Tuesday, July 30, 2013

How WET Can You Get?

by Alastair Johnston 

Leonard Koren, Making WET: the magazine of Gourmet Bathing, Point Reyes, Ca: Imperfect Publishing, 2012

 WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing (1976–81), was a pioneering example of a California “lifestyle” magazine that was as much about the design and packaging as about the content. There were ads that looked like editorial content and vice versa. Ostensibly about bathing, it ran from 1976 until 1981, when the editor, Leonard Koren, left Venice, California, moved to San Francisco and then to Japan.

  The influence of Japanese culture increased steadily in the US, particularly the West Coast states, after the Second World War. Zen Buddhism was an important element, but so were the graphic arts. And there is the Japanese tea ceremony. “The Japanese tea room – despite its very appealing form and philosophy – was too culturally specific for the vague purposes I had in mind,” said Koren, who was a former architecture student looking for a direction.

   Koren wanted to create some kind of visual expression that was not in the mainstream. He had been thinking about bathrooms as important but overlooked places that were private and cleansing: they had illumination, heat and water. They involved nakedness and contemplation. He had used images of bathers in a series of artworks, and came up with the idea of a magazine about bathing. His magazine was to be about enthusiasms, and since California is about extremes, he though he would create a parody of enthusiasts.

   His inspiration was threefold, first there was Vogue which he saw as dogmatic, full of bombastic bluster and grand pronouncements about fashion, such as “BROWN is the new BLACK!” Then there was Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, which was a compendium of beautifully presented drivel by self-important minor celebrities; and thirdly, there was Gourmet, a foodie magazine which featured pretentious articles about meals. Koren liked the idea of a tongue-in-cheek combination of all three, a “Magazine of Gourmet Bathing,” that was and was not about bathing: mud baths and soaps can only hold your attention for so long, but pretty much anything could work in the context. He started working on WET and delivered the magazine to friends in Venice Beach and Santa Monica, networking to sell ads or find contributors.

WET June/July 1977, photo by Raul Vega; design by Tom Ingalls & April Greiman

   In April 1977 he met the designer Tom Ingalls who had design world connections to photographers and graphic artists, that would improve the look of the magazine from a funky typewritten fanzine into something with more polish. At the time Ingalls was going through a break-up with his girlfriend April Greiman, and Koren hoped they could get along long enough to get the April/June issue of the magazine done. Greiman was on the verge of becoming one of the key figures in the LA design world. Her background was in textiles and she had gone to Basel, Switzerland, to study at the Art School there, but the faculty had plugged her into a series of courses in typography that were to transform her interests. She took the Swiss style she had been schooled in, and elements of Russian Constructivism she had picked up in Europe, and deconstructed them, leading to a postmodern style in American design in the 1980s (popularized, for example, on record album covers from Los Angeles-based labels).

  Cultural historian Frances Butler referred to it as “The LA Slash-and-Spritz style” because of the pieces of film, rubylith and artificial blotches added to the clean layouts that were appearing with the introduction of computerized design. No longer were jobs typeset in metal, repro-ed and pasted up, now there were photo-compositors, and most of the pre-press work was done on the light table. This led to a certain sterility in graphics that Greiman saw at once, and countered with stray bits of Zip-a-tone screen, registration marks and other tools which were normally invisible – a “baring the device” technique that had become popular in literature and film long before. In 1981, Butler wrote, “Sometimes the connection between visual incidents is not made explicit and the reader must try to trap these incidents into a syntax. Much contemporary graphic design has essentially a reader-sequencing structure. This is true of many Japanese posters, especially the early work of Tadanori Yokoo, and now the poster work of the Los Angeles slash-and-spritz school.”

WET September/October 1979, the "Religion" issue: Ricky Martin photographed by Guy Webster; designed by April Greiman & Jayme Odgers

  WET quickly evolved from a funky typewritten news-letter to a slick glossy publication and this attracted attention and advertisers. And while the content is more or less immaterial to advertisers, the nudity aspect didn’t hurt. As Koren said, “There is an appetite for nakedness – not the stagey, self-conscious nakedness of skin magazines, but the nakedness that lets the body pass by itself through the awakening and regenerating extremes of hot and cold, light and dark, wet and dry, that the natural environment is so kind to provide.”

