Book Table: Specific Ideas

Ursula catches up with Adam Swift Lucas of Specific Ideas ahead of Printed Matter’s LA Art Book Fair

Adam Swift Lucas. Photo: Logan Acton

  • Jul 28, 2023

This August, Printed Matter’s LA Art Book Fair returns to Los Angeles—for the first time since 2019—to unite artists, publishers, zine-makers, antiquarians and thousands of attendees with a passion for print. Hosted by the venerable New York bookstore and publisher, the fair offers aficionados everything from rare editions to inexpensive zines. Publications, however, constitute just part of the fair, which also gathers some of the most compelling voices in publishing for discussions, performances, workshops and special projects. The 2023 edition will take place August 10–13 at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, with more than 300 international exhibitors.

Ahead of the fair, Ursula caught up with exhibitor Adam Swift Lucas to talk publishing, collaboration and social justice. Lucas’s imprint, Specific Ideas, operates at the intersection of graphic design and publishing, with a portion of his work dedicated to supporting social justice efforts through pro bono service.

A spread from Black Coffee (2021) by Corey Antis

How was Specific Ideas started? As a publisher, what is your mission in bringing print to the table for readers? Adam Swift Lucas: Specific Ideas was founded in 2018 in Kansas City, Missouri. I had just moved from New York after shifting to a career of full-time teaching. The geographic move and career shift opened up time and space to grow my own creative practice, which was grounded in my prior work as a graphic designer. That avenue of my work gave me deep roots in typography, editorial design, book design, printing and self-publishing. This foundation materialized in different ways, from running a small press in grad school and later a graphic design studio in New York—both with my friend and New York-based designer Andrew LeClair—to working at various studios and agencies, to teaching at different schools. I've always been drawn to the ways in which ideas are formed, realized and circulated. As a graphic designer, I'm particularly equipped for that type of exploration.

The arc of the publishing process—from ideation and content creation; to design, printing and production; to distribution and circulation—provides a certain balance that I seek. Several aspects are highly collaborative and require cooperation and coordination with different people, while other elements are best developed alone. Similarly, projects range in their scope and speed. Some are complex, with many moving parts and collaborations, while others are almost instantaneous. An idea can surface and quickly form into something physical and tangible, such as self-initiated artist books or prints.

This all ties back to Specific Ideas and how the focus of our publishing output is print based. I believe that artists’ books and printed matter can be a highly accessible, distributable medium for artistic ideas—an ethos drawn from a legacy of established thinking about these materials. In the December 1976 issue of Art Rite magazine, the artist Pat Steir defined artist books as “portable, durable, inexpensive, intimate, non-precious, replicable, historical and universal.” These traits are what imbue print with the community-forming power that is so prevalent and palpable at art book fairs large and small.

Specific Ideas is both a graphic design studio and publishing house. What does it mean to you to combine these two practices into one creative endeavor, and what does that structure look like? ASL: First and foremost, Specific Ideas is a way to frame my multidisciplinary creative practice—not only for the audience, but also for myself in terms of how I do the work and how I think about it. The graphic design work is made up of mostly client- or collaborator-based projects, primarily within the cultural sector. The publishing output is also work that I design, but it circulates in the world as published forms—artist books, prints and other editions—that are produced and made public within and through my own independent publishing house. Oftentimes, and ideally, these two streams of work will overlap. An exhibition design project may feature a printed edition as part of its materials, or a publication may live a dual life as a website or video series. My knowledge and experience in graphic design—especially in typography and print production—informs the concepts, writing and editing phases of a project, and vice versa.

