Talking About “Pop”
You don’t need to understand Swedish to be struck by the purity of this monthly, designed by art directors Stefania Malmsten and Lars Sundh. A classic, clean typeface (Monotype Times and Monotype Grotesque, customized by designer Hubert Jocham) suddenly seems very hip here. And the understated, jazzy layout captivates the eye, guiding it smoothly through extensive feature articles and in-depth interviews. Pop’s design boosts up the photographs so that all the featured artists look like superstars, no matter what their place in the public consciousness.
From its debut in 1992, Pop has had as its ambition to “take pop music and pop culture seriously.” Pop gives no editorial preference to household names over obscure artists – last year, a seven-page story on rock legend John Fogerty ran side by side with a feature on Attica Blues, a British electronic soul orchestra – and a similar philosophy informs its layout. “Lars and I had been checking out the different music magazines that were out there,” Malmsten recalls. “We decided to take the opposite route – a cleaner layout that would look modern at the same time. So we picked our inspiration from Blue Note album covers, Life’s classic issues, and French magazines like Les Inrockuptibles instead.”
Smart esthetics are also crucial in getting that elusive, exclusive interview and attracting top talent. Unable to hire photographers on its tight budget, Pop resorted to using old images or the record labels’ press photos. But by laying colored tone plates over black-and-white images, Pop made the pictures its own and created a design trademark. Today, Pop’s photo budget remains small, but Sweden’s top photographers stand in line to work there.
Although Pop has more access to original photographs than it did in its early days, it still sticks to a less-is-more cover philosophy: usually a single photo accompanied by a few lines of black or white text, listing the featured artists in roman and the cover subject in italics. Inside spreads are unified by one type family and a basic grid, holding all photography and illustration within the specified column space. To avoid rigid symmetry, smaller pictures run in squares and rectangles of different sizes, placed onto the grid almost like shapes from a Mondrian painting. This style recalls the Blue Note album covers’ generous use of white space and geometric shapes, creating movement and harmony.
Major features in Pop often introduce text with full double-spread photographs. Last year, an issue featuring British rock act Primal Scream ran five full-page photos before even starting the text. After five pages of text, another double-spread photo of the band popped up before the story continued for four more pages. (Sixteen pages on a single artist: only outside America.)
But the spacious, modernist layout and the extensive photography has another effect: It makes the magazine very easy to read, despite 8.5-point body copy. And regular departments-pop culture history, album reviews – also create an appetizing overview for the reader.
With remarkably strong form and content, Pop demonstrates its refreshing conviction that readers are both willing and able to stick with something longer than a page, puncturing Frank Zappa’s wisecrack that rock magazines are made by people who can’t write for people who can’t read. In Sweden, Pop has become a tastemaker: Record labels approach it first with their wares, and many artists hyped by Pop later earn lavish praise from other sources. Members of Pop’s staff have also launched offspring projects: Koala, a publishing company; Lollipop, a music festival; and three TV series steeped in Monty Pythonesque humor.
As for graphic design, the number of magazines, fanzines, and Swedish album covers that haven’t borrowed from Pop’s style – mostly its type style – can be counted on one hand. And that delights Maimsten. “It’s fun that young designers pay respect to the classic principles of typography,” she says, “and that they understand the importance of clarity and readability.”
This spring, Maimsten and the Pop staff proudly announced the arrival of a new baby: a fashion magazine titled, modestly, Bibel (“bible”). “Once again, we have created a magazine that hasn’t existed in Sweden before,” the editor’s letter states. Like Britain’s Wallpaper, Bibel is intended as a contemporary lifestyle monthly without the horoscopes and diet-related articles found in its older peers. In Bibel, pop artists discuss streetwear brands and vintage clothing; a report on hair fashion means a visit to an Afro salon, checking out the latest hiphop styles. Bibel’s articles on food adapt Wallpapers clinical approach: The featured vegetables and utensils could almost be mistaken for surgical tools, stripped of every juicy, erotic illusion typical of traditional food photography.
Bibel’s similarities to Pop are, of course, apparent and essential. But the design, so clear and consistent in Pop, gets messy and indistinct here. Too many short articles and pictures are squeezed onto the pages, different type styles are used without good reason, and the diffuse sections make the overall impression . . . confusing. But these are beginners’ faults, Maimsten says. “We’re on the experimental stage with this one. Since we couldn’t make a test issue, Bibel will have to grow up in public.”