JULIUS WEIDEMANN OF TASCHEN: THE LATERALS MAGAZINE
There's something special about art books. The front cover is a piece of work on its own, a masterpiece and a manifesto. It acts as the dignitary to its pages of disciples. The back cover makes a concluding statement, a blend of marketing guile and editorial acumen. Art books are important because they are tangible anthologies. You can hold it in you hand, feel it and absorb its verve. In today's fast-paced world of information and technology, the Internet breaks everything up. You Google and dive in, now you're lost in wonderland. Books have the capacity to parcel things together, and that is why they are precious.
Nobody knows the intricacies better than Julius Wiedemann, Senior Editor at the famed TASCHEN publishing house. He is a curator of culture and cool, a condottiere historian sharing insight on germane conversations, both of topic and passé. With 17 years at TASCHEN, he has edited over 80 books, exceeding 2 million copies in worldwide sales. Some of his most popular titles include History of Graphic Design, Information Graphics, and Understanding the World. He seamlessly fuses anecdotes with art, and parlays the business of enterprise with that of entertainment. It's important to note that Julius is not antiquated in his approach. He also navigates the digital space as the Head of Content at Domestika, an online community for creatives that features online courses. Yet, he is a traditionalist in the idea that "art has to be considered as the ultimate vehicle for freedom of expression." As one of the leading voices in design and pop culture, Julius Wiedemann has it down to a fine art.
Describe what it was like growing up in Brazil. What do you take from this time with you?
This is actually a good question. The sense that you have come a long way and have been 20 years outside your country and have somehow managed to navigate completely different environments creates a sense of satisfaction. I feel very privileged to have lived now in four countries and to have found not only the opportunities but also the people that gave me these opportunities, most of them far away from my original home. In professional terms I think that my Brazilian side gives me a sense of flexibility that is so needed today to find solutions for the many challenges we are facing. I think Brazil also contributes to the fact that it is in a friendly country and generates more often than not empathy.
Having studied graphic design and marketing, your background seems to be the perfect blend for your role at Taschen. How are you able to subtly interject your own point of view?
I just want to point out 1st of all that I have started graphic design and I have also started marketing. I never finished neither of those courses. But have always been obsessed with learning and I think that this is really the key. I am basically passionate about how people make creative decisions and always wanted to look at that from many angles. Slowly but surely I became aware that the opinions inside my head were also opinions that were shared by more people. So I thought that my role would be much less of a designer, and much more of a design enthusiast.
Tell us your thoughts on the secret to Taschen's longevity.
First of all one has to stress that TASCHEN has come so far because it has its founder as a leader. Benedikt Taschen has been an innovator since he’s a teenager and he has never stopped reinventing the company and the approach to art books, or actually to any publications that touch upon what makes culture. Taschen’s mission has always been about expanding the perception of what is creative, what is art, and what are those things that keep us going and make us few creative humans. In a sense we are interested in what makes culture, and we keep exploring that from different angles.
As an editor, how do you find the balance between letting the imagery speak for itself while using language to articulate what the image cannot say on its own?
Text has become a fundamental part of our books, and they have change indeed over the last 15 years. One of the most important things in the publication is for the reader to understand why the specific image was selected and why it is so important. So context is everything. The TASCHEN formats are relatively big for most part; so sometimes the text does not feel like it occupies the pages and therefore the books keep an idea of an illustrated book. But most of the books today would have enough tax to fill over 100 pages of a normal textbook. This leap forward happened in my view because with the digital age we have a duty to give people more context. Images are easy to find but the reason why they are important is not so easy.
Considering the unrelenting digitalized world we live in, how would you define content? What are you most excited about?
I am mostly excited about taking people from the comfort zone where they can identify with the subject, then make them curious, and finally offering them a platform where they can learn something new. This can be done in a number of ways, but I always get very excited about the idea that we can give people historical context and also insights into what makes cultural revolutions happen.
It may not be overtly obvious in your work, but you are a fantastic storyteller. How do you frame design and culture to manifest a publication's premise?
First of all I would say that we are always trying to be good storytellers. Even though we always dealing with non-fiction, or let’s say for most part, we are interested in how stories are built and who are the people behind them. Creativity and culture as such fast territories and to communicate them through books has become a challenge throughout the digital age, in a sense that we have to keep learning how to use the book at its best. Technological revolution and adoption happen in waves and more often than not there are corrections that make us look back with a positive eye about the media we used to have. I think that is precisely what is happening with books right now, where the tactile in the sense of physicality, united with the possibilities that only print can give, are allowing for a new kind of perception regarding books.
What categories have you found to always withstand the test of time?
Art is of course the most enduring subject that really flourishes in all directions. But I think creativity as a general term has become a very important subject for humanity. Everything that can shift a point of view and can create the new is valued more than ever, and will be more valued in the future exactly because we have now machine learning, artificial intelligence, and more automated systems that create routines for our lives. But happiness, I believe, has to do a lot with finding serendipity and how we keep learning in a creative and healthy environment.
Are there any trends that you just can’t wrap your head around?
