Two irreverent hybrids

There’s a magazine for every specialist interest, but few titles are likely to be remembered. Jim Davies roots out two outstanding exceptions to the rule

As viewers of TV’s Have I Got News For You’s ‘missing words’ round will testify, every trade, hobby, specialist interest or obscure sexual proclivity has its own magazine. There’s apparently enough compelling material out there to fill Plastics and Rubber Weekly, Community Pharmacy and Cabling World on a regular basis. There are supporters of Bird Keeper magazine who wouldn’t give Cage and Aviary Birds a second glance, and people discerning enough to know when Where Hire? would be more useful than What Plant? And those misguided enough to have bought The Probe, Wood and Earthmovers under false pretences.

It’s easy to mock, but these magazines all satisfy a niche. Often lovingly put together by dedicated enthusiasts with limited resources, they’re triumphs of passion, tenacity and determination. And it looks like they’re showing the way forward for the rapidly fragmenting television industry, where soon there’ll be a cable channel to match every magazine.

Magazines are like homes. They come in all shapes, sizes and styles. You live with them and get attached to them. But sooner or later it’s time to move the furniture around. A room needs sprucing up, or you treat yourself to that new concept kitchen. Inevitably, some members of the household relish the new look, while others hanker after the good old days. So you’ve got to be careful. Keeping a magazine fresh and simulating – yet still homely and familiar – involves constant evolution.

Luckily, it’s easier than ever to keep your title looking fresh. Bespoke design packages have raised standards, even in the most obscure corners of the publishing industry. But these packages can never take things to another dimension and challenge conventions. The Ikea look is eminently achievable, but one-off Barber Osgerby interiors are rare.

A handful of magazines have managed to capture the looks, style and cultural preoccupations of the age. Through skill or happenstance or both, they have pulled together all the necessary ingredients. Editorial flair and rigour has a lot to do with this. But, from the 1940s onwards, it was design and art direction that took centre stage. The synthesis of words and image became increasingly sophisticated, and the basic building blocks of photography, illustration and layout were combined to glorious effect.

Just think of the highly influential German title Twen, designed with aplomb by Willi Fleckhaus during the 1950s and 1960s. Or The Sunday Times Magazine at its most powerful, with David King and Michael Rand at the design helm in the 1970s. Or Neville Brody breaking through at The Face and Terry Jones’ challenging work at i-D in the 1980s. And what about David Carson’s grungy Ray Gun, John Plunkett’s hip techno bible Wired, or the late Tibor Kalman’s graphic manifesto Colors? Many of these iconic magazines are still with us. They remain strong, emotive brands with loyal readerships, but they’ve come to represent a distinct point in time, and it’s unlikely they’ll ever burn quite as bright as they once did.

But what about today? Are there any magazines that will embody the early 2000s? Perhaps not in the mainstream, where design and editorial is slick enough, but risk-taking is scant. But there are two small-circulation titles that might be remembered. They have little in common except that they both happen to be available on first class flights.

Edited by Dan Crowe and designed by Vince Frost, Zembla is a bi-monthly magazine about ‘having fun with words’. An irreverent hybrid of a style magazine and a literary journal, it covers not only books and writing, but the way language affects us all every day. You’ll find it with the emergency instructions and sick bag if you travel BA first class, but also on terra firma in WH Smith and Borders.

Then there’s the Warren Jackson-designed Carlos, an intriguing, leftfield magazine produced for Virgin Atlantic Upper Class, but also sold in select book shops, art galleries and fashion boutiques. It combines serious journalism with the hip world of fanzines. It’s notable for its defiantly lo-tech production, sassy line drawings, and articles from the likes of novelists Michael Faber and Will Self.

It’s encouraging that two such individual magazines should be setting the pace. It shows us that lateral design thinking is a means of bursting out of the ordinary. Let’s have some more – maybe it’s not too far-fetched to think that the likes of Cross-Stitch Collector and The Hygienist can show us how.

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