Polly Glass, Wrap
Over the summer we’ll be slowing things down a little on the Journal, with some of our regular posts on hold for the holidays. Instead we’ll be publishing the interviews from Jeremy Leslie’s 2015 book ‘Independence.’ The twelve interviews took place in front of a live audience at the Pick Me Up festival at London’s Somerset House, between 24 April and 4 May 2015. We start today with Polly Glass, from illustration magazine Wrap.
Jeremy: Did you think, back in 2010 when you started, that you’d end up making a magazine with its current number of pages?
Polly: No, not at all, we didn’t really have a plan, we just wanted to try something and seeing how people reacted to it has kind of spurred us on to keep going, keep improving. We both work full time on Wrap now, and the business has also developed into working with illustrators on other products. We make wrapping paper, stationary. It’s grown organically really, rather than having a set plan. The next issue is going up to 120 pages.
Have you always wanted to make a magazine?
No, not at all. I make Wrap with Chris Harrison, who’s my fiancé, and we were working as jewellery designers. Our professional experience has nothing to do with magazines at all. We were both working for someone else and other brands, and I think we just got slightly fed up with working for other people. And we wanted to do a project together, something that we’d both enjoy.
We wanted to create something that would encourage other creatives, even if they had another job, that there was something they could work towards and they could have their work published or seen. They could go in and say ‘Oh my print is here’. For me that had been a really satisfying thing about being a jewellery designer, even though I was working for other people, I loved going into Cath Kidston and seeing my jewellery on a stand. I loved the idea that we could enable other people to have a cool feeling of actually seeing their stuff out there, being enjoyed by other people.
How did you land on doing Wrap?
There were a few things actually. I’d gone to the Designs of the Year exhibition at the Design Museum and that year The Newspaper Club was one of the selections. I’d never thought about print before, as a kind of accessible way of manufacturing. I was really interested in the idea that you could go to The Newspaper Club and print five copies of a thing. For some reason it had never been on my radar. I’d worked in furniture design, jewellery design, all these three dimensional things, and then I saw The Newspaper Club and thought ‘Oh my God, that’s so amazing, that I could print something and that it all comes apart as well’. Chris and I chatted for ages, and the ideas spurred from that. It was definitely that form of manufacturing that I thought was really interesting.
Your website talks about making a magazine that is half-magazine and half-product. Do you try to keep that feeling going?
Definitely. It has evolved quite a lot. It’s bound and more of a magazine now, but we really liked that idea. I think Chris and I naturally like things that are useful or that we can feel have a purpose to them. Every magazine has the purpose of being enjoyed. We really liked the idea of designing it beyond that so that you could pick it up and read it, but you could also use it. It became more than a magazine. I wasn’t trying to do it as a gimmick, it was more how cool it could be if people could use the paper as something else, they could recycle the elements.
And do people use it as wrapping paper?
I don’t think so! I always look out on Instagram to see if anyone has wrapped. Every now and then at Christmas they do, but no, I don’t know whether all the effort we go to make a magazine that you can use as wrapping paper is actually used as wrapping paper.
My theory is that they use it as posters.
Yes, I’ve seen people do that and cover a whole wall. Even if they don’t get used, I think people treasure it maybe a bit more because it’s got that potential. Then they get scared of wanting to ruin it.
Even if you leave the foldout papers in the magazine, the scale is fantastic. It was amazing, especially with the first magazine, to see illustration on a much bigger scale and to really be able to look at the detail people put into their work. Magazines often use illustrations as small pictures next to text, and actually we’re putting illustration at the forefront. That was definitely something we liked about the wrapping paper.
So you came to magazines and publishing without much knowledge of the area. How did you go about finding illustrators?
We put a call out on the Dezeen site. That was where we found people, we had lots of submissions, people seemed to be really into sending their ideas. A couple of the people that were involved in the first issue were friends of ours who were illustrators as well. From that, we became more involved and networked and knew how to look for people and people contacted us after the first issue. It grew from there.
Do you feel like you’re part of a general resurgence of interest in illustration recently?
I think we’re definitely a part of it.
Do you see a resurgence?