There are certainly many. What I’m mostly looking for these days is a new subject or a theme that we haven’t explored enough or that can be viewed from a completely different angle. Because of the timeframe that we need to make a book, current trends do not play a major role. They might have an influence if we can come out early enough with the publication, but very frequently we have to rely on our sensitivity to try to grasp what people desire, astonish, and intrigue.
Although you work with digital publications, why do you still believe in print?
The easy answer is to say that you love print. But the reality is that we started a department to do digital publications and we gave up just a few years ago because the digital publications weren’t performing the way we thought. What happened along the way is that we learned all about what print had that nothing else had. I also joke that the print industry is a relatively mature industry, because it has 500 years, since Gutenberg. Therefore it is an industry that is hard to change. But we have been obliged to look into different ways to engage people. The difference between digital and print is basically that a printed material, for most part, demands the complete attention of the reader. That is why in digital use mostly the word user. I can see five screens at the same time and speak with someone else, but if I’m reading a book I have to fully dedicate myself to it. So I would say to finalise that the print represents a real challenge to a publisher and to an editor, and that challenge is good enough to keep us going and to keep us excited.
We are living in a highly elevated political climate. How do you think this plays into our discourse of art and culture?
I think that if you look at the breadth of work that we do, and of diversity, we feel all the freedom to talk about whatever subject we think is necessary to tell a good story. Last year we published a book about Tibet. And of course we were aware of the political consequences of that. But the book is really about human culture and how different people understand reality in different ways. So we do not mean to be political even though we understand that some people might look at that as such. We also understand that even some classic artists wouldn’t be displayed in some countries because of the sheer content of their paintings. In short I think we did not wake up every day meaning to be controversial or political. But we also do not want to restrict ourselves regarding subjects or the material selected to tell a story.
You are an expert in your field, contributing to renowned publications from all over the world. Not to mention, you've sold a mediocre 2 million copies of Taschen. If you had to give it all up to pursue another line of work, what would it be?
I think that if I wouldn’t be editing these books and looking at a way to publish what culture is about I would be working in philosophy and psychology and trying to understand how we perceive culture and how we deal with it. I really think that the intersection between technology, culture, and communication is the field that offers infinite ways of discourse and analysis.
If we unexpectedly showed up at your home one evening, what could we find you doing?
I would be probably answering emails! Ha! But seriously I think you would get me preparing a nice meal and having a glass of wine while trying to listen to a lecture online on philosophy. My work is a lot about creating a library of images and ideas so that I can make sense of it when I’m doing my books. So I don’t sleep a lot, but I feel incredibly fortunate and privileged to be able to do the kind of work I do, and also to have the support of the publisher to pursue it.
If you could pick ONE book you worked on as an embodiment of who you are as an individual, which one would it be and why?
I think that the last two volumes (it is really like on book) we did on the history of graphic design he speaks so much about the kind of work that I try to do. I worked together with Jens Müller but the concept that of book and a lot of the organisation came from our department. The amount of imagery and the thorough research that was done for this book has no precedent. More importantly this book goes beyond the history of graphic design. This publication is about the history of the 20th century, through the eyes of design pieces to tell the history of politics, literature, technology, society, and many other things. I am fascinated about the intersection of subjects because I believe that by understanding those intersections we can better understand human ventures.
Reflecting on what you know now, what piece of wisdom would you share with your younger self?
This is always a hard question, so I would not pretend to be a really wise person, but I would say two things. One I heard from John Cleese in an interview and he said that it is important to persevere when you truly believe you have a talent. You have to keep going because at some point you will find the right opportunities. My take on it is that we have to expand our radar to be able to capture more information so that we can train our internal filters to choose what do you like best. And the other thing is that I’m convinced of the importance of having professional and personal work. I saw once a psychologist speaking about happiness, and that it is a combination of work, love, and joy. These three things will give different feedbags and recognition. But it is important for everyone to find joy, meaning something that you do for your own, which can even help others, but is ultimately something for you to create your own world.
What can we look forward to next?
I am expanding my work now into online education, and I’m fascinated by the combination of everything that is printed and digital in our minds. So I’m looking forward to producing more books about human knowledge and how we came here. But also producing educational material. The 21st-century is really about open solutions and open opportunities. While the 20th century was about establishing systems and getting us to understand a lot of our strengths but also our flaws, and getting people to behave in a certain way so that we can live together, I truly believe that the 21st-century is about opening the door of all the ingredients that make us human and make us willing to be living together with less oppression. The current environment might show the contrary, but I would say it is cyclical because there is to a group large enough that is afraid of the immense opportunities that we have ahead of us, and they’re fighting back. Education sits at the centre of all that and I’m looking forward to doing more about it.
Last but not least, do you believe all is fair in art and war?
I think that there are names and adjectives that we need to use to convey our expectations about the world. Words like fair or for example to deserve, are very hard for me to explain because they depend on the very complex combination of factors. But if there are two things that have been with us for hundreds of thousands of years, these are war and art. No wonder there is a classic book called The Art of War. Both of these names, art and war, are about transformation and conflict. And we cannot evolve without transformation of conflict in my view. We have to learn how to embrace them and to use them to make a world that has less suffering. At the very end for everything we do there are people involved. As I once read, pain is unavoidable, but suffering is. I think happiness is a decision that we take and we pursue that.