By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
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By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
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One L.A.-based company currently throwing haymakers in the cause of good coffee-table fare is Greybull Press. Three rabid bibliophiles — Roman Alonso, Lisa Eisner and Lorraine Wild — launched Greybull in 1999, with the mission of creating DIY-style art books for a market sorely lacking in worthwhile offerings.
“All of us buy tons of books,” Alonso confesses, sipping Tejava in his house and office overlooking Hollywood on a recent afternoon. “And more and more we were finding that so much of what we were buying were out-of-print titles. The books currently being published just weren’t interesting to us.”
Being hands-on kind of people with formidable résumés in publishing, design, fashion and PR, the Greybull Three decided that, while endlessly trolling bookstore aisles was good clean fun, it was time to put out a few books themselves. Over the past five years, Greybull has gained a cult following for titles such as Rodeo Girls, Height of Fashion, 1712 North Crescent Heights(by Dennis Hopper), and R. Crumb’s Gotta Have ’Em.
Alonso says Greybull’s genesis goes back to 1998, when he suddenly found himself jobless after his boss, designer–cum–media darling Isaac Mizrahi, announced that he was calling it quits. Eisner, who had known Alonso socially and professionally for years — they worked together at Mizrahi — insisted that he move out to L.A., where she had been living since 1987.
“I was like, ‘You grew up in Venezuela and Miami, what are you doing in New York? That place is like a shithole!’” recalls Eisner, finishing Alonso’s story — something they both do a lot. “You’ve got to move to California. This is like Utopia. And we can start a publishing company together!” Feeling like maybe it was time to take a breather from the NYC grind, Alonso signed on for a temporary tour.
“L.A. has this whole ‘Wild West’ thing going on where you can totally reinvent yourself and really be anything you want. I wanted to do something different, and a leap like this seemed impossible back in NYC,” Alonso says. “I’d worked in PR at Barneys and for Isaac, and it was just like I was in this little box. Out here, it’s like nobody really cares. It’s the Wild West.”
Lorraine Wild met Eisner through gallerist Shaun Regen of Regen Projects. Later they would work on an eventually scrapped ad campaign for Mizrahi, but the initial collaboration was formative.
“I remember coming to meet with Lisa, and we starting talking books, and I could tell right away just by the books that were stacked up on her coffee table. I was like, ‘Aha, we are sympathetic,’” Wild says of her first encounter with Eisner.
The burgeoning outfit, taking a fully democratic approach to various duties, from design to branding, quickly put together a portfolio in a hand-bound box that included three 20-page book proposals, a logo designed by Wild, and also a mission statement. The intention was to sell the package to publishers as an imprint. “But all the publishers, although they liked the ideas and wanted to sign on immediately,” Alonso recalls, “wanted to control production, and since we all loved books and collected books and knew exactly what we wanted and liked, we were just like, ‘No way, we can’t live with that.’” Adds Eisner: “I mean, with books like this, what do you even make on them, like five dollars? If we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it because we love it.”
A meeting with Lee Kaplan of Santa Monica’s Arcana bookstore subsequently led to a meeting with Sharon Gallagher of D.A.P., the fine art book-distributing giant in NYC, and soon the tide began to turn. “She was like, ‘Listen,’” says Alonso, “‘if you publish these books, we will sell them.’”
“And the thing that’s interesting about that,” Wild says, “is that you have all of these big publishers and this formulaic way they work, but actually if you’re willing to take the risk and publish [books] yourselves, you’re allowed a great deal more leeway. That’s what we’ve been trying to do at Greybull. Not just in the
subject matter but in the way the book actually looks and feels.”
Greybull made the leap from aspiring imprint to full-blown publisher, and those three initial proposals — Rodeo Girls by Eisner herself, Height of Fashion, and Kustom by photographer/director Dewey Nicks — became the company’s first three releases.
Rodeo Girls was an underground hit right out of the gates (and continues to be their best hardback seller to date). Eisner’s portraits of women in the world of rodeo combined an iconic immediacy with an almost family album–like intimacy that has set the thematic precedent for most every Greybull book that’s followed. When Madonna came out shortly thereafter with her own all-American cowgirl thing, it appeared that Eisner’s book had paved the way for the Chameleon Queen’s latest fashion statement.
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