The sixth interview from Jeremy Leslie’s 2015 book ‘Independence’ features David Lane, co-founder of the beautiful food and culture magazine The Gourmand.
Jeremy: First of all I’d like to find out a bit more about what you’d been doing that led you to work in magazines.
David: I studied Communication Design at Central Saint Martins when it was in Holborn, in the old building – it’s going be a hotel soon. And then I worked for design agencies, a big global branding agency and then a really small studio where we designed things like exhibitions for the Science Museum. And then I had my own studio, my partner and I designed lots of books, record covers and exhibitions. We designed exhibitions here at Somerset House. It was brilliant, but we were being asked to design things and I was getting into the content first to discover how it should be presented and thinking, ‘Oh, I’d like to make this a little bit better.’ A little bit more interesting or, you know, they’ve missed a trick.
The designing bit at the end was great, but I was getting less and less excited by it really. I was more excited by gathering together great groups of people for photo shoots, illustrations and writers and organising it all together. So we did The Gourmand, me and my partner, Marina.
With magazines you’re involved from the very beginning.
Yes, and it means you’re involved in everything. Often as a designer or art director your job-description is only to do one specific thing. You can’t really question the brief. Well, you can…
…it’s difficult. And you certainly can’t start rewriting people’s titles and, like, thinking ‘Oh, I know someone who would’ve done a much better interview than that’ –you know? These kind of things.
Do you remember looking at magazines when you were studying? Looking at magazines when you were younger?
What was the first magazine that you can recall having?
I always collected comics when I was really small, and then magazines after that. When I moved up to London just before uni I had stacks of Sleazenation, Dazed, and i-D, and all those kind of mags. And music mags when those were good, I used to be into those. NME and stuff.
And were you interested in food at that stage?
Yeah, always. I was working in delis and restaurants and bars before I was doing design stuff. I used to cook a lot. Marina, who I set the magazine up with, she worked for big restaurant groups, event organising companies, we ate out a lot and went to supper clubs, we were really into it. Everyone is, really? Right?
They are, but not everyone starts a magazine about it.
I guess we never really worked together, and we realised it was the one thing we had in common, and the one thing everyone in the world has in common. So. It’s what’s made it possible really. If it were about motorbikes or something, it would have been a lot harder.
So was it magazine or food that came first? Did you decide you wanted to do something about food and then figure out ‘magazine’, or did you want to do a magazine and then think ‘food’?
The studio I’d started was becoming really hard work. Marina and I were always talking about food, and we really wanted to do something that no one else could tell us was wrong. At first it was just intended to be a little pilot, we put aside a bit of money to do it, and we didn’t expect to make anything back, which was good.
Because presumably you didn’t.
Yeah, but we didn’t lose anything, which was a surprise. We got a really positive response from people that knew what they were talking about.
So this was evenings and weekends, while the studio continued.
Yeah. They ran simultaneously for two issues. And then, I decided to just concentrate on the magazine.
Can you remember how many you printed?
I’d designed quite a few books before, and whenever I’d get quotes back from people, 2,000 seemed to be the number that made the most sense in terms of the print per unit of something. With magazines, it’s probably a lot lower. I was doing books with all sorts of stuff that make it expensive. Just because I was doing that, I thought that was the right amount. Luckily Marina was amazing at managing it all. It’s why it’s worked. As well as the content and the creative side of it, there is someone dedicated to making it work, running it.
And Marina handles that side of things?
She does. We’ll both go to meetings with distributors and editorial meetings, everything together. But she’s much better at all the things that I’m not very good at.
None the less, it’s a big step, printing 2,000 copies of a magazine. Did you have everything set up at that stage?
The first one we didn’t. We literally got in touch with every shop around the world that we wanted it in. On a personal level, people seemed willing to pay more for that personal relationship. It’s something sad, we’ve found the bigger you get and the more you have to work with distributors, you lose connection with people in the shop. You loose the connection then with the people who are buying. When you speak to people who work in shops, it’s always interesting to find out why one cover has sold more than another.
And they’ve got a point of view?
Definitely. They’re there in the shop selling it.
That first issue was a pilot. But it had proper content, you commissioned the photography, illustration, writing. How much of a challenge was it starting from scratch, putting together an entire magazine.
