When we first came across Plethora Magazine, we were pleasantly astonished by its size. The publication is 70.5 x 50.5 cm, and exquisitely printed on off set paper. Each issue centers around a theme and houses articles, art and interviews in sync with the subject matter. We sat down with Peter Steffensen, Plethora's creator, to find out what inspires him.
OW: How do images and words interact in your publication? Is one privileged over the other, or do they work together?
P: We always try to curate the contents so that the visual narratives work together and interact with the textual universe. This is a very important part of Plethora. Yet we sometimes displace the relationship slightly to make things more interesting and less literal by, for example, complementing an article about the current digital acceleration of the human sphere with a 19th century image series of early cinema.
OW: How do they work differently to provide important information to the reader?
P: It’s all about creating subtle intersections between science, culture and art of a very different nature, I think, which then allows connections to arise through a wild association process. Here the visual and textual elements feed off each other to create novel forms of meaning and experiences. More creative and playful ones, if you will. And then, obviously, there is level of pure artistic perception, which comes from immediate experience of the artworks themselves, which kinda remains beyond words.
So I think what you take from a given issue of Plethora very much depends on your imaginations and the ability to process these. That’s probably also why people from very different creative vocations seem to be able to use Plethora as a source of inspiration.
OW: How do you decide on a theme for a certain issue?
P: Our themes, I would say, tend to emerge from a very slow, organic process which has been cultivated over some time. Usually we keep a few budding themes in our reservoir and then suddenly we hit a breakthrough on a given series, which sort of binds everything together. Then we know we have a concept that we can sculpt an issue around.
Because of Plethora’s extra large format and since we work extensively with academic institutions and libraries on acquiring archive series; securing the sufficient size files for our rather specialized print often often requires a new repro process from original antique documents. And this process can be painstakingly slow and does involve a fair amount of luck.
OW: How important is it for you that the theme be tied up in current issues and events, here I’m thinking about the Automaton issue?
P: We always aim for our editions be as timeless as possible, with contents stretching a wide horizons and time span and somehow connects to a universal narrative that remains relevant for contemporary culture. The automaton theme is probably the most poignant one we’ve done, since it addresses a problem currently on the verge of realisation, but with a long pre-history to it. So this actually felt quite liberating. Plethora is not all nostalgia, sometimes one must look back to gain a clearer perspective of what lies ahead.
OW: Is the creation of an object with a heightened aesthetic value a political act?
P: Perhaps. Some schools of philosophy view aesthetics as a way of living, closely related to one’s ethical outlook. But I think it’s really a matter of cultivation. An object that requires an excessive amount of cultivation today has somehow come to represent an element of resistance towards the mainstream - a statement of defiance against the fast track industrialisation and consumption we see all around. So, yes I think it can potentially be political and even guide to a different way of life and set of values.
OW: Your publications act as works of art in themselves. What is the process of compiling content for each issue? How long does it take?
P: The themes themselves are usually a couple of years in the making, and we always have a few on the go from various features we have been researching. Often it’s also a matter of curation and art directing - or pairing a given theme with a complementary aesthetic, to create the right setting and tone for the topic. The Automaton issue, for example, has a lot of references to Bauhaus, Russian Constructivism and 50’s sci-fi, where the dream and imaginations of the cybernetic future were particular potent. From these eras we obviously had a few favourite artist that we wanted to bring into play, along with contemporary artists who reference them in interesting ways.
OW: How do you decide the order in which different stories will appear in your publication, even on the level of verso and recto?
P: There are a few guidelines that we try to maintain for every issue. We like to open an issue with a sort of naive science feature, which somehow invokes the rest of the theme. Features on early wild experimentations where the science is very creative and playful in its constructions of submarines, airships, pneumatic post, telescopes etc. Everything that has to do with pushing the boundaries and scope of human abilities.
The midspread is usually reserved for a very central image series, and then it’s really a matter of creating the right flow and momentum for the reading experience throughout the issue.
Obviously with very colourful series that require a deep, saturated print, we make sure that there is no subtle grey-scale artwork behind. Usually it’s a bit of a puzzle.
OW: How important is the physical binding and sheer size of your publication to its reception?
P: The size is paramount to the experience of Plethora and very central to the concept it self. Right from the sound and feel of the paper, the tactile softness of the print, the format and the contents, Plethora has been crafted to give its reader a very particular reading experience. The unhandy format challenges the space of its setting, involves the body of the reader in a novel way and naturally slows down the consumption of the contents, just like the sometimes overly high brow topics do. Nothing about Plethora is a convenient quick fix and it kinda always seems slightly out of place. Hence the name.
OW: Whom do you imagine is your audience?
P: We never really had a particular audience in mind when we started the project. From what we have seen Plethora has a pretty broad appeal in terms of age groups and demographics. Yet, obviously it attracts a certain clientele.. with a certain taste. We have noticed how a lot designers, architects or artists like to keep a copy of the magazine open in their various studios as a conversation piece. I quite like that idea.
OW: How do you decide who may offer your publication - why Detroit?
At Orleans & Winder, we subvert the notion of “fast fashion” by paying attention to material, design and care for each garment. How does your publication combat glossy-paged monthly publication?
P: Since Plethora is such a hybrid of things we prefer to work with retail partners who also push the limits of their fields and fuse different aspects of art, culture and design. In the way they curate their space or in the selection of artist and designers present. We feel Orleans & Winder does exactly this extremely well… and in a manner that reflects the diverse history and culture of Detroit in its own way.
This connection to culture and history, I feel, is extremely important. What really separates Plethora from most glossy lifestyle publications, apart from the material design and the time it takes to make, is the aim to reintroduce some form of timeless enchantment into a world laid bare by ready made information streams and the focus on novelty. Our creative imagination depends on this enchantment, and in the age of Google Earth and so forth, we desperately need this element of wonder... and to take a pause to engage in semiotic games of lost meaning and esoteric knowledge. We feel Plethora helps open this door.
Interview by Isabelle Sakelaris
Photos via Plethora Magazine