ARTS AND CULTURE
That's the Issue: Weird and Wonderful Magazines Making the Case for Print
Behold the new(ish) wave of boutique magazines. Consider taking one in your carry-on – to read after you've finished everything in Billy, of course
It’s not exactly a publishing industry secret that mainstream magazines are suffering – particularly in Canada, where household names that go back many decades are cutting back their publishing frequency or going all-digital altogether.
Yet the print magazine is far from dead: Niche publications that put their print edition forward as their primary product have shown surprising vitality over the past few years. Maybe it’s because there is just no substitute for the thrill of flipping through fresh pages.
That first scan through a magazine after you pick it up opens a door to serendipity. Magazines are curated by other people, and print offers us a chance to step outside the echo chambers that surround our online personas – to escape the digital content that follows us around and preaches to our choir of one. The difference is analogous to the way that mixtapes used to open our musical horizons back in the analog day. Digital music services struggled for years to mimic the mixtape effect for musical discovery, and they’re only recently catching up.
The new(ish) crop of magazines can feel just as clunky as the mixtape experience at times: You’ll have to track some of them down at a specialty newsstand or bookstore (tip: look around at clothing shops, too), they’re often pricey – as much as $20 or $25 isn’t unusual – and thanks to the prevalence of heavy paper stock in the newfangled magazine world, some of them take up a lot of space in a flight bag. Meanwhile, pretension is an ongoing hazard in the world of boutique magazines.
And yet all of that is worth it: The chance to be exposed to new ideas and images you may never have stumbled across any other way has become so rare, and so precious. Here are some magazines that open our eyes, in one way or another.
Who's it for? Frequent travellers – really frequent, like, people who sit around and debate whether Changi or Copenhagen is the better airport.
What's it about? The dean of our list – February will mark its 10th anniversary – we included Monocle because it paved the way for other magazines working outside the big media conglomerates to serve a specialist lifestyle audience with niche content. Monocle does this by providing an international briefing on issues like defence procurement and diplomacy, while mixing in plenty of high-end lifestyle stuff. Imagine The Economist, but more stylish and less penetrating on the issues.
For instance: The current issue of the London-based magazine focuses on Canada – founder and editor-in-chief Tyler Brûlé was born and raised here, but sort of disavowed the place for years. More recently, there’s been an editorial turnaround on Canada, so we’re treated to an explanation of the Canadian cottage tradition (by Toronto journo John Lorinc); interviews with bigwigs including Rick Mercer, Adrienne Clarkson and Jeff Stober; and a short item on the iconically Canadian Solair chair.
What does it look like? With its little blocks of text and pretty photos, Monocle sort of looks like a well-designed website, but in print form – this is kind of ironic, given the magazine’s determination to be a print product first and foremost.
What does it sound like? “Despite all the positive feelings that the country engenders abroad, Brand Canada has traditionally underperformed on the world stage.”
Who’s it for? People who would never notice the irony in using beige as the theme colour for the Adrenalin Issue. Or people who think that might just have been deliberate, brilliant irony.
What's it about? Showing you how to do everything from food to business in a stripped-down, harmonious way that won’t mess up your oatmeal-coloured linen. Kinfolk kindles fantasies that you will get your s--- together one day, and provides lifestyle inspo and inspirationally clean imagery to motivate you.
For instance: An interview with Barnabas Calder, author of a book about the revenge of Brutalist architecture; a short meditation on 20th-century artist Yves Klein’s signature shade of blue; recipes for different kinds of flavoured butter.
What does it look like? Flowing linen, clean lines, sparsely furnished rooms, a piece of fruit or a mug of coffee here and there.
What does it sound like? “There’s nothing in my bedroom except a bed, a crib and two side tables.”
“Engage with tribes in an authentic and respectful way"
Who's it for? People who think Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle advice is just too darn sensible.
What's it about? Expensive travel, with a profoundly spiritual focus.
For instance: A profoundly spiritual hike in Japan; a profoundly spiritual train ride in Tibet; a “Restival” where £1,000 gets you five days of “all organic meals, elixirs, non-alcoholic drinks, shared experiences and airport pickups,” and where you get to listen to ancient stories and “engage with tribes in an authentic and respectful way.” (“Elixirs”? “Tribes”? Good lord.)
What does it look like? Enviable Instagram accounts, but in paper form.
What does it sound like? Posh London accent with plenty of vocal fry.
Who's it for? That sensitive thirtysomething guy who drinks craft beer and has a lot of theories and stories, and he’s going to tell you about them by the campfire.
What's it about? Each issue focuses on an out-of-the-way place from a bunch of different perspectives, through a variety of stories and photo spreads. The magazine’s team spends a week visiting the featured place, for the sake of inspiration. We loved issue 2, which explored the Mad River Valley in Vermont, highlighting its quirks and characters. This is a unique way to do a travel magazine.
For instance: A profile of a young woman who left a theatre career to take over the knife-making trade from her dad; some fascinatingly weird domestic architecture of the Design/Build school; photos of blankets, forests and waterfalls.
What does it look like? This is a beautiful magazine, with bright, colourful photography that transcends the dampening effects of matte paper stock to jump out at you. Graphic design is contemporary without being pretentiously minimalist.
