At work with: Walter Green, Lucky Peach
I’ve recently had the chance to spend time with two of the principals of Lucky Peach – editor Chris Ying (at U Symposium) and art director Walter Green (at QVED) – and can confirm they live their magazine. These guys are committed to food of every type! We start the new week with Walter, now back at work in San Francisco. Before Lucky Peach he worked at McSweeney’s and The New York Times Magazine, as well as contributing illustrations to New York, Bloomberg Businessweek The Atlantic. He was recently named one of Print magazine’s New Visual Artists, and one of The L Magazine’s 30 Under 30; if that’s not remarkable enough, he’s not even pushing 30, turning 25 this week.
Where are you today?
I’m in Lucky Peach's office in downtown San Francisco, near Union Square. It's a bit of a strange area, there are a lot of tech and business-y people who work there, a lot of tourists and shoppers in all the shops, and some fairly messed-up, drugged out folks. And us!
We also have an office in New York that I sometimes work from. But neither of the offices are huge, they usually have between 4-5 people working from them at any time.
What can you see from the window?
There’s a 7-Eleven (there are actually at least four of their stores within five blocks), some other buildings, a big group of people waiting for the bus, and – if you tilt your head the right way – a bit of a view of Market Street, which is one of San Francisco’s busiest thoroughfares. Protests and parades happen there pretty frequently.
Are you a morning or evening person?
I would probably go with the morning. I get up pretty early and try to be in the office before or around 7am because it's usually easier to work before anybody comes in. Or I spend that time working on things that are maybe less pressing than day-to-day magazine tasks, like researching for future issues, or working on book projects that are a bit further down the line. And I tend to get a lot done, and from there, my productivity slowly decreases throughout the rest of the day!
I do find it fun every once in a while, also, to do a bunch of design work in one night.
What was the first magazine you remember enjoying?
I used to buy comics (superheroes and Simpsons-related) a lot as a kid. I think at some point, I started throwing MAD into the pile. It always felt pretty risqué and salatious to me, I remember being sort of shocked at the things they would print, but I’m sure they would be extremely tame if I read them again today. I also liked that they really filled the pages with jokes, and really gave (the little me) a lot to pour over.
What’s your favourite magazine this morning?
I love New York magazine. I'm always really impressed by it, it seems like everybody there does a really good job.
What’s your favourite Monday morning breakfast snack?
I’m hugely into breakfast sandwiches right now, and am slowly going through all of the meat-egg-and-cheese varieties available in my area. So, probably, it would be something like... croissant with sausage, egg and cheese. Or bacon, egg, and cheese on an English muffin. And an ice coffee, any time of the year.
The enjoyment you and your colleagues get from making Lucky Peach is evident on every page; how do you balance this exuberance with the reality of magazine schedules and budgets?
I think I’m learning that that’s part of the fun of doing a magazine of this kind - trying to be pragmatic about planning and money, while executing the issue we’re thinking of. I recently started to feel pretty comfortable about: making an issue that we’re proud of, on time, without breaking the bank, and without too many sleepless nights for us. The satisfying part now is to try and get better every issue, from the stories, to the design, to our process, while still paying our contributors as much as we can.
We have weekly video meetings where we update each other on the status of each moving part from the magazine, when photo shoots are happening, or when a writer will file the piece, when the first edit is due, when art will come in, and all that.
One thing I’ve found helpful in creating the magazine is working with extremely talented artists who can take agency over the pages we work on together. I send over rough layouts with rough sizes where their work will go, but if they read the article and think of an interesting concept or different size/format for their work, I’m open to letting the layouts be dictated by their art. It's kind of fun to let the pages belong to them.
And It’s not really my thing to get too specific with artists about tiny changes or colors or anything like that, and it can also take up a lot of time-- so I end up hiring the folks who I can trust will do their best on the finals, and who won't need too much feedback.
Do you ever find yourself wanting to scream, ‘STOP! let me design something minimalist’?
I would mostly only be screaming at myself. For this latest issue, I did have some quieter designs planned that had to get revised at the last minute to fit in so much more text. I feel like I’m starting to dabble in more minimal things, very slowly every issue. Our next one, The Plant Kingdom, will be pretty clean. I do find comments about it weird; even as packed and silly as it looks now, I remember seeing a tweet about how our design was starting to get pretentious! And, even though I’m sure that’s the last word most people would use to describe the design, it did stick with me a little.
What other projects are you working on at the moment?
Lucky Peach recently started working on a few cookbooks that’ll be released this year. The most pressing one is a book called ‘101 Easy Asian Recipes’ we’re trying to finish the design by the end of the week – myself and Helen Tseng, a great designer who freelances with us sometimes. Then we’ve got a book on sausages that we’ll start work on shortly, which involved a trip around Germany eating many different sausages, before meeting you at QVED in Munich!
The Plant Kingdom issue, which I mentioned, is our main project at the moment. This one will be very visual, in contrast to our last one which ended up being very word-heavy. A lot of photo portfolios, and a lot of illustration, and it’s our second time designing an issue around a typeface we've commissioned, this time by Benjamin Critton.
Lucky Peach also recently launched our website, where I'm assigning art daily. It's been a huge amount of fun to commission work outside of the context of the magazine, at pretty much the same size every day, and to be able to put the art up a few hours after it's done, and to get pretty instant feedback on all of it.
I’m also working on a few things as a freelancer; the Mission Chinese Food Cookbook, one of my favorite restaurants, and the interior of Aziz Ansari's first book ‘Modern Romance’. And, personally, I’m trying to learn how to cook, to see if that makes me better at my job. I’ve always been sort of an idiot/trash-eater when it comes to food.
What are you most looking forward to this week?
I really want to finish watching ‘The Jinx’ the HBO documentary series about Robert Durst which I've really enjoyed. Typing that felt like a paid HBO advertisement sort of, but I swear it wasn't.
What are you least looking forward to this week?
My birthday! I start to feel very existential around this time of the year. Last year, my cake said ‘LIFE SUCKS’ and this year I'’m hoping this year’s cake will be even more depressing. I turn 25, which I understand is young, but still feels hard to accept.