At work with: Emily Steer, editor, Elephant

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As summer ends, At Work With returns with Elephant editor Emily Steer. Emily joined the art magazine as online editor in 2015, after five years of freelance arts and food journalist for various titles. Now editor, we spoke to her about Elephant’s move into live events, why magazines still matter, and her week ahead.

Tell us about your typical Monday journey to work
If I wake up with enough get-up-and-go to force myself into my trainers and out of the house at 7.30am, then I will go for a morning run. Often though, I hit the dreaded snooze button and only have time to get ready for work before leaving the house.

The tube journey to work is about 45 minutes, which I quite enjoy, as it allows some alone time to get my head into the working week, check out what’s been happening on social media, get myself up to date with our weekend online analytics and maybe listen to a podcast or Spotify playlist. I never read a book on my way into work, that feels like a wind-down exercise for me for the end of the day or weekends.

I aim to get into work for 9.30am, where I always make myself a cup of tea and eat something easy, like a cereal bar, at my desk. Then I set some time aside to go through emails from the weekend and Friday, and I write my to-do list for the week, with urgent priorities and longer goals.

Describe the state of your desk and what you can see in your office
We have an open plan office, with one big booth per person. Mine is always a mess, although my to-do list is always close at hand, and next to me I have a very tidy selection of the latest nine issues. It’s nice to see them lined up together and get a sense of progression and cohesion through the various covers.

I sit opposite Elephant’s deputy editor, Louise Benson, and our three editors at large (Holly Black, Emily Gosling and Charlotte Jansen) work regular part time hours in the office, so we’re all in close proximity. We don’t play music as the office is open plan, but we are pretty chatty. When an issue is in progress, we have the flat plan up on the wall, which I start to feel very excited about as the process moves along.

We have enormous windows running all along one side of the office that look over the Westway in White City. There is a lot of regeneration and renovation happening; a lot of the buildings in my eyeline are scaffolded. Sunsets from our sixth floor position are pretty spectacular though.

Which magazine do you first remember and why?
The first “magazine” I ever bought was the Beano! I always wanted to be a boy when I was a child and I could live out my fantasies reading it. Then in terms of glossier mags, I remember being really excited buying OK and Hello! with my mum to read about (and snigger at) the royal family and celebs. I really remember getting the Beckham’s wedding special issue when I was eleven; I loved the preposterousness of it.

Which is your current favourite magazine?
For current affairs I like reading the New Statesman. As my head is usually more involved with arts and cultural news, I find it overwhelming to keep up with the developments in political news every single day, and I enjoy the way the NS distils everything from the week with strong opinions and in-depth pieces. It is my go-to for reading in transit too, a favourite for travelling to and from art fairs.

I also love magazines like Mold and The Gourmand for their original and visually exciting approach to food journalism. I used to write about food as well as art, and am always excited to see people doing something different from the usual recipes and reviews that make up a lot of that scene.

Why do magazines continue to matter in 2019?
With print, I really enjoy creating something that is, by design, not such a slave to analytics. With a magazine, there is less possibility of drilling into the popularity of each individual piece, so you can be much more guided by creating a whole and complete experience.

When showing an artist’s work, especially photography and painting, print also offers something that feels a bit closer to the final thing. I think printed magazines are especially important in the art world. Art fans are always going to enjoy the tactile nature of a physical item, and there is a level of excitement about design, paper stocks and printing options that will never be possible in digital.

That’s not to say that digital doesn’t have its place; I think what they both bring is highly valuable, and rather than pitting print and digital in conflict with each other, as often happens, we should enjoy the individual and necessary space they both hold. We have really enjoyed developing our digital strand, which is informed by the overall editorial vision of the magazine, but which is definitely a stand-alone in its own right, and veers into some fantastic territory that we don’t get to visit in the magazine. Both our print and digital outputs are optimised for their own worlds.

Elephant is notable for its broad-ranging attitude to art; how do you decide on themes and parameters for the content of each issue?
This has historically come from many different places. Some themes we hold onto for a long time (I knew I was interested in doing a food issue for the last four years, but suddenly the subject seemed more politicised so we decided to go for it earlier this year). For other themes, someone within the team might have a really great idea that they pitch.

Once we have our theme, which begins very broad, it tends to be led by the five or six key interviews we commission. We try to keep the themes open and positive, so even if we are looking at a subject that is loaded, or surrounded by negative opinions, we will try to look for the possibility in the subject: where could this go in the future, to actually make things better? This applied especially to our masculinity and food issues.

Back in late 2017 we welcomed the Elephant team to one of our magCulture Meets evenings to mark the then new redesign. How has the design settled in over the past couple of years?
It’s been really great working with Kellenberger White and I would say we all feel more confident with the new design now and which elements of it we feel really work. For me, the most exciting and unexpected thing to come from it is the kind of illustrators we work with now, who have been suggested by KW. It’s a very different look for us, but some of the regular illustrators such as Inji Seo, Zak Keene and Max Guther have really injected some playful energy into the beginning of the magazine.

You now have a café and events space in west London; what does this add to Elephant?
It’s allowed us to explore another mode of expression, and to fully engage with our audience IRL. Elephant is all about mixing different art forms, and presenting art as a fun and accessible thing that doesn’t need to just be available to those who have studied it or who work in the field. Having this space which is sociable and allows for cross-art-form collaboration enables us to really bring this into practice.

Some highlights so far have been our opening show with Maisie Cousins, who represents a lot of what Elephant stands for, and the intimate Four Tet gig, when he created tracks to pair with Anna Liber Lewis’s paintings.

We have just opened our big autumn show, Welcome Home, which looks at the possible future of our domestic spaces, and has a lot of interactive elements to it. Come by at the end of Frieze for our closing event for Welcome Home, a healing day complete with yoga classes, tarot readings and reiki sessions.

What’s going to be the highlight of the week for you?
We are currently in my favourite part of the print cycle as we have just released an issue—I love keeping an eye on people’s reactions online, and everything will feel very active this week in finally being able to promote it—and we are beginning to get articles in for the next issue. It’s so exciting getting pieces that we have been discussing for a while and seeing the issue start to shape up.

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