We only spoke to people we really, really admired, and let them do what they wanted to do. The more we could be involved early on with the discussion, the less we had to be involved later on. I think that’s how we got the content we did. The editor of Dazed at the time interviewed some amazing musicians for it. We had an interview with artist David Shrigley about his opera and he gave us a load of unpublished drawings of costumes he’d done. Everything in it was commissioned and unpublished, it wasn’t regurgitated press releases. I think at the time we thought that all magazines were like that. We’ve kept it that way.
It was still a pilot though. You were testing the water. It was called Zero. That’s why every sale discussion with a shop or anything is always so confusing. They say, but there have been six issues? But there’s five. We were thinking of it like a TV series.
There was still a thought that it might not work. You were unsure if there’d be a number one.
We were naïve or ignorant. It’s so much effort so you have to pretend it will work, otherwise you wouldn’t make the effort.
That’s a recurring theme this week: the effort. Were you surprised by the extent to which the magazine took over your time and brain space?
Definitely. It was great, we were going to all these lovely restaurants and meeting these people but after a while you do realise it’s work. After a few issues we had to step back and think, we’d like to have a weekend, or see friends that aren’t involved in the magazine.
What’s the hardest part?
Finding the balance between enjoying it and making it commercially viable. You have to put so much effort into it making sure it’s enjoyable. Finding the balance there, and how that works with other projects that we do. We work on a lot of other projects. Every issue it gets easier.
It seems easy from the outside; you came up with a pilot issue, you started selling, and it’s grown since. Does it feel like that inside?
I guess. It’s worked. I’m sure everyone has said this here every day, it’s certainly not something you do as an intelligent investment of money, but it’s an intelligent investment of time, effort and creativity. All the other work we do around it is greatly improved by it, and of a much more interesting standard because of it.
Can you tell us a little bit about what that work is?
Yeah. We make content for other people. That’s films, or designing books, or re-designing magazines, designing restaurants. Lots of different things, but all the same elements. Putting together a publication for somebody, art directing a shoot, directing a film. Pulling a team of people we know together and getting them to fulfil a brief, it’s really the same, although
it might be different platforms and for different people.
Presumably it’s a useful symbiotic relationship with the magazine and the studio?
The magazine’s really a 150-page business card that’s sold all over the world.
Would the magazine work on its own? Or do you need the studio income to pay for the magazine?
The magazine would survive, I don’t know if any of us would survive around it. If it was its own living thing, it would carry on living. Everyone puts in far more effort for far less than they earn. Ourselves included. If everyone got paid their full day rates, the sales wouldn’t pay for the production. Some of the photographs and illustrators we work with get a lot of great work from it. Although we can’t pay them as much as we should for their work, I hope in someway it has gone towards getting them this other work.
The work you commission is generally reproduced full page, whereas illustration in most magazines is cropped down or surrounded by text. It’s a much better vehicle.
We have a balanced presence of text and image. If we have an incredible interview with somebody, the photo story isn’t meant to illustrate the interview but it’s a photo story in its own right. They live together and rather than briefing someone, ‘can you take a photo of this person we’ve written this thing’, we like the imagery to be its own idea and its own thing, to add to the text as much as the text adds to the image. And make sure it’s really big. Unless it’s meant to be really small, and then it’s really small.
There is a huge range of independent food magazines. You put it well, we all eat every few hours, so it’s a natural subject to publish about.
There are a lot of food magazines, but proportionally less considering every single human eats. Not everyone buys couture McQueen dresses, and there are far more fashion magazines.
So you think there is space for more?
I think so. Everyone seems to have their own take. We were in Singapore recently, and Chris Ying, the editor of Lucky Peach was there, and I think that magazine is fantastic. We were chatting, and really there is absolutely no cross over in what we’re doing. They’re both completely independent in their approaches and they kind of share an audience but no one would ever decide between the two. It’s nicely uncompetitive.
What sets The Gourmand apart from Lucky Peach and others?
It’s food as a form of communication, food as a way to discuss art, music, film, fashion, literature and all sorts of other things. Food as a way to interview people, food as an inspiration for creatives to produce new work. Meals are a time when you sit down with people you know and talk about things. It’s a time when you’re creative even if you’re not a creative person. Your not looking at a screen, your forced to communicate with other people. People are getting more and more interested in food as a common language, they’re more interested in restaurants, and we wanted to reflect that. We weren’t so interested in ‘Six Delicious Omelettes Using Summer Herbs’.
