Getting WET: on the magazine of gourmet bathing

Image: Imperfect Publishing, with permission

A magazine called "WET" is difficult to explain. Particularly when you have, as I do, a stack of them. When snickering friends dig into the brittle pages, they soon discover something amazing: an artifact from the misunderstood era of the late 70s early 80s that cleverly combined hedonism, pop culture, and a great, iconoclastic sense of humor. Then they get it. Still, some wonder about the subtitle: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. Seriously?

All images: Imperfect Publishing, with permission

Maybe not seriously, but how about importantly? The magazine was a recognition that some things in life are too vital to be treated seriously; sometimes it takes pleasure to bring them out.

Released this week, a hard cover book by WET creator Leonard Koren tells the story of the magazine's creation and fruition, and the wild times spent trying to play out a new wave philosophical hunch in an old, but still vibrant media. (Desktop publishing hadn't yet happened, and Letraset was the magazine world's driving innovation.) In Making WET, Koren does a good job explaining through anecdote and example the implicit ethos, and if he has to spell it out for us, well, maybe that's because some weren't paying enough attention the first time.

Trained as an architect, but put off by its cold heartedness, Koren was trying to develop a more humane approach, working to imagine places that would make transcendence and grace more universally available. Then, as he says, he discovered the bathroom.

Pleasure, sensuality, cleanliness, and bodily care all became the frame for Koren's outlook, and set the tone for the magazine, or its famously absurd and sexy parties. The outlook gave WET a sophistication that was based on hedonism and tenderness rather than bombast and aggression. It signaled a different take on a new wave that wore its place of origin proudly. "Gourmet bathing has come seeping out of California, its heart steaming with friendly lust," read its wake up call. Delivered to you by post, or in your local hip boutique.

Of course the title is loaded with connotations, and it seems like all of them were explored at one time or another, whether that meant naive, sexually aroused, or just ready to take a plunge and a soak wherever one found oneself. Koren encouraged, and explored all of those possibilities in the pages of the magazine. In his view "wet" was one of those words, "like 'life,' 'time,' or 'look,' that succinctly encapsulate an entire worldview, an essential way of being."

This book isn't a comprehensive collection of the contents of the magazine. It does show off some of the coolest covers, images, party invitations, and art objects, including a long lost cartoon by Matt Groening reviewing types of soap. Curiosity seekers will need to get their hands on actual old copies to see, for instance, ads for David Bowie's Scary Monsters side-by-side with fashion ads for satin shorts, or articles that could be all over the map. A random sample: a profile of pre-presidential aspirant Ross Perot; an introduction to the painter of pre-pubescent fantasyscapes, Henry Darger; tips from Scientology for kicking drugs; and an overview of the nation's top think tanks by Howard Rheingold (complete with addresses and phone numbers, and Rheingold's appeal to readers to phone the tanks and demand their knowledge).

That eclecticism, along with the relative obscurity of bathing's appeal might have made the magazine a hard sell to the mainstream. WET really wasn't Time, Look, or Life—and even the last two of those magazines folded. In a time before even MTV, let alone the Internet, access to this kind of information and stylistic play was so scarce that publishing it was a crucial duty, and its impact is still being felt. The visual style of new wave, postmodernism, had affinities with Memphis, and foreshadowed other West Coast publishers like Raygun, Emigre, Wired, and even Boing Boing.

As exciting as it is as an artifact of a free wheeling time, WET today works even better as a pointer to the present, in dire need of some post-consumerist hedonism and playfulness. Cultural artifacts from the late 70s and early 80s are inspiring, but how much better is it to throw off your clothes, and with the cultivated verve of a gourmet, soak in the water and imagine something new and hilarious?

Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing by Leonard Koren (Imperfect Publishing, 2012)