Interview with IdleBeats’ Nini Sum

Ahead of our Underground Lovers/Dear Eloise split 7” Beijing release party and screen printing workshop on Sat, Sept 28, we caught up with the co-founder of China’s first independent screen printing studio to discuss the art of print, the creative process behind their exclusive Dear Eloise poster and the joys of running a studio.

In a country where grassroots creative culture continues to struggle to find permanent and sustainable footing, IdleBeats is one of China’s most inspiring success stories. Founded in November 2009 in Shanghai by Nini Sum and Gregor Koerting with the intent of bringing more original, affordable and local art to the domestic marketplace, IdleBeats was the first independent screen printing studio in the country and has remained a beacon for the country’s creatives ever since.

The pair’s specialty is screen printing, an ancient technique that uses woven mesh to support an ink-blocking stencil that prints anything from posters to T-shirts.

Sum and Koerting are known for collaborating with a variety of partners, including local concert promoters, recording artists and corporate brands seeking to make a connection with the country’s burgeoning young trendsetters, by adding a distinctive visual stamp to their sonic ideas.

While many studios utilize large machines to screen print a large amount of products, IdleBeats follows a careful handmade production process:

After developing a stencil of the desired image, Sum and Koerting stretch a ream of silk onto a wooden frame. The next step is to expose a series of patterns from a stencil onto the silk with a strong light. An ink-filled squeegee is then pulled across the screen to press the color through the exposed area so that the image is printed onto the material beneath. Repeat as necessary for each additional color or layer.

The underlying material — vinyl sleeve covers, for instance, like in the image below — is then dried, hand-numbered and finally sold on a limited-edition basis.

The duo have wildly differing, yet complementary, styles: Sum’s influences range from surrealism to pop art with a twist of Dadaism while Koerting, a Dresden native and former graffiti artist, tends to take a more retro approach, incorporating a blend of psychedelic, mythological and Art Deco elements that frequently result in provocative dystopian imagery.

In the four years since their founding, the pair has gradually extended their reach from functioning as a studio that produces a dizzying array of output — T-shirts, prints, pencil drawings, oil paintings, screen prints and even toy sculptures — to the more extroverted role as a community center in which the pair host a wealth of events for creatives and the general public that range from screen printing workshops, exhibitions, cultural exchange activities and other on-site tutorials.

IdleBeats screen printed the covers for our latest release, the self-titled Dear Eloise/Underground Lovers split 7”. Sum also designed an exclusive poster for Dear Eloise, a first for both sides. They’re hauling their gear to Beijing on Sat, Sept 28 to facilitate a screen printing workshop at the official release party, which means you get to see the entire screen printing process from start to finish.

We caught up with co-founder Nini Sum to learn more.

Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Nini Sum. Originally from Nanjing, I’m a painter, printmaker, illustrator and the manager of IdleBeats, a screen printing and graphic art studio based in Shanghai that I run with my partner, Gregor Koerting.

Have you always been interested in screen printing?
I first learned about it when I was in college. It didn’t raise too much of an interest at the beginning, not until later on when I saw some awesome Western gig posters from the 1960s and 70s and found out that they were all hand screen printed! Some of them were wrinkled and torn but the warm handmade feeling made them so special from the digital copies nowadays. After that, I started making prints in my bedroom until it got too messy to live in before I moved out to a friend’s studio space in a basement in Shanghai. Not long afterwards, we organized a fun open workshop to invite peeps over for a free printing afternoon — and that’s where I met my partner Gregor. He moved to Shanghai from Germany where he had created and screen printed some posters already. He was searching for a printing studio and ran into that workshop. We just started pulling prints from that day, all the way ‘til today!

Awesome! Do you remember some of those original posters?
I can’t recall exactly which bands’ posters those were, maybe ‘cause I jumped in there from the visual but not the music [laughs]. Something really psychedelic with trippy colors.

Are you still holding DIY workshops?
We still do free workshops and events — including the workshop on Sat, Sept 28 at the Other Place for the Dear Eloise release party — but the Saturday workshops are one-on-one tutorial ones. By knowing IdleBeats more and more, some local artists and designers or just print fans started asking if they could learn this technique at our studio; some of them have very delicate artworks that open workshops’ printing set-up couldn’t fulfill. Thus we started having Saturday classes and also provide studio space to people who want to use it for their own projects.

