When Brian Chung was given his first Bible at the age of 20, his reaction was less spiritual, more aesthetic: “The design was like nothing I had experienced before — it was really unmotivating to read.”
Chung, who was raised in a Buddhist household and converted to Christianity in college, was put off by the “packed and condensed text” and “super thin paper”.
The dissonance between the sacred text and modern design tastes prompted a period of questioning.
“Everyone has a smartphone with a camera, we consume lots of visual-based media, and we judge websites based on how well they’re designed,” Chung, now 25, says. “Instead of shying away from these realities, we thought — how could we bring this to a faith-based context?”
This revelation led to Alabaster, the company he and his almost identically named co-founder, Bryan Ye-Chung, 30, created in 2016 to design and publish bibles aimed at readers who live in an “increasingly visual culture”.
Inspired by the independent magazine scene, they reworked the Bible into layouts you might associate more closely with magazines like “slow lifestyle”-focused Kinfolk, biannual travel title Cereal, or Drift, which is devoted to “coffee culture”.
That means plenty of white space and beautifully shot images — usually of a wanderlust-inspiring ocean or mountain range. On a quick flip-through, you might mistake it for a printed portfolio of your trendiest friend’s Instagram.
“We wanted to create a slower, more reflective reading experience,” Chung says.
Breaking the text up with imagery is supposed to “give time for reflection and question asking”.
As well as taking inspiration from this profitable publishing sector, they have drawn on their own experience. Their books start on page five, for example, as opposed to the 20 pages that Chung had to wade through with his first bible.
It’s also supposed to look good. The name comes from one of the only times Jesus uses the word “beautiful” in the Bible. In the Gospel of Mark, a woman breaks an alabaster jar of expensive perfume onto Jesus’ head — an act of sacrifice, and the only anointing Jesus received before his crucifixion. Though people mocked her, Jesus defends the woman, saying that what she has done is a “beautiful thing”.
The founders share not only a name, but also a university. Chung received his Bachelor of Science (BSc) in business entrepreneurship and marketing at the University of Southern California, minoring in communication design. Ye-Chung received his Bachelor of Arts (BA) in animation and digital arts, also at USC.
The two of them hope that their design details have created a “great artistic product”.
“There isn’t a ton of great Christian art out in the world today,” Chung says. “We want to be held to the same standard as any well-designed product — Christian or not.”
The product is certainly paying off; Alabaster recently announced that it expects to make $900,000 (£720,000) in sales by the end of 2019. It has almost 50,000 followers on Instagram (a typical post: a Psalms excerpt laid out like a motivational quotation with over a thousand likes).
They have plans to expand, and their source material is ripe — there are 66 books of the Bible. The co-founders are exploring different translations for the remaining books.
Ye-Chung says that in addition to the Bible, they are “interested in creating content and a lifestyle that allows faith-based creatives to flourish”.
They have already published a “guide to faith and the creative life”, All That Is Made, and a recent post on their website — titled ‘Morning Practices to Cultivate Creativity’ — does read like something you might find on a wellness blog.
Their audience is mostly between the ages of 18 and 34, which puts them firmly in a set of millennial brands. They cite as inspirations millennial-focused brands like Away, the luggage brand which feature iPhone chargers, Warby Parker, an online glasses retailer, and Everlane, a sustainable fashion brand which sells primarily online. These companies share not only a target audience, but also a business model: they are direct-to-consumer.
Traditionally the bible industry is divided up by publishing houses and each house has their own translation. These publications have large distribution with retailers all over the world.
The co-founders say that Alabaster’s direct-to-consumer approach is more “flexible”, allowing for a more personal user experience. “We interact with our customers in a new way — most of our interaction is done through social media,” Chung says.
“For many, a Bible isn’t just a product, it’s a meaningful and impactful book that carries special memories and profound moments in their personal lives. We want to play a more personable role in creating these impactful moments for our customers.”
Repackaging the bible for a new generation goes beyond negative space and type space. They use the New Living Translation, which is a simplified, modern version of the Bible, first published in 1996.
“Because our design felt similar to a magazine, it was important that the text was easy to read and understand,” Ye-Chung explains.
But most noticeable are the stylistic, abstract images. A flick through their gospel of John shows a string of pearls, cloud-blanketed mountains and railroads disappearing into the distance. (Some, though, are more opaque: a photograph of a baguette accompanies the parable, ‘Jesus, The Bread of Life’.)
“Our images aren’t literal — you won’t find many pictures of sheep or people in long robes,” Ye-Chung says.