Definitely, yeah. There seems to be more and more appetite for illustration. You see it more in a broader context – beyond magazines and newspapers, on homeware products. It’s becoming much more a part of our culture, our daily experience when we’re out and about. This event is a perfect example of this actually. Pick Me Up has been going for a similar amount of time that we have, and I think Nobrow are a brilliant starting point for pushing illustration as well, within the area.
I have the sense that you’ve learned about editorial and magazine making along the way; issue by issue it has become more mature and the content has got better worked. It feels like you’ve learned about the process of making magazines issue by issue.
We were chatting about this yesterday. The first issue was printed on silk stock. We didn’t know anything about printing. The printer said ‘Oh, wrapping paper looks really good on silk stock’, so we printed it on that. We just went with what they told us because we thought that it was going to be fine. It was alright, but we’ve moved on from that. We’ve definitely tried things out and we haven’t been scared. We analyse each issue really carefully once it has been published and we talk to stockists and see how people have reacted to it.
We like to make each issue better and better and we work really hard on that. We didn’t know anything about publishing before – and we’ve obviously learned as we’ve gone along, which has made it better. I think there are good things about having done it that way, even though it’s taken us a lot longer to get to a standard that we’re just really happy with. I think it’s been a interesting learning curve for us, and I think we’ve approached making magazines maybe in a different way because we didn’t know anything about it. We’ve done something different and that’s helped us carve out our own space.
You mentioned having the big mask on the cover was a revelation because somehow a face on the cover worked. There’s a lot of received wisdom in publishing about what you should do and one such rule would be to always have a face on the cover. In a way it’s much more satisfying to discover that for yourself then be told it.
If only someone had told us… That’s the reason the Jean Jullien cover had a character on it. We really liked the idea of people being able to connect with something on the cover. We’ve learned that across not just the magazine but with our product range as well: a greetings card that has an immediately recognisable face on the front or context to it people get quickly. They get emotionally attached to it in some way. This is the same with a magazine. I think Jean’s cover did an excellent job of that, of having something that you can relate to. Ping Zhu’s is different because it has more than one face on it, but I think there’s still a very clear story – we’re not just stuck on a face. It’s interesting to see that it’s worked, and then to apply
that new knowledge to a different illustrator.
You mentioned the stationery. Again, you had no plan in the beginning. Did you naturally move into producing other things?
We did all the distribution of the magazine ourselves for three or four years. To start with, I was travelling round London with a wheelie suitcase dropping off magazines. Luckily I don’t do that anymore! But yeah, essentially we’d have all of the magazines dumped at our house, and we were like ‘Oh gosh, we’ve got thousands of magazines to try and sell’. Which was quite a motivation to get selling. We were contacting all these shops and we had really good relationships with buyers, a couple of hundred of shops around England and abroad,
and we were thinking ‘All these buyers really like our magazine, why don’t we do other stuff that they might like?’
So you’d do all that distribution yourself.
Yeah. We still do that for the products. We had all this contact with brilliant illustrators and they’d be in the magazine and we’d see how we loved their work, and we’d be like ‘this is really silly, we had a really nice time making work together for the magazine’. We get to know them really well. And, I think that’s a good testing ground.
It’s continuing a relationship with an illustrator and seeing their potential on a bit more of a commercial level. The magazine is quite niche, maybe someone that wouldn’t buy the magazine would still really enjoy buying a card with a cool illustration on it by someone they might not find in WHSmiths. We’re still trying to do something different, but it could appeal to a broader range of people. That’s the idea behind the stationary.
So there are several parts to the business. Is the magazine financially successful in its own right? Or does it rely on the other work?
We wouldn’t be able to just live off the magazine. It breaks even, but no, we couldn’t just live off doing the magazine. I think that was also a push to do other products as well, and they do very well commercially, so we make a good living off that, and then we continue to do the magazine out of choice really and out of passion.
And as you said, it’s a great research tool to find illustrators.
I think it’s good on lots of levels. It helps us find lots of really good people to work with. I also think it does something good by talking about contemporary illustration, and that’s something that isn’t talked about so much. It sets a really good tone for our brand – I think people respect
our brand and recognise us and think we’re good people, and that has filtered through into people liking the stuff that we do.
The magazine brings that element of passion to the whole project.