  The magazine took off (events at bath houses created a buzz in the press, followed by television interviews in hot tubs, and Mademoiselle editors coming to mud bath parties) and attracted a lot of talented Angeleno artists: designers John Van Hamersveld, Taki Ono and Rip Georges, cartoonists Matt Groening, Futzie Nutzle and Gary Panter, photographers Herb Ritts, Raul Vega and Jayme Odgers. Some at the start of their careers, lent their talents cheaply and helped push the boundaries of art and design that WET would become known for.

  Koren said, “Scattered throughout California there are certain latter-day saints – a dangerous number of whom seem to be artists, photographers, or writers – who get the joke of gourmet bathing without having it explained. Which is fortunate because the concept is so evanescent and mercurial that to attempt explanation is to risk over-kill.” He did explain that it is not a system, a therapy or a philosophy, it is “at most a point of view having some--thing to do with sensuality, humor, humility, and taking such pleasure in small things that they stop being small.”

WET September/October 1980, design by John Van Hamersveld
   The magazine continually reinvented itself. For one thing the designers used it as a calling card to move on to other better-paying or higher profile gigs, but through new approaches to graphics and editorial content, it evolved. John Van Hamersveld, who had already achieved design fame with covers for the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street (1972: a collage of Robert Frank photos with scrawled hand-lettering and visible tape and cut marks), Hotter than Hell by Kiss (1974: showing the influence of Tadanori Yokoo), and Eat to the Beat by Blondie (1979: hand-lettering, angled type and a grid), continued with an illustration career; Jayme Odgers’ trade-mark image of a hand holding a Polaroid was featured on Fleetwood Mac and other best-selling album covers; Matt Groening’s “Life in Hell” cartoon made its first appearance in WET in 1978: it grew to a weekly syndication of 250 papers and launched Groening’s TV show “The Simpsons.”

   Koren found the thematic approach (e.g., “Religion”) was a good solution to pulling an issue together. He persuaded poet Lewis MacAdams to move south from Bolinas and assume the role of editor, which he fulfilled excellently, bringing in another range of literary connections, including William Burroughs’ essay “Is language a virus?” An article on necrophilia created a furor – and sold copies. Koren was well-networked. He dropped in on Noel Young in Santa Barbara and got a copy of Henry Miller’s essay “On Turning Eighty,” which ran in the magazine, as did an article on Henry Miller’s bathroom (Sept/Oct 1981). Fashion and music joined the regular contents. Kristine McKenna brought interviews with musicians that had uncensored language and ideas, making them unfit for more mainstream media. WET caught the Zeitgeist and was light and ephemeral, not predictable or ponderous. The ads blended into the editorial content and vice versa, creating a unified style, which is always desirable in a magazine.

WET September/October 1981, design by "King Terry" Teruhiko Yumura
    Koren refers to wabi-sabi, the Japanese concept of finding beauty in imperfection, and seeing profundity in nature, as one of his guiding principles. D. T. Suzuki described wabi-sabi as “an active aesthetical appreciation of poverty.” In graphics there is a style known as hata-uma or good/bad art (literally “clumsy-tasty,” referring to the occasional appeal of the badly drawn), which extends wabi-sabi to illustration. Koren hired Tokyo-based Teruhiko Yumura as art director in 1981. Yumura (known in WET as King Terry) brought this fresh style to LA design and it influenced Gary Panter and others. Again confusing editorial and advertising matter, there is a full-page ad for Terry’s Hit Parade, a “full-color action art book from Japan’s number one illustrator,” available exclusively as a “terrible WET book.”

   The successful marketing of the Californian lifestyle, particularly in the context of water, was a trend that continued with Beach Culture (late 80s) and Ray Gun (Santa Monica, 1992–2000) magazines, designed by David Carson, that were also essentially pointless, but graphically far less interesting.

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