WET magazine, as a book, rises to bathe again

[Tom Biederbeck] WET magazine was only around for 34 issues, between 1976 and 1981, but it’s had a lasting influence on communication design. Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, by the magazine’s founder Leonard Koren, is about how its “conceptual and graphic innovations were absorbed into our common visual and media landscape.” Here, Koren reflects on the WET experience … and tells us where Matt Groening fits in.

Some magazines are created to fill a void. Was that the case with WET?
WET was definitely not a magazine begging to be published. It wasn’t a publishing dialogue; it was an art dialogue. I was making bath art at the time. To repay my models, I had a big bath party. Tremendous amounts of social energy and excitement were created. People got really turned on by the idea. I wanted to harness this energy somehow. The idea of a magazine, a medium that has a huge social component but also has graphic and literary aspects, seemed like a good thing to be involved with.

Cover designs: Left, 1978, design and art direction by Leonard Koren, photo by Herb Ritts, logo by Jim Deesing. Right, 1979, design and art direction by Roy Gyongy and Larry Williams, photo by Larry Williams, type by Jim Deesing.

In the introduction, you write about “WET’s whole-hearted embrace of the absurd.” You also make it clear you have a serious approach to the aesthetics of bathing. Is this a dichotomy the magazine tried to resolve?
It’s like a comedian telling a joke. Comedians are very serious about the work of being funny. They are dedicated, disciplined — they’re intense about it. And that’s the way we were, making WET. We were thinking about stuff like, what makes water so magical? What happens psychologically when you’re taking a bath and get loose and ideas begin to run freely in your brain? Being fresh and graphically powerful was the mandate of the magazine.

Tell us about some of the artists who contributed. I talked with Tom Ingalls about his experience with WET, so let’s start with him.
Tom Ingalls, who designed parts of four issues, was the first graphic designer I ever knowingly met. I was introduced to him at a party, and he looked exactly how I thought a graphic designer would look. He was wearing an Italian sport coat and slacks. His hair was parted on the side. I told him I needed graphic design expertise. Tom had all the tools and seemed very well versed in typography.

Left: 1977, design and art direction by Tom Ingalls, cover concept by Philip Garner and Nancy Reese, photo by Matthew Ralston. Right: 1977, design by April Greiman and Tom Ingalls, art direction by Leonard Koren, photo by Raoul Vega.

Even more than that, Tom was connected to a large talent pool — artists, photographers, illustrators, designers, dozens of whom got involved in WET. April Greiman had a flamboyance in her personal presentation that was captivating. I’d met artists who were characters, but never a designer who projected herself into the world as an important presence. She is a superb designer, of course: inventive, playful.

How designer Tom Ingalls describes WET magazine’s visual approach

Like April, Jayme Odgers, also a superb designer, brought a lot of creative design approaches to the magazine for the one or two issues he was involved with. His inventiveness merged perfectly with April’s. Jamie was another important contributor to the emergence of nonlinear communication through graphic design, which later resulted in magazines like Ray Gun and Beach Culture.

One of our most memorable collaborators was Matt Groening, who created The Simpsons. I don’t know how he made it to our office, but he brought a xeroxed comic book he had made called Life in Hell. He did a couple columns for the magazine called “Forbidden Words,” and then I commissioned him to do a piece that was never published until this book. Titled “Forbidden Soaps,” it’s a 10-page review of soap. Sometimes he wrote captions for our fashion features. We’d set him in a room with a ton of pictures and say, “You write the copy.” Like a jazz musician, he would improvise the dialogue he sensed between the photographs.

From “Forbidden Soaps,” a heretofore unpublished piece by Matt Groening

Gary Panter was another amazing visual collaborator. Gary has a lot of different skills. Every designer/creator has a toolkit; Gary’s is very large. He is a typographer who can invent typefaces, he can render realistically in drawings, he can paint in various abstract styles … he also has a great mind for cartooning.

Table of contents by Gary Panter

I was the creative director. There were periods when I had a heavier hand and periods when I had a lighter hand. I preferred a lighter hand, because it’s a pleasure to watch someone create something that surpasses your expectations.

Why revisit it now?
After I closed down WET at the end of ’81, I was approached numerous times by people to do something about the WET experience. I couldn’t figure out how to make a book that wasn’t a nostalgia piece. About two years ago it seemed like the cultural ground had become an oddly similar place to when I was publishing WET. I finally felt I could do a book about the magazine that was fresh and visually vibrant.

The book has a look that somehow seems appropriate to the original magazine, although I wouldn’t call it lo-fi or punk. What were some of the choices you made?
The paper I used is uncoated, and it was a challenge to make it work. One of the things that we played with is that the word wet gives you a sense of shininess, slickness. The “object” qualities of this book are the antithesis of what you’d expect. I was after a more visceral feeling or subliminal sensation.

I wanted to elicit the kind of sensuality that was a very much a part of WET, but in a new way … I wanted the book to look heavy but feel light. That lightness offers a kind of euphoria — a liberation from gravity and the chains of the laws of materiality that govern our normal lives. If the material qualities of a book are well-married to the content, it creates a kind of pleasure that is irreplaceable in any other modality.

Leonard Koren is an artist, designer and writer. Among his books are Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, Undesigning the Bath, Which “Aesthetics” Do You Mean?: Ten Definitions and Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. Buy his books here or at your local bookseller.

Book photos © 2012 StudioAlex

Quote illustration by Parker Biederbeck

See a gallery of images at WETmagazine.com.

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Comments (3)

  1. Posted by Paper Maker on 05.3.12 at 5:26 pm

    A fine article. Many thanks. Is the cover model in the first image on the right (holding the gun) by any chance Debbie Harry, the lead singer of Blondie?

  2. Posted by Tom Biederbeck on 05.3.12 at 9:05 pm

    Thank you, PM. That is Debby Harry, straight shooter. Appreciate the comment.

  3. Posted by Robert on 09.3.14 at 4:00 pm

    Too bad my invention (US pat. 5,336,446) came too late for the magazine, although I’d heard of it years earlier. It really was a gourmet bathing product, because while other bath foams (“bubble baths”) focused on volume, easy creation, and persistence (while undisturbed) of foam, mine was geared toward density & wetness of the foam, making it more fun to play with, which I figured the kids I made it for (who liked to play with shaving cream) would go for. But primarily I wanted to make something sudsy they could use safely in large amounts, long durations, and frequently, without urinary or genital irritation.

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