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Who wouldn't want a job where all one does, day after day, is
track down rare and exotic design ephemera? OK, maybe it's not for
everybody—some people would rather ski, surf or golf—but it's a
fine living for Jim Heimann. As the executive editor for Taschen America, the Los Angeles
publishing arm of Benedikt Taschen's eclectic international
imprint, Heimann is a cultural archaeologist who digs for and roots
out the detritus that anonymous designers have left behind in their
quests for eternal consumption. I asked him about his obsession—the
only way to describe his tireless quest—and fascination with these
artifacts, and what is worth preserving and what is not.
Heller: Benedikt Taschen has built a veritable empire publishing
reasonably priced, well produced, visually seductive, sometimes
enormous books on popular culture (i.e., the Icons series of
vintage graphics), design and design culture (All-American Ads
series), architecture (Richard Neutra Houses series), Hollywood,
photography, erotica and all manner of sexuality. Do they exist
merely as eye candy, or do they serve a higher
Heimann: It's interesting, the range of books
Taschen publishes—from $9.99 to $12,500—and clearly they are visual
books. But that's because Benedikt prints what he likes. His
interest stems from a comic book store he had in Cologne when he
was 18, and being mentored by a group of young Cologne gallery
owners in the '80s who gave him a first-class introduction to the
art world. Art and architecture are his real loves, and the rest of
Taschen's titles spin off from there. He wanted to make art
available to the masses because he couldn't afford art books when
he was younger.
Heller: You started as an illustrator/artist, and
continue to teach in the illustration department at the Art Center
College of Design in Pasadena. How does your professional history
lend itself to book publishing?
Heimann: I actually started teaching in 1980 at
Otis Parsons (now Otis College of Art and Design). I see teaching
as a constant education for myself—my students clue me in on what's
happening out there and they are really good about sharing
information. That translates in my ability to keep pace with trends
and what the younger book-buying public is or isn't interested
In college I majored in graphic design and had a minor in
history, so I learned how to write and do research. I know a lot
about a lot of things, and over 30 years have cultivated an ongoing
interest in art, illustration, architecture, history, design and
popular culture. This resulted in my publishing about 10 books
prior to being hired by Benedikt, who early on saw I had a wide
range of interests similar to his own. My collecting of paper
ephemera and my interest in the visual history of illustration and
graphic design made it easy to work up a whole series of titles
that dovetailed perfectly with the Taschen program.
Heller: You are a cultural archaeologist of artifacts,
to be sure. But what exactly do you contribute to these books? What
does it mean to be the editor?
Heimann: I am not an editor in the traditional
sense. I am the “eye” for many projects. When I have a project that
is under my supervision I shepherd it through the process. If you
look at the All-American Ad series, I collected all of the original
material, decided which ads we would use to tell the story of
advertising per decade, oversaw the placement of the ads on the
page, did some caption writing, selected the writer for the intro
text, edited that material so it corresponded to what ideas I
wanted it to say, handed it over to Benedikt, who fine-tunes every
book, and then turned it over to the production team. Then I check
proofs and it goes to press.
Heller: It's safe to assume, for an inveterate collector
like yourself, the Taschen position is a dream job. What have you
been able to accomplish that you couldn't have as a freelance
Heimann: It is the dream job. When Benedikt
proposed the position to me it was “an offer I couldn't refuse.” I
am able to pretty much do what I want to do (with deadlines and
some very intense weeks of work). No desk, no office hours. Nice
budget for picking up material, an incredible social life. I did
relinquish my roll as designer because Benedikt hated my book
design. He dislikes most American book designers because he thinks
in America it's about the designer making a statement about
themselves and not focusing on the content. Over-designing is how
he sees it. But not designing the books has not been a big deal for
me since I still have input. And now I have a tendency to agree
with his opinion about “name” designers. However, he does admire
the work of American classics such as George Lois, Paul Rand and
Alvin Lustig, among others, for their simplicity.
I have always put book projects together with the idea of making
visual material that wouldn't otherwise see the light of day out
into the public eye. I wanted, and still want, to expose the great
imagery that's out there and for it to be recorded for posterity.
Publishing as many titles as I have—such as California
Crazy (roadside architecture) and Out With the Stars
(vintage Hollywood photography) —wouldn't have happened outside of
Four years ago I walked away from the freelance life, and I
couldn't be happier. I do occasionally miss doing art/illustration,
but I don't miss the irregular financial part. Now the check
is in the mail every month, like fine-tuned German
Heller: Your multitudinous collections—of everything
from American nightclub photos and menus to tiki kitsch—require
storage in two buildings behind your home. How do you determine
what to keep? And where does it all come from?
Heimann: My collections have been ongoing since
I was a kid collecting rocks. I remember in the early '60s seeing
an American Heritage book on the '20s, including some John Held Jr.
covers for the old Life magazine. Once I got my drivers
license, I discovered an old bookstore in Hollywood that was jammed
with vintage magazines. Lo and behold, there were the John Held
Life magazines in a stack. I was stoked—bought what I
could for three bucks apiece, and never turned back. I had just
bought a piece of history.
Most of the material I collect now is for book projects, both
ones I am working on and future projects. I try to avoid
three-dimensional artifacts because of the space problem. I am
always on the lookout for Hollywood nightclubs, Los Angeles
history, Vegas, Tijuana, Cuba and surfing memorabilia, menus and
match covers too. I have a tendency to focus on the decades from
1920 to 1960 but now have expanded into other eras. Anything that
is graphically dynamic makes it into my shopping bag.
