Leonard Koren is the author of Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing , the definitive history of WET Magazine, the iconic and innovative magazine he published from 1976 – 1981 out of Venice Beach, California. Polymorphously perverse, cheeky, flirtatiously Hollywood and beautifully designed, WET Magazine was an extension of Koren’s own quirky and enigmamtic personality.
Koren has been a publisher of interesting books about design and aesthetics since the 1980s but what makes this book compelling is the insight with which he looks back on his singular experiences withWET. There is much to learn here for creative minds beginning on their path of growth and development. As honestly as possible, he has tried to evaluate the decisions he made along the way in an ethical light, whether they be aesthetic decisions, business decisions, or decisions made in relations with staff, friends and partners. The result is a book that is as critical of its author as it is beautiful to hold–filled with thoughts, ideas and images that will stay with the reader long after the book has been laid down.
Illustration: Back and front cover design by Emilia Burchiellaro and Leonard Koren.
As a young UCLA architecture student, Leonard Koren became obsessed with the physically built environment of the bath, including the rituals that support it and the truths that give bathing its metaphysical reality. “Every bathroom,” writes Koren, “no matter how crude or sophisticated, comes equipped with all elements of a primal poetry. Water and/or steam, hot, cold and in between. Nakedness. Quietude. Illumination.”
Illustration: Bathing cap people photographs by Guy Webster. Design and Art Direction by Elizabeth Freeman. From WET July/August 1978.
A fluid publication of creative visual production, critical thinking and intersecting obsessions, WET developed organically from Koren’s individual efforts into an experimental collaboration among his ephemeral community of friends and artists living in Venice Beach, California. Before starting WET Koren had no prior publishing experience, but was blessed with a daring approach, a strong sense of aesthetics influenced by Japanese culture, his architectural studies and his love of photography. Under his guidance, WET the Magazine of Gourmet Bathing became a legitimate expression of hip beach culture. It gave voice to a kind of bohemianized water-course way that had taken hold among Venice Beach’s most creative minds. At its best, WET offered its readers a self-aware and watery hedonism (and some cases skepticism) based on the myriad possibilities of bathing as a metaphor.
Illustration: Contents pages designed by Leonard Koren.
Marshall McLuhan famously noted the similarities between taking a bath and reading a newspaper – both being relaxing interludes given to randomness and reflection. Browsing through the pages of Making WET invokes the essence of WET Magazine’s original appeal through playful design characterized by the non-linear approach implied in McLuhan’s observation. It is a story told predominantly through a stream of images: photos, drawings and illustrations of all kinds, while the element of language floats through the book like bubbles clustered on the surface of a visual bath.
Koren has described himself as someone who makes books “not intended for electronic devices,” and Making WET has a distinct hand-made quality. As e-books have have become more popular, the physical characteristics of paper and the tangible experience of holding a book have gained traction among a discerning community of artists, writers and designers dedicated to preserving the bookmaking tradition.
Illustration: “Concerning the Metaphysical Nature of Cigarettes” by Sharon Hennessey. Photo by Larry Williams. Design by Roy Gyongy. From WET November/December 1979.
WET’s editorial slant was always an exercise in the balance of many cultural influences and contradictions. Koren defines his vision with succinct clarity in a chapter titled “Gourmet Bathing: A Long Overdue Introduction.” He writes, “In a state that is the capital of the monetary, the capital of the self–the inventoried and reconceived self, the disguised and decorated self, the conceptual fun self–the only season is Open Season. On Columbus or Sunset or the Venice boardwalk, the shifting cast of vacancy–faced rock punks, S&M tragedian, cowboys, lumberjacks, vestigial hippies, and attentive trend collectors, there is an unsortable repetoire of styles and counter-styles. There is such camp drollery here, such androgyny, such runaway eclecticism, that there emerges a ruling aesthetic of Whatever Works–whatever evokes the almost terminal dislocation of this long intermission in history; the feeling of having no particular place, time or person to be.”
Illustration: Covers. November/December 1979 with Sissy Spacek. Photography and illustration by Lisa Powers and Taki Ono. Typography, design and art direction by Roy Gyongy. Cover and back cover, March/April 1981. Collage and design by Bob Zoell. Art Direction by Leonard Koren.
WET covers consistently presented strong and unforgettable statements. Koren did not shy away from intellectually challenging or controversial material. The image of the copulating pigs that appeared on the March/April 1981 issue is visually unforgettable but caused great anxiety among the ad sales team who feared it would make their job more difficult. By this time, WET was beginning to penetrate the mainstream so it was sold inside a brown paper wrapper to avoid giving offense at the supermarket checkout line.
Much of the WET’s iconic identity stemmed from its remarkable logo which passed through several iterations before settling on the final version shown above. Using sheets of Letraset rub-on type, Koren mocked up multiple versions. “I liked the rendition in the all-uppercase Kabel font best,” Koren writes. “Then I tweaked it a little. The W, fashioned out of two Vs, had a defiant energy similar to a swastika–but without the horrible associations. The E was frisky. The middle tine was cut off at a 45 degree angle; it felt sexy in a reductive sort of way. (I thought it was the typographical equivalent of a sly erection.) The T possessed a magnificent solidity. Together, all three characters conveyed a distinctive Teutonic strength, toughness, and linearity–the exact opposite of the soft, fluid suggestions of ‘wet.’ ”
Illustration: Max Palevsky and Leonard underwater in Malibu “sealing the deal” to secure capital investment for the magazine. Photograph by Guy Webster.
Making WET sometimes reads as a morality play on the limits of sustaining a community based on common creative goals. Koren traces the changes in his personality and his relationships with his friends and collaborators as WET became more successful. The pressure to generate advertising dollars gradually forced him out of his role as creative director and into the role of business manager. The creative side of the magazine was being left more and more often to others. The final chapters describe how WET’s essence inevitably began to dry up. By the end of its run there was “…a profound existential crisis looming. WET had evolved out of an art-making impulse: a spontaneous response to a need for a particular kind of artistic expression. For the first four and a half years, making the magazine was intensely engaging, both creatively and intellectually. But now the learning curve had flattened out. The once vibrant WET project had metamorphosed into a marketing exercise.” Koren decided to fold the magazine soon after, choosing to go out while the magazine was still on top and to prevent a painfully drawn out decline. Six months after closing the magazine Koren packed all his belongings into his VW Rabbit and moved to San Francisco to begin a new life.