Yeah totally. We work all hours to get the magazine out, and we have to fit it around the commercial stuff as well. It’s not a money loser or anything, it helps the overall business make a lot more money than it would if it wasn’t there. If you took it just as itself it might not be something that we could live off, but overall it helps everything we do to be successful. If you took it away Chris and I wouldn’t find the whole business as exciting. Making the magazine is something that we really enjoy.
Where do you sell Wrap? Does it go beyond indie mag stores into more general shops?
It’s in places like Paperchase, Anthropologie, so it is in some department-store type places. Lots of independent bookshops and newsagents around London. And then abroad it’s in lots of galleries. Galleries are a key area for us. Tate Modern, V&A in London. MoMA in New York. LACMA in Los Angeles. Abroad it’s mostly independent shops. I think it fits with the customer of shops like that. It’s a lifestyle product that people are looking for in shops like that. More than going to a regular chain shop. But that requires a lot more work, to be contacting those little shops.
That begins to paint a picture of who the readers are. But do you have a more precise idea? Do you reach out beyond the more obvious readers?
We get a good idea of who buys it from our online shop, and it’s a really broad range of people. Everything from students to middle aged women. Generally they work in creative industries. Beyond that, I don’t really know. It’s a lot more women than men, 60-70% women. Age-wise, I think it’s broad. Probably quite a lot of students too.
It’s one of the luxuries of independent publishing, this sense that you can find an audience. So many magazines at the top of the big scale publishing do so much research and focus grouping that they edit out any character, and part of the joy of magazines like Wrap is you can avoid that.
I think it’s a good thing but that’s also one thing that makes it harder to make money from them. Maybe if we did do focus groups and made it super-specialised for the right kind of people… that’s not something we naturally want to do. We do think about the reader a lot, even though we might not have a specific knowledge of exactly who that person is. We’re always thinking about whether the content will look appealing, will be interesting to read, the idea for the features is that we just want to write about interesting things and present things in a good way that will be informative and inspiring. Even if we don’t think of a specific target audience, we definitely think about the reader looking at a magazine. It’s not just “we like this”;
it’s not just us doing what we want.
Do you consciously try to mix up known illustrators and young newcomers?
Totally. I think having someone that people can recognise is a good thing, but we definitely don’t just pick names because they’re names. When we’re thinking about the illustrators for the wrapping papers, we look at people who we think are making really exciting work. They could be someone that no one else has heard of, but we think they’re exciting and we’d love to hear more from them. Equally they could be someone who is quite well known, but who we think is doing good stuff. So it’s not about how well known they are, it’s much more about the level of work that they’re making.
And presumably the general mix as well? You have to present different types of work.
We definitely try and present different types of work. It used to be 10 illustrators that we feature in each magazine, and we’ve actually taken it down to five because we feel it’s nicer to curate five together. They all make work in slightly different ways, but we feel that there is something that they share which will help make them a really good group together. I think that makes the magazine stronger.
We don’t try and pick people who are poles apart, there might be someone whose work we like, but we’ll go back to featuring it when there is a nice group it works with. For the new cover, we realised we hadn’t worked with a female illustrator on the cover for ages. So that was something that we had a pre-requisite going into issue 11. There are obviously lots of considerations.
You clearly enjoy the creative part of magazine. We already mentioned distribution but what’s the most difficult part of making a magazine for you?
There are lots of tough parts. All the good bits are putting it together and designing it and looking forward to getting the finished article, but then you’re like, ‘Oh gosh, this has actually got to get out into the world and how do we do that? How do we get as many people to appreciate it as we want to?’ I think that’s a big challenge.
What about the best thing?
Working with brilliant people. Doing boring stuff like all the finances, that’s the rubbish stuff. The good stuff is the creative stuff, having good conversations with illustrators. I love interviewing people and coming up with a concept for a feature and seeing that happen and working with a photographer to make it look great.
Seeing it come together.
Yeah. We’ve been working on issue 11 for eight months, I’m really looking forward to it being finished. Everything builds up and then you get this really lovely thing at the end of it, and the satisfaction of creating something that’s really considered and has had so many people involved with it, and I love that you can create an object at the end of it. Maybe that’s the kind of product-design-y thing coming in as well. I definitely see it as an object.
Why make a print magazine and not do something digital?