Do you consider IdleBeats to be a part of the music scene?
Hum, to be honest, I don’t know really about the “scene” — if we’re in there or out or even if there’s a clear boundary, really. One thing for sure is that we’re always open to collaborating with musicians, especially local artists. We appreciate their talent and value the atmosphere that we create together here, being supportive towards each other and generating great visuals and sound together. I guess that’s a “scene” member’s basics, right?

We’ve worked with local bands, labels and promoters like Li Zhi, Duck Fight Goose, Maybe Mars, Sub-Culture, S.T.D and of course, you guys, and the collaboration brings more than a poster but also a positive interaction as well as friendship — even comradeship. Yes, sometimes doing this indie and underground stuff in Shanghai feels like a battle and guess that’s what tightens these small groups of people together and makes ‘em into a “scene.” We’re just glad to be a part of it.

For this release, you’re planning on designing an exclusive poster for Dear Eloise.
When it comes to music posters, no matter if it’s a gig poster or one for a band like Dear Eloise, it has to be about the music: a poster should be a visual language that describes what the music’s like while at the same time opening the door of imagination. So more and more, I’m focusing on the atmosphere and listening to the album in different circumstances, like in different places, under different weather conditions and when I’m in different moods. In doing so, some visuals come to mind naturally. After that, it just takes time to look back and see which is the most suitable one.

Any solid ideas yet?
I really want to make a visual that fits the music. They’re my favorite band and I’ve been listening to their music for a long time. Nanjing is also my hometown and there are some similarities: If you grow up, you feel the same kind of vibes and I can feel that it in their music. I don’t want to be too personal, but want to give people the atmosphere when they listen to the music… just want to present a certain kind of vibe. For the idea, I want to present it like a screenshot from a movie.

Three weeks later…
After days of polishing the details, I’ve finally finished it! The main idea was to create a scene that brings people a kind of visual feeling that’s similar or connected to what it feels when you listen to Dear Eloise. So I was wandering around Nanjing one day and taking photos of a public park and people chilling around. Later on, this image of a boy playing in that park kept appearing when I was walking around the city listening to their music. Then I treated the photos into a certain mood, kept the color tones gray-ish and also added rain and moonlight effect, so it’s a bit moody and surreal, also like a frame from a movie, which leads to unknown stories.

It’s a great poster…
I feel very lucky because most musicians and promoters give us 100% creative freedom and trust us during the creation process and don’t demand any specific style or elements. I guess as artists, they are also aware that the best artworks always come from a free soul… otherwise it’d just become designs in office buildings.

Does the same philosophy apply to your corporate clients?
It depends. Because there are not only music fans behind the corporates, but their massive customers, so we can’t involve too many personal feelings into the art or activities like when we make art prints or design album covers. Otherwise, it just doesn’t make sense in a big crowd. However, I’d say the recent collaborations with brands became more and more interesting. We recently did a three-day live screen printing for Vans at Midi music festival in Beijing (see above). They paid us to bring all the equipment up from Shanghai to live print with the people who came to the festival. This might be the first time ever that there was a screen printing presence at music festival in China. Lots of people got to experience the technique for the first time and all of them had fun and enjoyed it. None of it would have happened without this corporate support.

What’s in the future for IdleBeats?
Neither Gregor or I are super-ambitious about the development of the studio, like turning it into the biggest printing studio in Asia or anything. We enjoy being at the studio everyday and being able to make art freely and work with people we like. And since we’ve recently moved into a bigger and chiller studio space, there’s nothing more to ask for! Well, I’m actually dreaming of attending Flatstock, the worldwide music poster convention, to sell our posters at music festivals in different cities in the world someday. That’d be fun!

Join IdleBeats and Genjing Records on Sat, Sept 28 at the Other Place for an official Beijing Design Week event that will double as a silkscreening workshop and the official domestic release party for our Underground Lovers/Dear Eloise split 7”.

For additional information, including galleries, event info and special features, feel free to follow Genjing Records and IdleBeats on social media.