Interview: Julius Wiedemann & His Passion for Taschen

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You would think that someone who has traveled the world, seamlessly moved from one artistic domain to another, shared his expertise at high profile events such as TED, and whose books have sold over 1 million copies, would take a breather and ‘rest on his laurels’. Not so for Julius Wiedemann. Constantly keeping an eye out for innovation and change in the domains of art and design, the editor-in-charge at TASCHEN shares what inspires him, what has shaped his career so far and what the future holds for TASCHEN publishing.

Daniel: Where should we start? Where are you from? Where did all of this begin?

Julius: I was born in Brazil, and have been living abroad for nearly 15 years. In fact, just to illustrate how Brazilian I am, even with the 100% German name I have, I actually got that from my great-grandparents who moved to Brazil at the end of the 19th century. So it all started in Brazil, and I was raised there and studied there, moving to Japan when I was 23 years old. I was born in Rio, but moved a lot during my life (and still keep moving; this year, it’s to Los Angeles). I always wanted to travel, so for me it was always an adventure going abroad. My move to Japan was my second trip internationally, and I haven’t stopped traveling since then. Because Brazil is such a diverse country, I guess it also helped that I’m a very flexible person in terms of looking at possibilities and opportunities. Nothing guaranteed. You can never rest on your laurels. And that is good in my view. We usually move when we are not in our comfort zone, and in Brazil you are in that position all the time.

Daniel: How did you get started in this industry?

Julius: When I moved to Japan I was 23, I hadn’t graduated in design or advertising, but had about four years of experience with design and advertising . I always wanted to work, and always loved to work. Long hours were never a problem. I always had enjoyed the work, always wanted more work. But I landed in Japan with nothing, speaking nothing but just a few words. I went because my (now ex-) wife had a scholarship to do her masters, so we went together. I needed to get a job, and in 20 days I got one as a designer at a newspaper for a Japanese-Brazilian publisher. It wasn’t very big. We did two newspapers and one magazine, in Portuguese and Spanish, for the community there (there are over 200.000 Brazilians there, mostly descendants from immigrants who went to Brazil in the beginning of the 20th century). After six months I took over as art editor, supervising the designers doing the three products we had, working directly with the art director. Because we had a lot to do for a small team, and the long hours in Japan help you gain necessary experience fairly quickly, I learned a lot, and and I learned it fast. I worked there for 18 months, until I was invited to work for a Japanese publisher, doing art direction, but also writing for a magazine. So I had the opportunity to make this transition from designing to writing.

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Daniel:When did you realize that art is what you were meant to do?

Julius: When I became editor at the Japanese publisher in 1999 I realized that I loved design, but my interests were very broad. So I always joke that because I was such a bad designer, I realized that writing about it and working with the subject would be better than actually working as a designer, creating stuff. I realized at that point that all things creative interested me, from art to architecture, from illustration to product design, from pop culture to art history.

I wanted to see everything, and Japan was a great platform in a sense to see a lot, especially in a contemporary form. The country is just amazing. There is so much to see everyday. So being sort of an alien there for 3.5 years helped me a lot to train the eyes. Also because I could understand very little of what was written around me, it was all-visual for me. I still remember that I cried when I could read my first advertising in Japanese and understood it, in a train going to my job. It is much harder than being illiterate, because you can’t speak either. But nevertheless, it served me really well to train the eyes. Today, I would say that visual culture is more of my focus, whatever it is. I do not want to be restricted to design either, so I think content and information is what I am always keen to give people.

Daniel: Is art something you have to learn in school?

Julius: I guess my mother wanted me to be a writer, and my father wanted me to be an artist. More because of their frustrations than because of my abilities in general. I am a generalist, so being an editor is quite appropriate. It is almost like you have to understand a little from a lot of stuff, and be willing to see the opportunity before you send it to a specialist. It’s a job of constant learning, of connecting things and people. And people are always going to be the most important thing in any profession. I have to look for good stuff. And good stuff that people like, stuff they are curious about, stuff they do not even know exists but they will die for. It is an ability that I think I have but that I always train. You need the constant exercise of being curious yourself. That cannot stop. But I had art classes my entire childhood. But all my brothers and sisters did as well. They always insisted I had to move in that direction. My sister studied design, and was doing well, so when the time came to choose my undergrad, I thought design was a good thing.

Daniel: You have combined graphic design and marketing. How important do you think it is for young designers and illustrators to be educated in marketing and the business side of their job?

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Julius: I think these days everybody needs to be aware of what kind of business you are in. I am happy that I studied marketing for some time. Made me look at things differently, in terms of them paying off or not, at efficiency, at process, at scale, etc. Great artists these days are business savvy. They know how to speak with a collector, to a gallery owner, to a curator, to a museum. Designers need that, architects need that, illustrators need that, etc. It is now just part of what we do.

We devote some time to the brands that we all are. And that is not a bad thing, as many people would like to think. It makes you think of all the stuff you do from an investment point of view, and helps you put yourself in others’ shoes. So I do think that it is important for creative individuals to think about it and learn more. Advertising people do it really well, they might be a model in some cases, but not always. It’s more in the attitude. People in the arts have a complex of the idea of being commercial, about the purity of creation, interference. And I will agree to some of it. But at the end, they all love to be a financial success.

Daniel: Technology has been reshaping our world, and we’re moving towards an amazing futuristic place. What do you think the illustration world will be like in 10, 15, 25, or 50 years from today. And if you could, what tool would you create to re-shape the digital art and illustration world?