I’ve never thought of doing it digitally. I think that’s the product-y thing, I love making stuff whether it’s jewellery or a placemat or a cushion. I’ve always loved making physical stuff.
I think there is a brilliant place for online publications now, actually, I think the internet is a way more exciting place to do design than it was even five years ago. I really like the idea of Wrap having a much better online platform, that’s something that we’re hoping to do soon. But for me, it’s about the physicality of an object, and enjoying it and being able to use it, the smell, everything. And I love going to see it being printed. I love the process, I love understanding how things are made, all of that stuff together – I wouldn’t have not done that.
Independent magazines get so much attention now – BBC Newsnight covered them recently, there are regular pieces in the papers. Do you see yourself as part of a world of independent publishing?
Often all these people are piled together as ‘The Independent Magazines’ but I don’t see it as a club. It’s exciting that people are making independent magazines and people are enjoying it. I see it as really exciting that people are making stuff that they’re enjoying and getting content out there for other people to enjoy.
Chris and I were actually chatting about this the other day, one of the cool things about when someone makes an independent magazine is that it’s often very specialised or about a topic that allows other people who are into that to have something that they can enjoy. Old school magazines about fishing, craft… or magazines that people are making today that are relevant to what we’re all into, whether it’s travel or food. I think that’s what I like about independent magazines. People are putting all their love into making this thing that is about something that they’re really into.
Do you look at a lot of other magazines? There are other independent magazines looking at illustration and other areas close in some respect to what you’re doing. Are you conscious of them?
It might sound odd, but we don’t look at other magazines. Not because we’re not interested in them, there are a few that we really like, but I don’t get obsessed at looking at what everyone else is up to. It can be easy to get side-tracked. I like being focused and thinking about what we’re doing. But yeah, there are definitely magazines I enjoy looking at on a personal level. Gratuitous Type for example. A bit more graphic design focused but they do feature illustrators as well. I think it’s so well designed, I love it, again, a really beautiful, considered object.
Some people have expressed worries that many indepdendent magazines are beginning to look alike. Are you aware of that?
Yeah. We definitely see what’s going on, I don’t want to sound like we’re
not interested. I think there is an element of that happening, and I think people follow trends. If someone likes something, you’re naturally influenced by that. I think that’s only natural that that happens in so many areas of creativity. Everything influences everyone.
To some degree.
To some degree. It can become a bit more heightened at some points. But that’s why it’s also key to be aware of what’s going on but also try not to let that distract you too much. It’s good to have a clear vision about what you like and what you’re trying to do, to be able to keep your own look to what you’re doing. The really successful brands, beyond illustration, have such
a clear look to what they do. I try and take something from that. Trends come and go.
What’s the ambition for Wrap? Would you like to see a day when it is available in every branch of WHSmiths and there are hundreds and thousands of readers?
We wouldn’t continue if we didn’t want it to keep growing, but I don’t think I can’t ever see the magazine being in our local branch of Tescos. I don’t think it will ever be like that but I wouldn’t mind that. There is a lot more room for it to grow. As I talked about before, it’s not just about the magazine, an online platform would be a great place for us to grow as well. I feel because we’re only managing to print about one or two issues a year, there is so much stuff I want to talk about and share more regularly than that. I think an online platform would help us to do that, and might reach an audience that might not buy a magazine but who still would be interested in what we have to say. Beyond that, in terms of working with illustrators we want to keep working with more illustrators to not just grow the stationary range but to grow into other areas of design as well. Especially with our interest in product design.
Into bigger products?
Yes. The possibilities are endless – we’re still trying to work out exactly what direction we want to go with it. Homeware is one area, furniture, creating more of a lifestyle around illustration. I really like the crossover between how people are living and using illustration.
What single piece of advice would you give to someone who wanted to start a magazine?
One of the things we’ve learned is: if you can try and work with the best possible people that you can, whether it’s the printers or a photographer or a writer, try to aim as high as possible with who you’re surrounding yourself with. That will help to create the best thing you can. Have as high standards as you can push yourself to reach.
This interview is from the book ‘Independence’ by Jeremy Leslie, first published in October 2015. The last few copies are available from the magCulture Shop.
A new issue of Wrap is due later this year.
Portrait of Polly by Ian Pierce.