Cover of AutoSummarize (2023) by Jason Huff

AutoSummarize (2023) by Jason Huff

A portion of Specific Ideas’ practice is dedicated to supporting social justice efforts through pro bono services. How does this happen? ASL: Since my work as an educator is my primary source of income, I'm in a position of privilege where I don't need to rely on Specific Ideas to make money. Therefore, I'm able to reserve time, energy, and resources for more experimental work, self-initiated projects, and work in support of social justice efforts. The social justice initiative first emerged in June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd. I was inspired by a surge of mutual aid and collective care created by artists at the time, namely other presses like Paul Soulellis's Queer.Archive.Work in Providence and  txtBooks in Brooklyn. I made a quick Instagram post, offering free on-demand one-color Risograph printing of fliers, posters or pamphlets to support anti-racist efforts in the local Kansas City area. Those who wanted printing help included a local activist who wanted to make copies of a list of local resources for Black protestors—bail relief contacts, legal help and eye-flush first-aid instructions. While I could have simply printed the text file that she sent me, I proposed redesigning the information into a pocket-sized card to make distribution, transport and reading more effective. I also knew that solution would save on paper and production time. I ended up designing and producing 1,000 cards in less than twenty-four hours. That project helped me realize how the two-part structure of Specific Ideas can fulfill the needs of others in a synergistic way—that when functioning together, graphic design and publishing are more effective at amplifying voices and ideas than when they’re apart.

Why books? What does print mean for you? **ASL:**I don't think there's any one ideal project for me, but there is an optimal balance between a sharp and steady beat of smaller, faster, self-initiated projects, and a pulsing drone of larger, slower collaborative projects. One mode isn't better than the other and each can produce meaningful results.

A good example of a larger, collaborative project that feels like it hits the mark is our forthcoming release, AutoSummarize. Launching at the Printed Matter LA Art Book Fair, it's a new edition of an artist book by Jason Huff that features the top one hundred most-downloaded copyright-free ebooks, summarized using Microsoft Word 2008’s AutoSummarize function, an early predecessor to AI software. The process of making this book has always felt rich and complex without being heavy or clunky, filled with moments of learning and discovery.

Something in nothing (2022) by Adam Swift Lucas

The fliers for NEW NEW NEW Car Show curated by Rachel Ferber

As a panelist in the fair’s “Mornings in the Garden: Talks on Bookmaking” series, what are you most excited about presenting?

ASL: I'm really looking forward to that series and feel honored to be a part of it. I'll be joining a panel with Jason Huff, the LA-based artist behind AutoSummarize, the book I mentioned above, and the folks at Anteism Books, an excellent artist book publisher from Montreal. The discussion will focus on how we’ve navigated “collaborating” with AI-based technologies as part of our publishing projects, but of course it most likely will wander into other areas. While AI is obviously a hot-button topic right now, artist books and independent publishing have always been about enabling autonomy, agency and creativity for all, so there's a natural and spicy clash when you throw these two seemingly opposing forces together. In a way, it's creativity vs. un-creativity. Maybe they can work together? Or maybe art is the antidote for AI?

I'm excited to talk about all of that, and more. The other panels look great too, and they include folks both familiar—Inventory Press, Garrick Gott—and new to me!

What’s next for Specific Ideas? ASL: My partner and I just relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, so we are happily staying in the Midwest and excited to discover what a new city has to offer. In terms of new projects, I'll be soon commencing the design of a three-volume box set of artist books featuring the drawings of Corey Antis. It builds on a previous limited Risograph edition we finished last year, but this time we plan for a larger, printed offset run, and we’re excited to get the books into more hands!

I’m also looking forward to revisiting and wrapping up a book of photography from the Iranian-American artist David Dini that's been chugging along for a while. It’s a photographic meditation on the struggle between built and natural environments, such as the tension between power lines and trees throughout upstate New York.

Lastly, I collaborate with my partner, Rachel Ferber, a multidisciplinary artist, on the exploratory, project-based design initiative called NEW NEW NEW, which confronts human impact on the environment through various real and speculative solutions. Our next project is a publication together, so look for that coming down the pike as well!

Adam Swift Lucas is a graphic designer, publisher and educator living and working in Cleveland. In addition to running Specific Ideas, he is Associate Professor and Chair of Graphic Design at Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) and one half of NEW NEW NEW with his partner, Rachel Ferber.

For more information, visit the Printed Matter LA Art Book Fair. When the fair opens on August 10th, be sure to visit Specific Ideas, as well as Hauser & Wirth Publishers, who will be featuring new titles on Cindy Sherman, Frank Bowling, Jack Whitten and Maria Lassnig.

As part of LA Art Bookfair’s Offsite Programs, join us in the garden on August 13th at Hauser & Wirth Downtown LA to hear Lucas and artist Jason Huff discuss their work together on Huff's book ‘AutoSummarize.’ Register here for the talk and learn more about the series ‘Mornings in the Garden: Talks on Bookmaking and Collaboration.’