Survival of the Bravest

I became a graphic designer mostly because I love stuff. Specifically, I love paper. My career ambitions have changed over the years, but somewhere in my mind was always the notion that I wanted to produce cool two-dimensional stuff — photographs, stationary, magazines — stuff and things made of paper. This love affair with paper has led me to hoard years worth of fashion, music and design magazines, postcards, advertisements and what have you. In these particular economic times, it’s become fashionable to say the publishing industry is dying — dead, even — and who am I to argue when a recent New Yorker has only twelve pages of ads in it? Who am I indeed, but a crazy, stupid hopeful paper-obsessed idealist?

I dream of a publishing industry reborn, emerging from the ashes of poverty burned clean, pruned back and more beautiful than ever. I dream of a Darwinian rebirth, where only the most audacious and gorgeous of publications will survive; a rebirth only possible in the internet age where every niche market can find its products with the tap and a click of a search field and mouse. The popularity of sites like Magazine Death Pool is hard to ignore; once popular and award-winning titles seem to be dropping like flies. But this, I say, is the day of the unique, the individual, the small-run and the special. In order to survive a magazine can no longer count on appealing to everyone blandly; a magazine must be something more in an attempt to rise above the fray. It cannot be dedicated to the dissemination of information, because the internet does that better and faster than any printed publication could. It must embrace its status as an obsolete object and revel in its old-fashioned tactility.

In the 1950s there was a magazine that did just that, in unprecedented fashion. I’m speaking of Gentry Magazine, a footnote in publishing history and the subject of an illuminating little essay by Stephen Heller that I happened to read this year. Published quarterly in the 1950’s by William Segal, Gentry was unabashedly aimed squarely over the heads of the riff-raff at the “100,000 men” who were cultivated, sophisticated and wealthy enough to “get it”. Produced at great expense with first-rate papers, sumptuous printing, die cuts, embossing, fold-out pages, product samples and color plates, the magazine cost 8 dollars for a yearlong subscription. This was going out on a pretty big limb for the publishers if you consider the average magazine issue cost in the 50s was about 25 cents. I can’t believe they sold it so cheaply.

The erudite content centered on men’s fashion and gentlemanly pursuits like riding and smoking, along with articles about food, wine, art, history and culture. Segal saw the publication as both an exclusive club for those cultivated enough to appreciate it and an educational tool for those aspiring to appreciate it. Endeavoring to reach beyond the pages and engage with the audience, he included many unusual treats. An article about suits would include a swatch of fabric for the reader to touch; an article about smoking might include a tobacco leaf to smell; an article about riding was famously accompanied by a small sample of oats. Henri Matisse did a cover in 1956, which is not surprising, given Segal’s desire to elevate the magazine to the realm of fine art. Each goodie — each fabric swatch or color plate — was hand-placed and glued, a fact that was celebrated as proof of the value of the extravagant book, giving it more in common with fine art than mass-produced pop rags.

If I came across a publication such as this today, it would take my breath away. The sheer opulence and ambition of it (even now, when those fabric swatches needn’t be hand-glued as they were in the 50’s), coupled with a high level of respect for the reader’s intelligence, would floor me. The publishing industry is dead, you say? Magazines are history, you say? I declare, I would buy any magazine that could floor me like that. Even in a recession, I would buy the ever loving fuck out of it. I also declare with equal certainty that as long as there are people like me who love paper, magazines can never die; they can only get better as they battle for attention.

Now, be nice and stay away from my Gentry ebay auctions and no one will get hurt.

10 Responses to “Survival of the Bravest”

  1. Pinkie Says:

    Thanks for sharing this. This is exactly what I needed to see today.

  2. Jon Munger Says:

    A little while ago, someone commented that Coilhouse the magazine felt to them like an exclusive club they weren’t cool enough to get into–to which I censored my knee jerk reply of “you probably aren’t”. A bit catty of me, yes, but there’s something to be said for not trying to appeal to every jackanape that comes along.
    I have a similar fascination with afficianado magazines; wines, ties, cigars, brides, all these tiny little niches that some genius realized she could fill.

  3. Nadya Says:

    Jon, I think I saw that comment (or something along those lines) on Whitechapel. For the record I don’t want anyone to feel that way about it. We try to provide context by having introductions to all the people we feature. We want anyone who likes art/literature/culture in general to pick up a copy and discover things they like. Perhaps everyone who reads our blog gets a little bit more out of it because they know us, but we don’t try to be super-obscure and fill up the magazine with references to blog posts. I’ve shown it to people from all walks of life who’ve never seen the blog and they loved it, even if they’d never heard of a single person featured in the issue up until that point, and that’s the way we want people to feel about it.

  4. Mer Says:

    Gentry is a gas! So glad you wrote about it, Irene. I think I first heard about the magazine via Momus or Lord Whimsy… can’t recall, but yes! Delicious dandy candy! I have yet to fondle a copy in person. That’d be a treat.

