On Aspen, knickers and the future of print

December 2013

The story of the 1960s cult magazine Aspen and what we can learn from it.

Whitechapel Gallery, one wintery afternoon last February. I stood in the middle of Room 4 in slight awe. On display was content from Aspen, a cult publication and one of the most innovative independent magazines of all time.

Aspen was the brainchild of Phyllis Johnson, a fashion journalist who had a penchant for art and intelligence, thus drastically standing out from most of her peers. The magazine brought together art, design, theory, music and film like nothing had before.

Each issue was designed and curated by a tastemaker extraordinaire (Andy Warhol designed the Pop Art issue together with David Dalton, for example). The contributor list over the six years resembles an edition of Who is Who of the 1960s: William S. Burroughs, Lou Reed, Susan Sontag, Marcel Duchamp, Peter Blake, John Lennon and Yoko Ono to name only a few. Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of The Author”, a text still analysed today by the majority of art students and self-acclaimed literary critics across the world, was commissioned by Johnson and first published in Aspen.

Aspen was also one of world’s first multimedia publications long before the concept of ‘transmedia’ or ‘multi-layered storytelling’ had entered our dinner table conversations. In what a way it did! The magazine came in a box – its content a surprise each issue. It could include printed texts, film reels, flipbooks, photos or tape recordings. A pair of British knickers appeared in the ‘British Issue’. The “reader” was forced to physically interact with the items – put a tape into a cassette player or find a Super-8 reel. Needless to say, the level of engagement and the relationship between the magazine and its audience reached new levels.

Aspen broke ground by challenging the prevailing publishing model, which 50 years ago was just paper printed with text, merely meant for reading. If it were alive today, Aspen would probably fight against online publications meant for hasty glancing on one’s coffee break. Making a print magazine in 2013 could be considered somewhat rebellious.

Seven months after that afternoon in Whitechapel: I’m holding the inaugural print issue of ALVAR. The demise of print is being preached on the street; we live our lives and consume media online only. A pair of knickers crosses my mind. I decide to call Steve Watson, an independent magazine expert and the founder of Stack as well as the Editorial Director of content agency Human After All. Is print dead?

“Digital is the way a lot of people consume material, and it does have huge benefits like scale and reach across huge distances. But with so much content at our fingertips, the problem is making someone stop and pay attention. When you read an article or look at a photo online, you look at them in isolation. Print magazine puts walls around the content and becomes more than the sum of its parts. However, the barrier between print and digital is artificial, it all comes down to strategy. And online does have to fit in.”

Activeark, the lovely guys behind the ALVAR website, have a penchant for paper and ink too.

“Did TV, DVDs or streaming kill cinema? No, and they never will. Cinema is the place where you want to be immersed in the one thing you’re experiencing at that moment. The dimming lights in the cinema are comparable to putting down your tablet or mobile phone and picking up a magazine. Also, the linearity of consumption, page by page, scene by scene, is important. With digital content you go up, down, left, right, play, stop. Print will survive as long as they focus on amazing stories and content that’s meant for print. Gimmicks will kill print. As 3D in cinemas in the past couple of years has provided a temporary increase in sales – not because of attendance, but inflated prices, mind you – 3D will not be standard”, states the MD Antti Lauronen.

Online might be crucial today, but print is far from dead. I didn’t ask either of the guys about knickers, but I’m sure there’s a time and place for them, too. I doubt ALVAR will ever resort to that but, never say never.

Aspen was born after Phyllis Johnson attended a design conference in, yes, Aspen, and got inspired by the theme: how to make people’s lives richer. Not a bad starting point for a magazine.

Aspen didn’t just push the boundaries in terms of media channels; it delightfully questioned the prevailing attitudes in many other ways, too. It was Avant-garde with a capital A, a true misbehaving rascal and rule-breaker.

It didn’t have a water-tight strategy, strict editorial guidelines or a clear target group, but aimed to simply be a “time capsule”. It couldn’t care less about licking advertisers’ boots: “Who knows!” replied Johnson when asked about the next issue’s theme or content plan. The few sponsored leaflets were always chucked to the bottom of the box, a media placement strategy which led brands to give up and abandon the publication after the first few years.

The magazine lived for six libertine years and was buried in 1971. Despite its short and stormy life-span and the mischief it wreaked – or perhaps because of it – Aspen is still talked about five decades after its death. It might act as a warning example in today’s impossibly competitive and cruel publishing industry, but also as a reminder of the most important things of all, in life and in business: be interesting, be passionate – and make people’s lives richer. One cannot go wrong with that.



Photography © Aspen Magazine / The authors. Courtesy of Boo-Hooray NYC, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA)