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Soap & glory: How Wet magazine changed publishing for ever

Its founder talks to Karen Hodkinson about causing offence, cover splashes and hiring a little-known cartoonist named Matt Groening.

Magazine covers don't come stranger than this: two pigs, one red and the other blue, set against a background of bright yellow; the pigs are sharing what one might delicately describe as 'an intimate moment'. The image bears little obvious relationship to the cover lines: 'Sex With The Dead', 'Helmut Newton' and 'Scientology's Two Week Drug Flush'.

This was the March/April 1981 issue of Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, possibly the most avant-garde publication of its time. Based in Venice, California, and the brainchild of architecture school graduate Leonard Koren, Wet was nominally 'about' the art of washing, swimming and public bathing, but it became a cult for its inventiveness and dynamic page design.

"Wet reflected the spirit that defined the radical West Coast look of the 1970s," enthuses the respected American graphic designer Jennifer Morla, of Morla Design. "It was graphically arresting, unique in its use of illustration, colour, and photography." Reading a copy of Wet in 1977, she says, sealed her decision to move from New York to San Francisco.

By the time the 'pigs' issue hit the streets, Wet had outgrown its original strapline to cover music, art and fashion. "That cover caused a lot of problems," remembers Koren now of the porcine cover stars. "I was working with an artist called Bob Zoell, and he wanted to have two pigs fornicating, but in a loving way. If you do something that is a little different, you are bound to offend people." Many of the magazine's sales outlets banned the issue and advertisers pulled out.

Koren was not a typical magazine publisher. "It was an adolescent adventure," he says now of his idiosyncratic creation. Wet was a fantasy world, and from 1976 to 1981 over 34 issues, Koren had his fun. At its peak, Wet attracted only 30,000 readers internationally, but all kinds of creatives wanted to work for him. Matt Groening (later of Simpsons fame) visited the LA office, showed Koren some drawings, and his Life in Hell debuted as a comic strip in 1978 – Groening's first professional cartoon sale.

"When Wet started, it was a galvanising venue for young creatives. They called us up, walked in the door," says Koren. On another occasion, the photographer Herb Ritts – latterly one of the best paid in the fashion world and a Vogue regular – asked if he could bring in photographs of a young actor he was working with (it was Richard Gere). Other contributors included Leonard Cohen and Paul Bowles.

Wet, as a magazine about 'gourmet bathing', initially featured all things related to bathing, water, outdoor soaking, mud baths and wet places. The title had a variety of connotations – "water-related, eccentric, off-the-wall, sexually aroused" – which Koren felt were broad enough to allow the magazine maximum editorial freedom.

Producing Wet in the late 1970s, Koren operated in a virgin marketplace, one not yet saturated by the numerous independent magazines that are found today sitting alongside established titles. At Wet, artistic expression took priority – creative freedom was more important than a healthy balance sheet. Like the creators of the most influential British style magazines of the time, i-D and The Face, the Wet team worked largely on impulse, the significance of what they had created only coming retrospectively.

"Wet anticipated the hybrid, cross-cultural designs we're now so used to because of the rise of the web," says V&A curator Glenn Adamson, who included a Wet cover in the museum's recent Postmodernism show. "Its blend of music, cultural commentary, pornography, art and design predicted our own distracted, hyper-linked lifestyle."

Koren's interest in esoteric aquatic matters had first come about while he was at architecture school; he found the bathroom a place of quietude and illumination. By the time he graduated, his interest in architecture was long gone. Instead, he was turning photographs of friends taking baths into lithographic and silkscreen prints. As a thank you to all who participated, he threw a party in a derelict Jewish bath house. "Everybody went there with trepidation because they didn't know if they had to get undressed. When people got there, they realised that everybody was on their best behaviour for some particular reason." He felt he had tapped into something powerful.

A naturally energetic person, Koren would take a hot bath at 3pm everyday to slow things down. It was during one of these baths that he experienced an epiphany that he should create a magazine to encapsulate his bathing experiences: "I didn't precisely know what 'gourmet bathing' was, but the word 'wet' had a zing to it. It felt good on the tongue".

Koren didn't have a clue about how to make a magazine. All he had was the urge to create and a "lifetime of opinions about what made magazines irresistible". He did what he needed to do, not allowing his lack of expertise to become an obstacle. "There were a lot of people to ask about the technical side of things. The conceptual side of things had to be figured out, it was my responsibility. So that was the beginning of the journey. I did this magazine."

Today, Koren, now in his early sixties, lives in the coastal countryside north of San Francisco, from where he talks to me long distance. From this rural retreat, he works as a design consultant and, since 1984, has been making books – the latest is a compilation of the Wet magazine years.

"The thing about making something like Wet is that you are unconscious that you are doing something special." And that is the message that underpins the great magazines of our time. Don't try too hard. The best ones never do.

'Making Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing' is published this month by Imperfect Publishing