    “someone commented that Coilhouse the magazine felt to them like an exclusive club they weren’t cool enough to get into–to ”

    I have to say, I really deeply fear the prospect of Coilhouse projecting an air of elitism or cliquey “cool club” attitude. DO NOT WANT.

    The Big Important Question I constantly ask myself while writing/curating/blogging for Coilhouse has always been “is this accessible enough, is this inclusive? Am I presenting this information in a way that will leave the reader plenty of room to enjoy their discovery and ‘own’ the material themselves?”

    The last thing I think ANY of us want to do with this magazine is create an air of snobbery, and I’d like to believe that we make a pretty concerted effort to be as inclusive and warm as we can. Snark and satire and the occasional lusty soapbox rant are good too, of course, but at the bottom of everything, there’s got to be a sense of openness, of invitation.

    Jon, yes, there were a couple of comments in a thread about Issue 02 on Whitechapel that cause me a great deal of worry. Between the fellow who said [paraphrasing] “I don’t know who any of these people you’re featuring are, tell why should I bother reading this” and the other person who compared our vibe unfavorably to that of a French fashion magazine and then said something like “the perfect Coilhouse would be 1/3 popular science, 1/3 fashion, and 1/3 photography” (basically describing a publication worlds away from what we do, which I would have very little to contribute to), I definitely felt a bit deflated. I’m clinging to hope that their opinions are not those of the majority of our readers.

    Here’s the thing: I feel like anyone who wants us to spell everything out for them may be missing the point of what we’re trying to make here. Our priority is to showcase people who aren’t well known, and we don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence by spoon-feeding them that information. As Nadya said, we always give at least a one-paragraph expository overview of our subjects before getting down to bidness, and whenever possible, we include website information. That way, folks who might want to learn more about a particularly mysterious of obscure artist can go and get a more detailed overview online.

    Maybe that’s not enough? Maybe that makes us snobs? I dunno?

    This is food for thought, definitely:

    “[A magazine] cannot be dedicated to the dissemination of information, because the internet does that better and faster than any printed publication could.”

  5. cappy Says:

    I don’t know who any of these people you’re featuring are, tell why should I bother reading this.

    People that say things like this aren’t worth your time — I don’t know 99% of the people I see on the streets of the city where I work, and it doesn’t mean a damn thing.

    Any one of them could be interesting people — painters, designers, photographers, pimps, hookers, drug dealers — I’d love to hear about any one of them. Simply because they’re unknown to me doesn’t mean they’re not worth “bothering with.”

  6. Alice Says:

    I’m really, really happy about this post. It says what I’ve been thinking for quite a while, as a graphic design student: the current economic environment will act like a crucible, purifying everything and leaving only what is the best and really worth people’s time and money.

    On a side note, I was lucky enough to attend the a paper show in D.C. yesterday, and after talking to some super paper big wigs there, I can definitely say that the publishing/paper industry seems to be doing just fine so far!

  7. Jon Munger Says:

    I did mention it was a knee-jerk reaction–I hold no responsibility for my subconscious. It just does it’s own thing and tells me to say terrible things and generally be a bitch. So I stab it with shame and tell it to go sit in its dark hole.
    I show Coilhouse 1 (not 2, which I don’t have although SOMEONE left her copy for me in her car, something I don’t at all cry about) to just about everyone I know. Some folks just won’t get it, and you know what? That’s fine. You’re not being deliberately obtuse, nor are you doing that Vice thing of mocking the ‘uncool’.
    Worrying about appealing to everybody is a long, dark hallway and one filled with snakes. Don’t go down it. Go down the Gentry hallway.

  8. Tequila Says:

    If I remember correct…Taschen reprinted a well respected and important architecture magazine on what has to be nothing short of paper porn. Insane quality reprints of the originals in archival quality yadda yadda yadda. Like the Leni Riefenstahl prints they have…expensive would be an understatement.

    So it IS very possible to bring back the magic even when simply trying to be archival. Thing is like high end fashion how does one get it into the hands of those who would appreciate it the most?

    No doubt someone could PDF the entire magazine run…but that defeats the purpose. Like classic comics…digital just does not do. So I’m full on for a rebirth of print…if only for the smell alone…the feel is at times better than any humans skin. I sleep near a WALL of books, magazines, etc. so I may be a tad biased to it all…but it saddens me to know this will be the last generation to see some of these works in their original form. I’m nowhere near as hopeful about people sticking with ANY form of print as technology swarms on…look at Amazons Kindle…a sick joke at first but now it looks to be the Model T of how the future may very well look for ALL printed media. Can one even call it that anymore? Once it all goes digital what’s the difference?

    Ok that sounded a lil doom and gloom but the seeds have been planted in many that reading a book on their friggin iPhone is the same as one in their hands.

    As far as Coilhouse being exclusive or elitist. I can see why some would get that impression. Things is those who feel that way assume and never bother to open a page let alone “step in” to most things. A weird sense of rejection maybe?

