The Most Beautiful Magazine You Probably Haven't Heard Of

Esopus prints some of the most ambitious covers around—and its designer and editor is almost entirely self-taught

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Tod Lippy is the best magazine art director and cover designer who was never trained for the job. And he's more—editor, curator, filmmaker. What he does so well is conceive and publish, and design, his own magazine, on his own terms for his own pleasure, and under his own steam. Esopus magazine started in 2003 and is now up to issue number 16. It is a foundation-funded, advertising-free, art, literature, and culture bi-annual that employs the most ambitious special printing effects being done today—and each issue also contains a music CD, which Lippy produces.

Esopus is more than the proverbial labor of love. It stands along with Dave Eggers' McSweeney's for its driving cultural significance. But what I am most interested in are the covers.

Lippy, who never took design or typography classes, though he was editor of Scenario, the screenplay magazine, and associate editor of Print, the graphic design magazine, tells me that rather than slaving over the covers, "They are always the very last thing I do (often right before the magazine goes on press), as I don't feel comfortable imposing something on the contents of the issue until I'm sure how they're working together." Sometimes his covers reflect very specifically something inside the magazine (for instance, the "slices" of all of the artists' projects featured in Esopus 14, or the television snow for Esopus 15, a television-themed issue). Other times they have no explicit relationship to content, but evoke a mood or feeling that is in harmony with that issue's contributions.

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He rejects common sales gimmicks used in magazine cover design—acid-colored cover lines (in fact, he uses no cover lines at all), and celebrity photos (in fact, no personality pics at all). He assumes "our covers stand out in a way on the newsstand because they are so 'quiet.' But I really have no way of knowing which, if any, of the covers for the magazine have resulted in stronger sales. Sina Najafi, the editor of Cabinet, once mentioned to me he'd heard that if you put an image of an airplane on a magazine cover the issue will sell well; maybe I'll try that next time."

Esopus is free from the advertising shackles, but Lippy nonetheless is tied up to some realities. When he decided to make the magazine a nonprofit (501c3) organization, Lippy thought he would not have to deal with the demands of advertisers and wouldn't have to make any compromises. For the most part, that's been the case. "There are, however, other 'shackles' that come with taking the nonprofit route," he notes. "First, and most obviously, we are totally dependent upon funders to make up for the loss in advertising revenue. We've been incredibly fortunate to have received support from both public agencies (NEA, NYSCA, NYC's Dept of Cultural Affairs) and private foundations (Warhol Foundation, Greenwall Foundation, and many others), not to mention hundreds of individual donors, but it's always a challenge to come up with the necessary funding to cover production costs, particularly since the magazine is sold at a deeply discounted price in order for it to reach a wider audience."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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