Last year saw a handful of new “I have a dream” magazinesperiodicals founded by mavericks who either ignore or are ignorant of commercial formulas. Somehow these dreamers raised the money and turned out premiere issues. And though such acts of ardor can be a self-indulgent waste of arbor, this crop (see “More Magazines” below) is inspiring.
One of the most promising among the newcomers is the U.K.’s Zembla, now on its third issue. Named for a fictional northern land in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Zembla claims to be a literary magazine, but its design and content are more playful than one might expect from that typically stuffy genre. The quarterly’s mission is to have “fun with words.” However, you don’t need the tag line to tell you that. Creative director Vince Frost seems to be having a ball designing spreads for stories on foul language (by Stephen Merchant), racial tension between Brownie troops (by ZZ Packer), and a from-the-grave interview with Harry Houdini in which “he speaks frankly for the first time since his death” (by Mark Leyner).
Known for his bold application of antique wood type in BIG magazine a few years back, Frost has created a format that is frenetically paced and sometimes typographically explosive, yet readable. In “a made up/true story” by Sam Winston (issue #3), the typesetting is literally an attack of hand-lettered prose on columns of tightly set conventional type. The latter detonates with letters flying in all directions on the page. As in BIG, Frost combines old and new design elements, including bold poster types and Victorian filigree with digital faces and Photoshop filtering effects. Frost’s sometimes devil-may-care typographic arrangements prove that even in a literary magazine, type need not be confined to a crystal goblet, but works best when it interprets the stories. The quirky pages are momentarily off-putting at times. For example, half the text in the Packer story is dropped out of brown bars that form two big letter Zs (dropped-out type can be an impediment to legibility no matter how nice it looks). Nonetheless, I was drawn in by the graphic boldness and got hooked after reading the first paragraph. Similarly, Frost’s tightly leaded sideways typographic contortion in “The Chapter” by Tim Etchells forces the reader to invest some effort into deciphering the story, but the device is ultimately more engaging than obstructive. In issue #3’s extended front-of-book, Frost plays typographic hide-and-seek with the section title “Notebook,” partially obscuring the bold type with columns of body text. The device becomes an entertaining signpost directing readers through the maze of news items and short features.
Zembla may bill itself as a literary journal, but its form runs closer to fashion. With its many luscious color photos and illustrations beautifully reproduced on satin-smooth paper, the magazine is a magnet for ads for Marc Jacobs, Dior, Paul Smith, Issey Miyake, and Beck’s beer. This stylish aura could be cloying were it not for Frost’s deft hand, which combines graceful layouts reminiscent of Alexey Brodovitch’s Portfolio, a modern masterpiece of visual pacing, with sense-jarring, discordant typography that kept this reader turning the pages.
Fans of literary magazines like the Paris Review, Grand Street, Granta, or even McSweeney’s may argue that good writing set in fine type speaks for itselfso what’s the purpose of such razzmatazz? The answer is that Zembla is not targeted at purists. In the view of editor Dan Crowe, writing in the magazine, literary publications are not for the bookish few, but for anyone who likes reading. I would go even farther: Zembla‘s design attracts those who may not even know they have literary interests.
Frost’s covers are deceptive. The first issue, featuring a sensual photograph of the enigmatic screen beauty Tilda Swinton surrounded by hand-scrawled cover lines, caught my eye on the newsstand for the wrong reasons. It was not until I got home that I realized Zembla was not one of those sassy youth-culture magazines that I routinely buy to feel young. I was almost fooled by the second issue, too: With its sultry cover photo of ZZ Packer posing against a fluorescent orange background (again with handwritten cover lines), it suggested a new hip magazine. The third cover shifts gears with a brooding mug shot of the writer and filmmaker Bruce Robinson (who consented to appear in the magazine only if interviewed by his 18-year-old daughter), and the hand-scrawl is replaced by typeset headlines cascading vertically down the pagea nice typographic departure. But Zembla still looks different from almost everything else on the newsstand. It took me a half hour to find issue #3 because it was hidden between Flaunt and Wallpaper.
Still, after only three issues, Zembla has managed to carve a niche. Its design has challenged the prevailing literary stereotype of unadorned columns of classic type. While in an entirely different camp than a scholarly volume like The New York Review of Books, Zembla does give lit-cult upstarts like McSweeney’s and The Believer a run for their money. Crowe and Frost may not have reinvented the literary magazine for the ages but they have certainly made Zembla engaging enough to follow for the next few issues, or longer, if one knows where to look for it.
Steven Heller is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant-Garde Magazine Design of the 20th Century (Phaidon Press) and coeditor of the forthcoming The Push Pin Graphic (Chronicle Books).