I don't do eBay. Sunday mornings from 5:30 a.m. to around 11 are
reserved for the flea market. We have a different one every Sunday
here in L.A. and it's something I have done religiously for 30
years. I've found that in four or five hours I can find more
“stuff” at a fraction of the price than I could sitting in front of
a computer for days. Plus now I have “pickers” throughout
California who know what I am looking for so I often get first shot
at their goods. I have a very good and loyal network that gets me
almost anything I am looking for.
Heller: I often ask myself what value is there in all
this collecting—and what virtue is there in publishing what I call
“voyeur books.” Do you ever ask that yourself? And if so, do you
have an answer?
Heimann: It's interesting you call them
“voyeur” books. I always considered the books both you and I
publish as an invaluable way to expose the more ephemeral aspects
of culture to the world at large. Collectively they say a lot about
who we are. Match covers and menus may seem like claptrap, but I
have had scholars call me, who can trace American eating habits
from what they saw in those books. I have a vegetarian menu from an
L.A. restaurant that dates from the early 1900s, confirming for one
researcher that L.A. was an early source for healthy eating way
before Woody Allen joked about it. That's just one of the many
questions I have been asked about the material I have
Nobody ever attempted to put together the visual history of
American advertising in such an exhausting way that we did in that
series. I was very conscious of creating a sense of history by the
ads I chose. I wanted them to reflect American buying habits and
cultural changes for each of the decades. Benedikt's fascination
with the ad series stemmed from the fact that Europeans, especially
after WWII, did not have the means to be an ultimate consumer
society like Americans. Yet the world loves American culture, so he
knew this would be a successful series. I own every one of those
ads and amassed the magazines they came from. I think they are a
wonderful reflection of America in the 20th century.
Heller: Sincewe're talking about value
and virtue, Taschen has done well by publishing erotica and some
raunchier stuff too. Is it out of prurient
interest or is there something more redeeming to
the subject matter?
Heimann: Let's talk about sex. Our sex titles,
ahem, our erotic books, could be considered eye candy. But
they comprise a small amount of the Taschen success story. European
attitudes toward sex are so much more liberal, and they are
perplexed by the disgust Americans display towards the body and
sex. So I think it's almost an adolescent response that Benedikt
enjoys publishing these books in the United States. Especially ones
with overt nipple displays, because showing them is one huge no-no
in America. He flipped out at Comicon when virtually every display
in the convention center with the slightest indication of firm
nipples—from Crumb to Frazetta to Vampirella —had Post-it
notes covering them. Same for Tom of Finland—I think Benedikt
enjoys splashing this material in the faces of prudes. Of course
they have to have a certain level of artistic merit—he isn't into
porn for porn's sake.
Look at our series on the history of men's magazines—who else
would publish this? I am sure there is a certain amount of prurient
interest that attracts the buying public, but come on, America.
Relax. Sex is here to stay. Redeeming? Who wants to be
Heller: What have been Taschen's lesser titles, and why?
And does quality ever equate with sales?
Heimann: Actually, the sex titles are by no
means huge revenue builders, but we do a modest business on them.
We publish clunkers, as does every publisher. But the success rate
is amazingly in our favor. Quality is a major concern with all
titles. There is the overriding German sensibility of perfection.
Beautiful printing and binding. Hours of pre-production work
getting images perfect. Our buying public sees this, and it
definitely translates into increased sales.
Affordable and high quality art books are the bread-and-butter.
People know high quality and good pricing, and that is what I think
has made the Taschen publishing house the success it is.
Heller: You've struck a successful balance between
producing quality, inexpensive books and some extravagant,
expensive ones too (for instance, I love the mammoth Stanley
Kubrick film monograph). Are there any rumblings around Taschen's
ocean-liner office at the Crossroads of the World about “the end of
print,” “print on demand” or any other paradigm
Heimann: We talk about this all the time, but
it seems there will always be a market for the type of books we do.
“The end of print” may be more of a concern to literary efforts and
newspapers, but visual books are hard to hang onto in a digital
format. There still is that base function of opening up a book and
having it handy to peruse at your leisure while lying on a couch or
taking a crap.
The book as an art object and a collectable is an old convention
that used to be reserved for the upper crust. Taschen has a made it
a bit more democratic. Either that or people have more expendable
income. When the Muhammad Ali G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All
Time) $3,000 edition is moving swiftly and the champs edition
of the same book (with a stand by Jeff Koons and four signed
prints) is on its way to selling out at $12,500, something is going
on. These books will always be in the marketplace in some form.
Perhaps diminished down the line, but for now there is a market. An
international market, I must add.
Heller: At the rate you're going, you might need a third
building to house your collections. Do you ever get rid of
Heimann: I don't collect just to have the
stuff. Everything I pick up has to find its way into a book and/or
have some sort of historical or cultural significance. At some
point the material will hopefully find a home in an institution or
archive. Either that or my daughter is going to have one hell of a
garage sale once I bite the dust.
How did an obscure children’s book by a Croatian illustrator turn into a box-office sensation? Heller speaks to Trenc about his Hollywood moment.
Section: Inspiration -
interview, Voice, illustration
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Section: Inspiration -
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To commemorate AIGA’s 100th anniversary,
we asked design leaders, thinkers, and practitioners to reflect on
the past, present and future of the industry in short personal
essays that we’ll publish over the remainder of the year as part of our
Section: Inspiration -
Click here to learn more and submit your nominations!
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