That’s certainly the other end of the publishing spectrum.
And we feature chefs, but we might write about their art collection or books they’re interested in or commission short stories like this. Food is the hook, but everything is different around that.
Steve Watson was one of my guests earlier in the week. He mentioned that he felt that the first few issues of The Gourmand were good but not so great, but that latterly you’ve gained a turbo thrust and it’s suddenly just grown into itself. Does that ring true for you? What do you feel when you look back at the first issues?
I’m not a great proof reader. And that was a job I shouldn’t have been doing. The longer it’s gone on, the more we’ve involved other people who are far better at those things.
Generally the whole standard has been pulled together a lot more. I think it was always good in terms of the people, just technically the production of the written side of it has gotten better. Also as the name has gotten more recognised it’s allowed us to speak with bigger names, more interesting people. I guess we’ve distributed more copies. I still like some of the features in the first ones more. They’re a bit more fun, I remember the enjoyment
of it more.
The novelty maybe?
The novelty, but also the purity of ideas. And not having any ideas in the back of your mind about why this was or wasn’t a good idea. You know. Which we do now.
So you’ve learned a lot more now, you’re making more judgements.
Yes. But they’re also the judgements that were the reason we started the magazine. You look at mainstream publishing and you think, I want to do it completely not like that. But you do realise there are certain things that are just practical.
But you have to get there on your own terms.
Yeah I think so. I’m very fond of the earlier issues.
Some people would have you believe that these magazines are all beginning to look the same, that there is a familiarity settling in amongst independent publishing. Is that something you notice?
Yeah definitely. But I think it’s not just true of independent publishing. It’s true of anything. You see it with music, you listen to a band and then they become successful and then you hear loads of other bands that sound a bit the same. They’re probably just as good. But it’s getting – what’s the right word – homogenised slightly. The one thing that does upset me a little bit is that there are a lot of new magazines and I’m not quite sure of the purpose of them. But there are some amazing ones, more and more there are amazing ones, and I go into a shop and I’m like ‘it’s brilliant!’
Which ones would you pick out?
All those at the Singapore event we did together, all the people who were speaking, there was Chris from Lucky Peach and Jop van Bennekom who does Fantastic Man, Penny Martin from The Gentlewoman, they’re all brilliant magazines. Nathan Williams from Kinfolk, which is not a magazine I find speaks to me personally but I think it’s very well done. I thought, great, get to see all these people. The magazines I was most interested in seeing were ones I’d never ever heard of.
The local ones?
The local magazines from Singapore and I just thought these are absolutely fantastic. Rubbish Famzine is put together by a family – two kids and their parents – that was just so pure and lovely. The guy runs a successful design agency and he knew what he was doing, and he managed to set his kids the parameter of what to do to make sure the content was brilliant. It was
so pure and nice. There are lots of examples of brilliant magazines that people keep mentioning or sending me that I think are great.
At the same time, I see a lot of new magazines starting up that I feel… maybe it’s a graphic designer who wants to design a magazine or a photographer that wants to have their work published… They don’t seem to be offering me something of interest. A lot of it is a reaction to how busy people are, and the more work and the less money people have. It’s not surprising that there are magazines about carving spoons and drying lavender and moving to a hut. People like to read about these slightly idyllic lifestyles because they will never be able to do it for real – they have to work all night answering emails. I see it as a reaction.
Magazines are particularly well suited to that, you do lose yourself.
It’s a really interesting time. The wave of internet content that was meant to destroy everything printed has receded a bit. People have realised it’s not nice reading 2,000 words of content on a screen and if you are spending a week working on an amazing still life photo story you don’t just want to see it 300 pixels wide surrounded by adverts. There are lots of things the internet is right for, short news and quick points, something to look through and click through.
As a response to that, magazines have once again become this place where there is a point of putting something out there. There is a point for this photo essay to exist in print, because it’s so good, it should be kept on your bookshelf. This interview with this person who might not speak to another journalist ever again and it’s 10,000 words long, I want to keep, and the internet can’t have that, because it’s too good. But at the same time, there is a lot of stuff from the internet that’s being made into a magazine, which I’d rather look at on the internet. A lot of commercial magazines try to battle the internet a bit, and I always find it baffling. You can never win that battle.
