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

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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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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