    The truth as any reader knows is that while the magazine may LOOK like something only a small number would “get”…it doesn’t take much time to see that’s just not the case. None have yet to talk down to the reader…the structure has so far proven to be a nice mix of “Hey check this out…” & “Isn’t this cool?” in a way a friend would introduce it…not some elitist prick being all “YOU haven’t HEARD OF THIS? OMG!!!!”

    Even on the blog…which does have some pretty damn cool people commenting, reading, etc. have always kept things open and friendly in ways that you don’t find in many places…on or offline.

    Trust me. The day Coilhouse crosses into Pitchfork Media territory the readers will let it be known…loudly…possibly with actual pitchforks to be ironic.

    Now if it ever goes into Vice territory…well that’s Seppuku time.

  9. Filipe Russo Says:

    I know it escapes the post. But I think the responses have their own inner dynamic.

    Mer, Nadya, Zoe and coilhousers,
    How can something be chosen without making points and conjecturing values? Random?!
    What would be the pattern chosen? I’m talking about how something in the mind of coilhouse owners and guests are considerated and validated before it turns to a post. Wouldn’t that be preference or elitism? I doubt that everything you think about posting really becomes a post. So what’s going to be of what some of us delivered to coilhouse? How it’s considerated? How can it be approved? Here’s my point: without been individualist, elitist, personal and common-sensed you would have to post everything people give you, to be a honest person. And that wouldn’t be functional. The guest bloggers are friend of yours, right? Is there a guest blogger that was an artist you didn’t knew it and when you found about him you didn’t thought twice before sending him a invitation to blog here? Even that, the validation would be chosen because of the art ones make and not about what one thinks or do or is. Friendship seems like a point of validation too. I know coilhouse is YOURS, you can make your own RULES but I sure know that not been here does not make someone lesser, who think it does is such poor thing. But there is some people that would be glad to be here, I’m on that boat. So I ask if you could say to everyone here how you proceed in your analysis.
    What I like about coilhouse is that I can found art, thoughts and expressions I wouldn’t be aware of, without it. Does it mean I like most of what is shown here? No, I like less than half. But as I think coilhouse is a ever-evolving compound I’m estimulated to think about the differences between issue 1 ( some many wasted spaces) and issue 2, so I’m happy I’ve bothering myself here. And how sometimes it bothers me! for the good and every while and then for the worst. I have spent weekends, nights and even days searching things here and if that even means anything to any of you, read this and think and understand it isn’t to much for an admirer to ask for some explanations about that matters. So tell me what matters
    Everything is so personal.

  10. Nadya Says:

    Filipe, it’s hard to answer your question. I think everyone that blogs here has different approaches to how they choose topics and develop them into posts, so I can only speak for myself. I’d say that my posts fall into two categories: things that I just discovered for the first time that I immediately want to share with everyone, or celebrations/discussions of things that have been with me for a long time (like my favorite band, some idea I’ve been mulling over, etc). Some days I will sit at the computer and think to myself, “what will I write about today?” I just start typing until something comes out. Sometimes this doesn’t work, and the I surf random blogs and sites until I find something that piques my interest. Yesterday’s little post on the tilt-shift parade was like that. The topics I find easiest have to do with fashion & photography: it’s like a safe zone that I default to when my brain doesn’t want to do any heavy lifting. But the more I’ve been blogging here, the more I’ve found it rewarding to really branch out and explore other topics.

    Other times, I actually plan to write a post before it pops up on the site. Sometimes for weeks. I know Mer sometimes plans her posts months in advance. For premeditated posts, I write about something that’s been with me for years, like my Skin Two goodbye post. I had a relationship with that magazine since I was 15, and a lot of the things I wanted to say in that post had been things that ocurred to me over the years, things I’ve discussed with friends before, etc. So that one didn’t come out of nowhere. A lot of times, those posts end up really personal because they’re about things that really bother me – like What Does ‘Alt Model’ Even Mean? or that post about MySpace-stalking your old junior high bullies.

    As far as guest bloggers go… it’s a different story in each case. I’m not sure if Zo or Mer knew him before, but I met David through the blog; he was one of our earliest commenters, under the name ampersandpilcrow. One day he offered to write us a post, and we’ve been working together on both print & blog stuff ever since. Jerem’s another commenter who was kind enough to contribute a guest blog post. Mildred of course was one of our closest collaborators when we started both the magazine and the blog, but her involvement has tapered off due to extenuating life circumstances (like that Dubai thing & its aftermath). Irene is someone we all knew through completely different channels online. We love her blog. Agent Double Oh No, Wayne Chambliss and Tanya Vrodova are all real-life friends that Mer has brought on board. I’ve only met Tanya, and she’s awesome. Was supposed to meet Wayne in Portland last weekend, but our schedules haven’t lined up. Copyranter (who’s on vacation right now) is someone I’ve never met, just someone whose blog I really enjoyed so I invited him to come on board. Molly is one of those people who we all sort of knew online, who we shared a lot of mutual friends with… she was there the night we all met for the first time, actually. I’m sure that our list of guest bloggers will keep expanding.