Which actually reflects what you’ve done recently online, with issue five – the sixth issue – you redesigned the magazine, and re-launched your website with two very specific ideas.
It’s the eternal battle for anyone publishing anything, whether or not to have a web presence. The guys at Apartamento have never ever had a website with anything on it, and I think that’s brilliant because the magazine is great and they don’t need it.
But we were getting a lot of stories sent to us, and we don’t really ever publish anything that people have said ‘would you like to publish this?’
We like to be involved in the making of it all. But then a lot of the stuff was just brilliant, and we wanted somewhere to put it somewhere but which we couldn’t justify being in the magazine. So our new site has two distinct parts, ‘On screen’ and ‘On paper’. We thought that once a week we’d put a feature online and we’d make the online an editorial experience as close
to the magazine as possible. So it’s really clear and clean and pared back, you can read, with nice images. So we’ve done that. And now we have an online editor, so the site will grow as its own thing, separate to the magazine. And then on the ‘On-paper’ side, there are photographs of the magazine, and you can buy it. And that’s it.
Do you use social media much?
We really like Instagram. We have quite a big following, well I don’t know what big is, there are tens of thousands not hundreds of thousands. We use it as a place to put things by other people that we love that we wouldn’t put in the magazine, because they already exist. If there is a photographer who’s work we think is brilliant, or already been published somewhere else, we put it up. We also use Twitter a bit. Passively. I think we have Facebook and stuff. It’s sort of in the wake of the magazine, rather than the other way around. There are magazines that have started because they’ve had such huge social media followings.
There are also magazines that earn a lot via their Instagram feeds.
It’s a hard thing – why would a brand pay hundreds of pounds for a page of advertising in your magazine when you could just give someone a pair of trainers and they’ll take a photo of it, and half a million people will see it. We’ll never print half a million copies of our magazine. It’s kind of killing the old school model of publishing, but that’s probably good.
Talking to various people generally but also during these interviews, there is a mixture of guilt and relish that the mainstream is suffering. Do you feel that?
I swing from side to side. I did a talk with a few other people and the direction of it was pushed into ‘Isn’t commercial and mainstream publishing crap, and isn’t the new wave of indie magazines brilliant’ and we all got a bit carried away. And then there was a whole team of people in the audience from a mainstream magazine that had really valid questions, and I felt really stupid. I thought, actually, you know what, I could easily be doing that, there is a whole other set of rules there, a whole other set of parameters. It’s a completely different audience. If it’s natural because it’s fading out because of the way things are going, then I don’t want to be the one to kick it along and help it into the gutter.
It’s a bit like your music analogy – people perhaps haven’t got that original spark of wanting to start something but still want to join in. Just as there are some great mainstream bands, there are some fantastic mainstream magazines.
There are. And I’ve got more into the because I appreciate all of the things that go into making them now. Also, the line between what is commercial and not is harder and harder to define. There are magazines that would look like a commercial magazine that are perhaps actually independent magazine, there are independent magazine that have a bigger print run
and sell more copies than a lot of mainstream magazines. The Guardian has a new supplement which has the same kind of content and tone of voice and commissioned illustration that would appear in an independent magazine. It’s hard to define where the lines are a bit. But if I’m going to sit on a plane for a while I’ll buy The New Yorker, I’ll buy lots of magazines that would probably be seen as commercial magazines. And enjoy them. And appreciate how well they’re put together.
What advice would you give to someone who is starting out now with an idea for a magazine?
Make it about something you’re genuinely interested in, and not something you think everyone else is interested in. It almost doesn’t matter what that is, if you bring it together with lots of passion and you care about it. Those are magazines that are the best. Thinking that a magazine is made up of these things, and these people should be in it, and it should look like this, and the cover should look like this, and it should have these typefaces, there is no point in that.
Also, you’ll never start a media empire or make money out of it. So enjoy it. The guy who makes Rubbish Famzine with his family said he just put aside some money he wanted to lose and it completely freed him up to enjoy every minute of it. And it was worth that and more. I think that’s a great approach.
This interview is from the book ‘Independence’ by Jeremy Leslie, first published in October 2015 and now sold out. The twelve interviews took place in front of a live audience at the Pick Me Up festival at London’s Somerset House, in Spring 2015.
Portrait of David by Ian Pierce.