Colophon 2009: A new seriousness

Making the most of print is key if magazines want to see off the recession. James Pallister reports from Colophon 2009.

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Better known as a home to tax-evasion, sundry Eurovision song contests and Eurocrats, the City of Luxembourg had an influx of designers, publishers and writers descend on its genteel surroundings for the third weekend in March. The occasion was Colophon 2009, the second of its kind, dubbed as an ‘international magazine biennial’, a long weekend of talks, exhibitions and socialising, dedicated to magazines.

Just off the main foyer of the Casino Luxembourg art gallery was the headquarters of the team coordinating the publication of a 100-page magazine over the week-end. Several briefings over Friday and Saturday enlisted volunteer designers, illustrators, photo-graphers and writers. One wall of the office’s ante­room was painted with a flatplan, and on the opposite a big caption, ‘What we need’. As the weekend progressed, and detailed briefs were replaced with desperate notes – ‘Espresso’, ‘Sleep’ and ‘CS5’– the flatplan filled up.

The curators – designer and blogger Jeremy Leslie, writer Andrew Losowsky and publisher Mike Koedinger – invited ten magazines to curate exhibitions in spaces across the city. High­lights came from Karen magazine and Finnish mag, Kasino A4. Karen put on a cracker, converting an art space into a domestic retreat kitted out with cups of tea, pickled onions and a shelf full of British kitchen cupboard stalwarts – including the mighty Fray Bentos pie.

Kasino A4 shunned tea and went straight for the hard stuff. Their Grayscale Bar, in what looked like an old newspaper kiosk, served up black, white or clear drinks throughout the weekend – espresso, advocaat or vodka – welcome pick-me ups after late night boozing with new friends.

I’d half-expected the event to be free of the ugly sisters ‘Death-of-print’ and ‘The Internet’. Luckily I was wrong, and there was fruitful discussion on these topics, as useful for a ceo of a publishing house as a small indy. Though the majority of attendees were entrenched in their labour-of-love approaches, many flipped easily between commercial savvy and a fierce refusal to dilute their product for commercial ends.

The session Five Golden Rules of Digital Magazines didn’t do much to counter the sentiment behind one publisher’s comment to me about magazine publishing and the internet that “What’s nice is that no one seems to know the answer”, but was instructive nevertheless.

Author David Renard made the smart point that small publishers could use their size as an advantage online, if they stayed focused on return on investment: “Big publishers don’t know how to use resources well, small publishers do” and with Kindle – the e-book reader that sold more in its first year than the iPod did – small publishers have an opportunity to experiment with new forms.

I’d met Jeremy Leslie on the eve of his keynote lecture, the ominously titled ‘Where do we go from here?’. He’d spoken about the demise of Arena: “It’s difficult for the people involved, all talented professionals, but there’s been a lot of excesses in the last ten years and it’s time for a big shake out.”

He built on this in his lecture, tilting at publishers who, for far too long, had “got away with murder”, calling for a “new seriousness, for publishers to get back to what really makes great magazines and not just sell, sell, sell”. There are a wealth of great magazines out there, Leslie pointed out, using innovative approaches and techniques, including onepagemagazine, Liebling and Karen. Wallpaper* got a special mention for its recent die-cut issues – a reminder that print’s own techno­logies can often be far more effective than any electronic-paper cover.

Joerg Koch, editor of 032c, gave a compelling lecture that built on Leslie’s call for quality. This was the man whose collaboration with Mike Meiré to redesign 032c had provoked commentator Michael Bierut to fume from his keyboard “My god is nothing sacred?!”. Referring to the ‘new ugly’ debacle (see cr passim), Koch raised a laugh making fun of graphic design’s conservatism. “If you read some of the hate mail I got, you’d think ‘my god, what did this guy do? Seduce a German Shepherd dog?!’”

I’d interviewed Koch the previous day as part of a ‘making a magazine’ brief and he’d described how the mag went from being a newspaper that looked like “Dieter Rams had designed a punk fanzine” to a “grown-up magazine” which was winning new advertisers, despite the recession.

Koch’s argument was that, by focusing on the editorial, 032c became a magazine that advertisers were interested in. He illustrated the mag’s perverse stoicism by explaining the backstory behind issue 10’s photo-essay on the Lamborghini Gallardo. Artist photographer Thomas Demand agreed to shoot if they found the car. Koch and his pals tried for months to persuade Lamborghini they should give an obscure Berlin magazine a Lamborghini for the day (“we are like charming pitbulls”). Eventually the manu­facturers gave in and put them in touch with a private indi­vidual, resident in Berlin, who would lend them his car for the day.

Koch’s next slide was one of the $210,000 car being hoisted up into Demand’s studio in a scruffy Berlin backstreet. The magazine didn’t have insurance. Then he showed the spreads resulting from the months of pursuit. Over six pages were a sequence of immaculate closely-cropped details of the car, their abstraction giving no clue to the subject matter. No text explained the travails of getting the car and there were no uncropped shots of the car itself. It was a brilliant example of relentlessly high editorial standards, and a healthy ‘fuck-you’ attitude.

Koch spoke of the importance of creating a community around the magazine, one thing that Colophon succeeded very well in doing. I didn’t actually read many magazines there, but it wasn’t the time for that: rather, Colophon was about meeting people and hearing what they had to say.

For most attendees, the view that their magazines would never pay the bills was the default position. In his lecture, Inspiring the Creative Elite, Christopher Lockwood kicked off by asking for a show of hands of those who made magazines – many hands went up. And those who made their living that way? Very few hands stayed up.

This state of affairs proved frustrating for Danny Miller, a graphic designer who founded and publishes film magazine Little White Lies, whose publishing outfit Church of London helps subsidise the mag: “People here need to know how to get more business-like and realise that what they are producing is worth­while but they need – to use a horrible phrase – to monetise their skills. In a recession we’re fucked if we don’t wise up.”

At the festival’s closing party Leslie announced that there would be a third Colophon in 2011. Tickets this year cost €90, with an impressive line-up of speakers and hearty amounts of free vodka adding bang for your buck. No doubt, next time prices will be different, but for writers, designers magazine-lovers and publishers – bedroom or boardroom – alike, it will be money well spent.

James Pallister is senior editor of The Critics section in the Architects’ Journal and publisher of MEAT Magazine