IMPERFECT PUBLISHING | West Marin
Leonard Koren explains in his newest book Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, that the conception of WET, which he published from 1976 to 1981, grew out of his attraction to small, intimate environments: “the kinds of places you go to feel safe and secure,” “less self-conscious, more humane.” It is this approach to “place-making,” as he calls it, that led him to the spaces that have inspired much of his work: the bathroom, for example, and the Japanese tea room. Small and intimate are also accurate descriptors for his home in West Marin, which, on a weekday morning, feels quiet, still, and spacious.
There is something monastic about Leonard’s lifestyle and sensibilities: they do not comprise a system of self-conscious mannerisms, but are rather an accumulation of teleological choices and principles. His retreat from urban life is a paring down of unessential noise (an “economy of means,” in words from his book Wabi-Sabi), and he explains that, in his particular rural locale, he “can get closer to concerns that [he] should be addressing,” one of which is “parsing philosophical concepts that might be of interest to sensitive people.” It’s the space to think—which the din of a city precludes and the formalized routine of a monk allows—that has formed Leonard’s many books, among them: 13 Books, Arranging Things, The Flower Shop, Gardens of Gravel and Sand, and his most popular, Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets, & Philosophers.
“Despite his reclusiveness, Leonard is warm and inviting, as are his books, which in many ways, create, transmit, translate, and shape culture. “Creators are people who think about things and make things as a response,” he says. “Culture is our communal project—whatever we put into it.”
That this last book is written for a broad range of creative people, as enumerated in its title, is fitting for several reasons. It is impossible to assign a single label to Leonard himself. Yes, he writes books, but his books are at once philosophical and conversational, with the density of poetry and the provocation of art. His work, which spans a wide range of subjects, refuses easy categorization; in fact, his aesthetics and philosophies seem remarkably and universally accessible—and germane to even the most contrasting lines of work. Despite his reclusiveness, Leonard is warm and inviting, as are his books, which in many ways, create, transmit, translate, and shape culture. “Creators are people who think about things and make things as a response,” he says. “Culture is our communal project—whatever we put into it.”
Leonard is attuned to the cultural and artistic concerns of our digital generation in a way that makes his commentary acute and elucidating, but he hardly seems to be at the behest of popular culture. He talks about the experience of a city bookstore, with its polished display of clever titles, captivating designs, and fascinating subjects—an aesthetic engorgement of experience that he compares to “eating too much dessert.” These books reek of the mechanical and the commercial, he explains; they are “manufactured objects.” It takes both a certain distance as well as intimate observation to scrutinize what is considered normal and mundane in order to draw out insights poised with truth. These qualities are also required to imbue the ordinary with beauty and sacredness, as Leonard has done, first in WET, and now in Making WET.
“Something hilarious and sacred happens when naked skin meets water under the right conditions,” writes WET contributor Charlie Haas, in the section of Making WET titled “Gourmet Bathing: A Long Overdue Introduction.” A magazine about bathing is, after all, as sensual as it is spontaneous, as hedonistic as it is absurd. “Gourmet bathing is the willingness to be silly,” Charlie writes. But there is also an indelible poignancy to WET — a sense that the ideas beneath an absurdist and artistic façade are more profound than one might assume, that WET is all about bathing and not about bathing at all. And certainly, there is art in its ability to bear these contradictions, “fostering a greater appreciation of the reality of reality,” Leonard writes, in the book’s introduction. This is, too, an appreciation of the ordinary, of the imperfect and unconventional, of the modest and impermanent. Leonard observes and then elucidates, nudging the rest of us closer to the beauty that is at edge of nothingness.