'WET': Of Course There Was a 'Gourmet Bathing' Magazine in the '70s

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A new book revives the avant-garde arts publication that influenced a generation of designers.

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By 1976, amid the throes of the sexual revolution and more than a half-decade after the Summer of Love, you'd imagine that virtually every taboo-breaking fetish had been exposed to the mainstream—at the very least, in Southern California. But one form of kink had yet to get its public coming-out: "gourmet bathing." Then again, that's perhaps because it was a made-up kink.

"Honestly, I didn't know what 'gourmet bathing' meant," says Leonard Koren, the founding editor and art director of Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. And yet out of that invented phrase came a screwball arts publication that ended up influencing a generation of designers, writers, and editors—and maybe even a few bathers.

WET, which ran from 1976 to 1981, was an archetype for a new subgenre of stylish, irreverent magazines. It was ostensibly about gourmet bathing, "but 'gourmet bathing' was impossible to define," Koren says. The "only binding principle" for WET's editorial scheme, he notes in his new book Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, was to "give the readers something completely unexpected tinged with absurdity." And so it did. WET ran pieces about cooking fish in the dishwasher, how to dress for the apocalypse, and the latest in bathing techniques for non-human life forms. "Gourmet bathing was actually beside the point," Koren says. "But WET was extremely focused when it came to being an incubator of novel ideas relating to publication design and editorial packaging... Silly as it sounds, Time, Newsweek, and Vogue were WET's peers."

The founders of Wired magazine recently told Koren how seminal WET was in the invention of their publication.

The founding legend of WET is fittingly rooted in the avant-garde. After graduating from architecture school in the early '70s, Koren began making what he calls "bath art"—photographic studies of people in unusual bathing situations. In lieu of paying fees to his models, he threw them a "thank you" party in an old Russian-Jewish bathhouse. The party made such as splash that he felt compelled to redirect his artistic endeavors into a more socially relevant form. His epiphany: "Why not start a magazine about gourmet bathing?" He had no prior editing, publishing, or art-directing skills, but, he says, "'WET' seemed like a perfectly good title for a magazine."

Consequently, WET lacked a publishing plan until almost the end of its existence; Koren describes his leadership philosophy as "managing serendipity." And yet WET's fame increased as it went on, and the magazine became a standard bearer for New-Wave design and the new irony. A slew of up-and-coming illustrators, photographers, writers, and designers started contributing content, including April Greiman, Thomas Ingalls, Taki Ono, Lisa Powers, John Van Hamersveld, Matthew Rolston, and Herb Ritts. Even Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, was listed as an editor. Koren says his job was to "harness this creative energy to the highest purpose of the moment."

WET changed formats a few times, but it is best remembered as a tabloid-sized journal with black-and-white newsprint interior pages and full color semi-gloss cover, which came to typify the so-called New-Wave graphic style—or what comics artist Gary Panter (a WET contributor) called "sanitized punk." My own introduction to WET began when I accidently came across issue No. 11 (1978), with an enigmatic cover featuring two black-and-white snap shots against an orange background, each showing a mother and her three daughters crammed tightly into a bathtub under the subtitle, "The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing." The smaller image, dated 1957, showed a 20-something mom and young children looking intently at the camera; the larger showed the same pose dated 1978. Mom had aged gracefully, and the children had grown up. For me, these odd pictures defined the magazine's serious wit. For Koren, "every WET cover reflects a different aspect of the magazine's constantly evolving identity. I don't think any one cover is more quintessentially 'WET' than any other. That said, I'm quite fond of the bittersweet-innocent commentary on the passage of time the [mom-and-kids-in-bathtub] cover communicates."

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Koren says he never lost sight of WET's function "as venue for creative experimentation," and the article rundown for each issue would seem prove that statement. His favorite piece was "Sex With the Dead: Art or Atrocity," wherein the dictum "art for art's sake" is framed in enlightening new ways. And then there was "The Metaphysics of Cigarette Smoking," which painlessly delivers as much cerebral content as an undergraduate degree in philosophy confers. WET's cover for the "Fire" issue shows a burning Buddhist monk, and the featured article, "Barbecuing White People in the Suburbs," was an example of what Koren calls "performance journalism." In the final paragraph a dominatrix alternately moans and screams, "Albert Einstein." "Enrico Fermi!!!" "Robert Oppenheimer." "Enola Gay!!!" "Hiroshima." "Nagasaki!!!" Then, graphically, there's the "pigfucking" cover, "where late-career Matisse meets punk," he says.

Paste-up sessions, when the magazine was prepared for the printer, were always playful. "The computer era hadn't yet arrived," Koren says. "For three or four days every two months, the only thing that mattered was creating graphic magic and excitement. On all the other days, life at WET was a juggle between trying to make art and trying to make money. It was hard work."

The magazine operated on a shoestring, so promotion was minimal. Yet a loyal audience accrued in what today would be called a "viral" manner. "I know that lots of Japanese designers and art directors were WET readers or, rather, viewers of WET graphics and other page markings," Koren says. "North American designers and art directors also seemed to find WET inspirational. And WET attracted connoisseurs of the strange. And people in the movie industry."

For those who never experienced the magazine, Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, part memoir, part portfolio, offers a vivid record of accomplishment. The founders of Wired magazine recently told Koren how seminal WET was in the invention of their publication. "I'm sure WET was also a role model for other Southern California-based magazines, like Ray Gun and Beach Culture," Koren adds. And without WET, arguably the careers of more than a few designers, illustrators, photographers, and cartoonists would have evolved differently. "Would The Simpsons be exactly the same without WET?" Koren ponders aloud. "Who's to say?"

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Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. More

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. He writes the "Visuals" column for The New York Times Book Review, "Graphic Content" for T-Style's "The Moment" blog, and The Daily Heller for Print magazine. He is the author or editor of over 140 books on design and popular visual culture.
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