New York Times

The Eye of the Beholder

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 September, 2006, 12:00am


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Visionaireis one of the most original, exclusive (and expensive) magazines in the world. Every time Stephen Gan publishes an issue, he strives to make it more beautiful than the last.

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO define beauty or give someone your thoughts on what it is. It's just something you feel at the time, a way of connecting that is totally born out of the moment.

When I started in publishing I was a 19-year-old kid going to Parsons [the New York design college], and was lucky enough to meet [New York Times photographer] Bill Cunningham. I told him I wanted to work in magazines, so he gave me a quarter to call up the editor of Details. She gave me a job overnight, but when the magazine folded I didn't know what to do. Bill had copies of what was the very first fashion magazine in the world, the Gazette du Bon Ton. I was struck by its sheer beauty, to the extent that I found myself wondering why magazines couldn't look like that today.

And that's what gave me the inspiration to start Visionaire. After we finish each magazine it can sometimes be difficult to top what we've just accomplished for the following issue. When we completed the first ever issue 15 years ago, we asked ourselves, 'What would be an incredible thing to do next? What would be groundbreaking in terms of what a publication could be?'

The difficulty lies in the execution - how you transport the idea on to the page. That's what decides whether it becomes a great issue or not, however good the idea might have been originally. We constantly ask ourselves what has never been done before in terms of publishing and, with our fiftieth issue on the horizon this year, the question is more difficult than ever to answer.

The way Visionarie works is to pose a question to all the artists who contribute, and you just have to hope they come back with good answers. Getting an artist to contribute is one thing; getting them to collaborate is a real challenge. You hope that if they surprise you, it's in a good way or that what they're seeing is close to what you had in mind.

When we started Visionaire, I remember thinking that even though everyone was slowly turning to computers and the internet, the importance of this magazine was that it should be tactile, something you could hold in your hands. I had a meeting with someone from a greetings-card company, who told me that there would always be room for sentiment on a two-dimensional piece of printed matter. And I still believe that. There's so much information you can get at your fingertips, just by typing something in on your computer. But you can never recreate the sensation of holding a book in your hands, touching an embossed piece of paper or simply just looking at a photograph. Looking at an image on a screen is never going to be the same as actually looking at a beautiful print of something.

Visionaire's been around for 15 years, so it must be proof that there is a need for this sort of medium. It must stand for something. There's still a very strong appeal in a product that's limited edition, that isn't mass produced and that people actually want to collect. There is a market for that.