Julius: Technology is really changing everything. In illustration, it has turned the market upside down already. One interesting sign of that is the fact that you cannot connect the contemporary stuff with a certain style anymore. The last time that happened was with vector graphics, with the explosion of Adobe Illustrator and Freehand. But today, there is a lot of everything. The tools have been democratized to the extent that you can now pick the tool you want. However, there is an interesting return to craftsmanship, and with digital tools on top of that, it all could be defined as mixed media these days, atleast almost everything in illustration. What is going to happen in my view is a surge in diversity. We see some of that already, but it will grow bigger.

Regarding new tools, i think it is going to be the democratization of 3D and interaction, with all this combination can offer. It is a lot, and what we have now is just the tip of the iceberg. And that includes printing in 3D as well.

Daniel: Who are your major influences, inspiration in life and in the art world?

Julius: I came to realize that I really like contemporary stuff. I am a person of my times. Of course I appreciate all the older stuff, but I love the innovation that is out there. My admiration is mostly for the stuff that breaks a cycle of boredom. I love the idea of creating new categories. And of course that is not exclusive of contemporary art. Those cycles always existed. I love the artists and minds that find a way to crack it and start something new.

Daniel: Your journey has taken you across the world. You must have formed a lot of great connections, not to mention great friendships. Could you share a unique story that sticks out from your recent travels?

Julius: Traveling for me is both an obligation and an immense pleasure. So in the last years I started to make it much more productive than just going to meetings. Every place I go I try to meet people I am curious about, or I admire, or even just recently found out about. I recently met Milton Glaser in NY. He did the I Love NY logo. Legendary designer. We have common friends and I just called the studio to see if we could meet. Not only is the guy a great designer, he is also an amazing person. And we are now thinking about what we could do together.

But meeting people is essential to me. And it has more value today than it ever had. My claim is that because we now have so many digital means by which to communicate, meeting personally, taking that time to talk, makes it much more valuable. It is harder to meet, but that is the point. We used to take it for granted, and it was the only thing possible. Maybe a phone call, but it was also cold. It is like if I send a handwritten letter to you today, you will say “Wow, that must be important!!!”. And that is what Milton Glaser did. When I returned to the UK, he had sent me a hand-written letter. That is not just sweet, it is so strong. The medium is the message again.

Daniel: Which country would you like to visit the most, and why?

Julius: I want to go to India and Mexico next, in terms of visual exploration. Never been there. Must be so great to see countries with such strong visual culture. I haven’t had the time yet, but it will come soon. I am fascinated about how those two countries have so many visual icons, let alone the exquisite use of color. It is just so strong the way they do things. Their visual identity really fascinates me, especially from the perspective that it is still grassroots today, unlike the USA which is more corporate or Europe, which tends to be more academic.

Daniel: Lots of stuff is happening in Japan now where you’ve spent four years (Tokyo) as an Editor & Art Director. What was that experience like?

Julius: Japanese people work a lot, so I had to do the same. What I like there is this great interaction between the old and the new. What is truly interesting and unique is the way they pull the two extremes together. I think it was a great exercise in the art of understanding and acceptance. The culture is so different and the codes are so alien to western society that you have to get your head around it and figure out how things could work for you.

I believe that, mostly, the foreigners are the ones that have to adapt. And in Japan it is neither obvious nor easy to discover what is the right thing to do. The good part as a foreigner is that you are allowed to commit more mistakes, because they are aware of the huge gap in the social codes. I think they are a society that are too tough on people. But that is my opinion. It is what it is, and they build a country for themselves.

Daniel: Are you participating in any relief for the recent Japan earthquake? P.S. is anyone you know hurt from this disaster?

Julius: That was a sad thing, to see all that destruction. Nobody I know has been directly affected. I haven’t actually done a lot. Mostly tweeting to create awareness and to help relief initiatives. But Japan is a society that can really overcome those challenges. They can focus really well and do a lot in a short period of time. They will be back on their feet shortly.

Daniel: You left Japan to go to TASCHEN, in Germany. How did that experience change your life?

Julius: You know, it was a quick and brutal transition in a sense. Japanese society is about working a lot and suffering (for better or for worse ) and Germany is about performance and productivity (for better or for worse as well). People are different, so are countries. The good thing going to Germany is that I could work directly with Benedikt TASCHEN, an incredibly bright guy, full of disruptive ideas, and still working within an industry that is quite old. The vision he sets out for TASCHEN is always impressive, and he has this amazing capacity of looking at content with very different eyes.

Another thing for me was the fact that TASCHEN is much more international, and I love it. We do not look at just Germany, or America, or the UK for the things we publish. We look at the entire world. That opens your mind a lot, and makes you learn something new every day. It is a great exercise.

Daniel: What is it like at TASCHEN? What do you like most?

Julius: It is an incredible, dynamic company. Very compact. I joke that 80% of our staff are managers. But that is probably right. Today, the company has struck a good balance between, let’s say, American and European practices. We have two editorial offices, Los Angeles and Cologne, but editors also work out of Paris, London, Zurich, Berlin, New York, etc. So it is a flexible structure, tied together by the publisher, and his very unique way of working. I really love the fact that we have a lot of opportunities to work while doing our books. That doesn’t happen in every place.

Daniel: What is on the horizon for TASCHEN? What have you got planned?

Julius: It is digital. I am now in charge of the digital publications at TASCHEN and we have a great plan. We are implementing it step-by-step, as the market for digital readers evolves. We are looking at it very carefully and figuring out how we best stay in a good position selling books as physical objects, as well as in digital format. That is the future I think. We seem to be always accumulating new ways, and we need to understand the volumes of demand for each format. It is a really exciting time to be living and working.

Daniel: What’s on the horizon for you Julius?

Julius: My work at TASCHEN has always evolved, and now, also taking care of the digital publications it has gotten more exciting than ever. For the first time I have the opportunity to look more at the big picture. And this is a great opportunity. The book industry is becoming more of a media industry, so we need to look at all the stuff we produce from a different perspective. And I love doing that.