The Most Beautiful Magazine You Probably Haven't Heard Of

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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."

Freedom comes at a price, they say. Even foundations have to be sold to, much like advertisers, and many of them have particular agendas. "It's certainly not the equivalent of, you know, running an advertorial in a magazine, but I think at times it can very subtly affect content," he laments.

Lippy works on Esopus essentially on his own, so the last couple months of production—soliciting and collecting work, editing and designing the issue, overseeing production, and then promoting it—are extremely intense. "I have to admit that I like this intensity, as stressful as it is, but it's the reason I do only two magazines a year." In this digital age, when it would be much easier to simply put his magazine exclusively online, Lippy has issues dealing with distribution. "Because the magazine is purposefully eclectic content-wise and the covers don't really tell you much about what's inside, store managers often aren't sure where to put it on the magazine rack," he admits. "It most often ends up in the art or literature sections, but I've found it in gardening (Issue 2 had flowers on the cover) and also, one time in a Barnes & Noble, in the automotive section!"

Yet with all the hassle, Lippy recognizes that he as developed a "thing" that has somehow managed to carve out a modest little niche for itself. "Esopus subscribers—and we have them in 49 states and 28 countries—are enthusiastic, loyal, and intrepid, and it's thrilling to feel like you're able to give something to this wonderfully diverse group of people every six months."

This optimism extends beyond the magazine itself. He actually believes that print is here to stay. "When I started the magazine, colleagues looked at me like I was crazy for wanting to do something so resolutely print-based," he says. Yet now that so many magazines and books have gone digital, Lippy insists readers are craving the physicality of the print medium. "Now, the response from people is more like, 'How clever of you to do something so resolutely print-based!'" And I happen to think he's right. Every six months I look forward to getting a real box in the mail, with a real page-turner. It feels and looks so good—especially those last-minute covers.

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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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