“Instead, we’re interested in creating imagery that is relevant to culture today and invites further conversation. That’s the power of art: it invites you to ask questions and respond.”
An example of this abstraction is in their edition of the Gospel of Luke, which features a balloon-themed photo set to illustrate the parable of the lost son. In the story, a youngest son wanders off and comes back home. As soon as the youngest son returns, the father throws a party for him, which angers the older brother.
Ye-Chung explains how he wanted the pair of photos — one a bright close-up of the balloons, and the second a gloomier, distant shot of the balloons through a windowpane — to “illustrate this tension”.
“The two images represent the two different sons and their unique perspectives, emotions, and feelings.”
For their first books – the four Gospels – 90% of the photographs were taken by Ye-Chung. Since then, they have built up a team of photographers.
Now they create 60% of the photography in-house but work with photographers world-wide; a mix of those who have shot professionally for Nike or Adidas, and up-and-coming photographers.
With this, they say they are also working in an artistic movement that predates indie magazines by some way: the old master Renaissance artists. These artists’ process — of looking at the scriptures and creating “beautiful pieces of art to reflect their experience” — was similar to their “journey”, says Ye-Chung.
The “journey” usually takes around four months from start to finish; the first month involves studying the scripture to find “key themes” and talking with theologians about passages. From there, they create the images and curate the design and colour schemes.
The next two months is for production; co-coordinating with photographers and working on layouts. The final month is for printing and proofing.
No matter the artistic movement they are tapping into, it all comes back to the power of good design.
“We understand that there are things the modern-day English reader might miss when studying the Bible, such as the grammatical structure that the author might be using to highlight deeper themes,” Ye-Chung says.
“We try to communicate those deeper themes into our design and images.”
Throughout the Gospel of Mark, for example, there is easily-missed repeated symbolism of the alabaster jar breaking, followed by Jesus breaking bread and pouring wine, and finally Jesus breaking his body and pouring out his blood to save humanity.
To highlight this, they used four images — alabaster, a jar, bread and wine — and shot the models in similar hand positions to reinforce the “breaking and pouring in a visual way”.
On a simpler level, this results in individual colour themes for each book, which “communicates a mood and feeling” for these passages.
Royalty was an “immediate theme evident in Matthew” so they used blue and purple — historically indicators of status and royalty — throughout that particular book.
At $30 (£24) for a softcover and $70 (£56) for a hardcover, the books have a higher price point than the average Bible, especially when you take into account that each book is only 1/66th of the holy text.
The Bibles do at least feel luxe. The covers are 15pt card paper with soft-touch aqueous coating and the inside pages use 70lb-80lb uncoated paper. The books are lithologically printed for the sharpest print possible.
“Craft is something we really care about,” Ye-Chung explains.
As a consumer base, the religious market is known for having strong ideas about modernising traditions. But Chung says that people have mostly been excited that a younger generation is “taking ownership of their faith and applying it in new ways”.
He says that most of the resistance has instead come from people who prefer a different translation to the one Alabaster uses.
Regardless, Chung is clear about any criticism from those who prefer the book’s traditional form.
“The Bible has always been contextualised for each generation,” he says. “Today there are multiple formats and designs of the Bible from a kids’ version, to a colouring version.”
In fact, far from being disrespectful, the co-founders see design and worship as “intertwined”.
“If we take seriously that humans are created in God’s image, and that we are formed as a reflection of our Creator,’ Chung says, ‘the question of how we handle our own particular designing and making becomes vitally important.”
Each edition comes with an “artist introduction” — a few paragraphs where the founders set out the themes they wanted to focus on in the book — which merges these design and religious motivations.
Ye-Chung builds on his co-founder’s belief. “I was longing for ways to experience art and faith in a more tangible way,” he says.
He talks about reading a book by a Los Angeles-based pastor, in which the author argues that each generation asks a “spiritual question” that leads to meaning. In the past, questions have included “what is real?” and “what is good?”
The book predicts that the next question will be: “what is beautiful?”
This struck a chord with Ye-Chung: “We live in a world where artists and creatives are flourishing. We are a generation that cares about design and art, and beauty.”
The question for the co-founder seems simple, perfect for a design-hungry generation that has been raised on heavily curated Instagram feeds and magazines that are as luxuriously produced as coffee table books: “How do we show that the story of God is beautiful?”
“We think there’s an opportunity to be at the forefront of a conversation on creativity, beauty and faith,” Ye-Chung adds. “And we’re excited to continue the conversation.”