. I think this is our biggest hobby. Go to all the smaller cities and villages, and go hiking. Taizhou is where we went recently. Mountains and rivers… you should really go!
PLUSMINUS has a booth at this market event this weekend if you want to meet them and pick up some affordable art. Keep an eye out for the Union Press 2021 yearly zine later this year. They're socials again: "PLUSMINUS UNION" on WeChat and "plusminus.union." on the 'gram.
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