What does it sound like? That sensitive thirtysomething guy who drinks craft beer and has a lot of theories and stories, and he’s going to tell you about them by the campfire. The twist is, they’re worth listening to.
Who's it for? Those who stare intently at everything around them; art fans.
What's it about? Each issue focuses on a different ordinary object, explored from a whole bunch of different (often arty) perspectives. (“MacGuffin” is movie script lingo for an object of obsession or desire.)
For instance: Issue no. 3 focuses on rope, and includes articles on Dutch designer Christien Meinderstma’s pursuit of a reclusive flax yarn maker; artists Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh’s one-year performance art piece involving being tied together for a year; and an essay on the cultural significance of cornrow hairstyles. It’s plenty more interesting than it all sounds – again, especially if you’re a contemporary art person.
What does it look like? Deliberately (?) amateurish, in black and white. Looks like a university kid’s independent ’zine, circa late 1990s.
What does it sound like? Mostly as matter-of-fact as a length of rope.
“Magazines function like water in many ways."
Who's it for? Same as MacGuffin, but they also dress like a Kinfolk reader.
What's it about? At least four magazines call themselves Atlas. This one is based in Brooklyn, and according to its Kickstarter campaign: “Atlas Quarterly looks forward, to an America where we can know that the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the belongings that create our surroundings were made by hand, with the care of an American craftsman.” That sounds about right, although the American focus seems to have shifted to something more global more recently.
For instance: A profile of a Japanese scissor maker; a profile of a couple who make artisanal jeans in Kentucky; other articles that make you want to run screaming from your office job and go work with your hands, because it all looks so damn beautiful and rewarding. Also some poetry; fashion spreads with flowy clothes – there’s that linen ninja look we keep seeing, this time in the Scottish Highlands.
What does it look like? Kinfolk, but it spends more time outdoors and gets its hands dirty.
What does it sound like? “Magazines function like water in many ways. They are created to reflect a culture back to itself and present an ephemeral vision to imagine ourselves becoming.”
"Violetta doesn’t have any knickers on."
Who’s it for? Twentysomething women with sophisticated tastes and an above-average aptitude for composing a Snapchat.
What's it about? Fashion and a bit of celebrity culture. Unlike most magazines circa 2016, most of the clothes don’t look all that comfy.
For instance: A cover interview with Margot Robbie; an interview with Jude Law and Sadie Frost’s daughter (she’s 15 and modelling, which might make you feel old); spreads that are just a little edgier than the mainstream women’s mags (more food-related innuendo and nipple flashes). There are some relatively tame pages shot by first-time photographer and Kardashian clan member Kendall Jenner.
What does it look like? Did you have any friends in university who majored in fashion? Remember their wall collages? It’s like that: a curated riot of mainly thought-provoking imagery.
What does it sound like? “ ‘Violetta doesn’t have any knickers on,’ comes an exasperated voice from the styling chamber.”
Who's it for? Women who wish women’s magazines would smarten up.
What's it about? Fashion and interviews, mostly. It’s a solid read.
For instance: An artsy spread in which all the outfits are made of a single colour; interview with Zadie Smith; interview with Diana Athill; an artsy spread on Japanese flower arranging.
What does it look like? Sophisticated, with heavy use of what appears to be the Century Gothic font.
What does it sound like? “Of the many intriguing artefacts that made up the sale in 2001 of Bette Davis’ personal effects at Christie’s in New York, the large crystal ashtray from Maxim’s Paris must be the most curious.”
Who's it for? Foodies who find Food & Wine too middlebrow.
What's it about? The whole universe of food, from its history to behind-the-scenes stuff from the restaurant industry.
For instance: A roundup tasting 14 brands of fancy butter; a history of royal Thai cuisine; a rant by Lucky Peach editor and Momofuku empire restaurateur David Chang about how fine dining just doesn’t have the cultural currency that it used to. Lucky Peach is especially fun when delving into the most arcane subjects – the origin of the bloody caesar, or Spago’s salmon and caviar pizza, for example. The magazine is at its absolute voyeuristic best when it’s talking chef shop.
What does it look like? Colourful, with eclectic/inconsistent graphic design.
What does it sound like? A bunch of food people talking food, and you get to listen. True to the voice of its editor and the fact that it’s a magazine chefs read, there’s some cussing in here.
"A quivering blancmange …”
Who's it for? Foodies who find Lucky Peach too middlebrow.
What's it about? The whole universe of food, presented in odd and unexpected ways that align with the theme of the issue.
For instance: For the Sin issue, a boozy bundt cake, because “eating to excess is one side of the gluttony coin [and] the other is drunkenness”; “a quivering blancmange” to illustrate lust; a green cake for envy, and so on.
What does it look like? Still lifes of food, artificially colourful and Photoshopped; consistently clinical-looking text pages.
What does it sound like? Short stories and first-person essays, but with recipes in the sidebar.“We took seriously the healing and otherwise magical properties of plants, and in our families’ kitchens cooked up tinctures and teas and poultices and infusions.” And yet for all the esoteric words and images, the recipes tend to sound pretty straightforward and achievable for an enthusiastic amateur cook.