A Conversation With the Cultishly Popular Author of Arranging Things, Every Creative Person’s Secret Favorite Book

Last month saw the release of two books by former WET magazine editor and cult-favorite author Leonard Koren. The first, On Creating Things Aesthetic, is a methodology for artistic practice, written as a traditional essay and illustrated with photos from both art history and Koren’s own camera roll; it presents creation not as a divine act by some inspired genius, but as a collection of simple ideas for anybody to employ in their work: juxtaposition, repetition, and deconstruction, for example.

The second book, while technically not new, is distinct enough from its original that we’re adding it to the tally regardless: It’s the second edition of Arranging Things: A Rhetoric of Object Placement, the near-mythological 2003 title pairing Koren’s thoughts on three-dimensional composition with artist Nathalie Du Pasquier’s orthographic paintings illustrating the subject. Having met in the ‘80s, Koren and Du Pasquier collaborated over the course of a year: him sending her prompts describing particular relationships between objects (their hierarchy, alignment, coherence, etc.); her returning him beautifully rendered interpretations.

Both books join a cohort of Koren’s that, he says, “help creators in the aesthetic domains in their work” — his version of the creativity “how-to” (without the stickiness of a Rick Rubin or the higher promise of a Julia Cameron). Other themes in the catalogue are Koren’s life-long interest in Japanese culture, clear in his best-selling Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers; his exploration into bathing culture, also the subject matter of WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, which he ran for 34 issues from 1976; and his musings on book-making itself – something he has evidently mastered. We recently sat down with him for a chat about those ideas and more.

Where are you at the moment? 

Milan! I came here because Apartamento just reissued an old book of mine, Arranging Things. What’s interesting is that it’s a reconfiguration of the text and imagery. The original version was small, and the text and imagery were more interspersed. I wrote it before I thought that writing was that important, so when I read it now, I cringe a little bit. 

But, overall, I’m really pleased. I was actually asked, “Am I happy about it?” And I tried to explain that there was no pain in making the book. I didn’t go through this struggle, this process where I was confused and I had to resolve things. I had already done that. The euphoria that comes with triumphing over difficulty wasn’t there. So I guess I’m not ecstatically happy, but I’m quite pleased.

Have you enjoyed Salone this year?

Yes, I find the atmosphere stimulating. It’s like a drug. It’s exciting. It’s also utterly false, in terms of what we should be concerned with as creative human beings in the world today. Sensibly, we should be making nothing, but we can’t. So, can we start making things that are more refined? I don’t mean materially, but so that the concept is more consistent with our survival. This issue of luxury – a word that you see so much here – it’s just a misuse of great human resources. Yet, at the same time, I’m attracted to it. I can’t help it. So that contradiction is fascinating to me. 

Your interest in design philosophy, where does that come from?

From the way I was raised, I think. My parents were interested in Japanese art and design; we lived in a eucalyptus forest in one of the canyons in LA, in a Japanese-style house that my stepfather had painted black, we took off our shoes when we came into the house, and so on. When I was in my late teens, my stepfather came back from Japan with a stack of books about art, architecture, and design. They made a lot of sense to me. It’s a long story, but I built a tea house on my parents’ property. I developed my own measurement system, and down the hill was where the rich people lived, and when houses were resold they were immediately torn down, so I got some amazing building materials from there. 

This was before you started studying architecture?

Yes. I started university as a philosophy major, and it wasn’t so interesting. Out of boredom I started building a tea house, then dropped out of school, painted large-scale murals with a few people for a few years, thought it was the greatest thing in the world, got bored with that, made a movie, then needed structure in my life, so I went to architecture school for a master’s degree. It was at UCLA, a very open and open-minded school at that time. Because the program was for people who had an undergraduate degree in other areas, they came to it with a broader mind. I kind of skipped the practical aspects of building. I mean, I took classes in it, but the teachers thought my proposals were just utterly impractical. I was more interested in research, in finding elements of architecture that resonate with our human being-ness. I wanted to further the things I was interested in, not just design or architecture, jbut life in general. And so I started going off in my own direction.

Tell me how WET magazine then came about.

I began making something I called bath art, bath imagery. There’s something about bathing that seemed like a rich source of content. In order to repay the models for these photoshoots, I had a huge bath party. People made up the social rules that evening: How do you behave in a conversation when one person is dressed in a suit and the other person is naked? It was a confounding experience for almost everyone, and created a tremendous amount of what I called social energy. It was written up in the Los Angeles newspapers; I had never gotten such feedback for anything I’d done. I thought, “Jeez, I really touched a nerve.” And so the idea to create a magazine about gourmet bathing came out of that.

It seems to me that you’re spontaneous but reflective. You instinctively act on your interests, create something, then rationalise that action, to create something else. In other words, your work is quite cyclical. Does that sound fair?

It sounds like a good perception of yours. I would say the larger impulse, the substratum of it all, is that when I was young, I made a decision that I wanted to achieve some kind of enlightenment in this life. I didn’t know what that meant, exactly. We have the models of the Hindus and Buddhists, and I guess their enlightenment was, in a sense, an early model. It was attractive, certainly more attractive than becoming a professional architect, or lawyer, or whatever.

That impulse is still there. I’ve since given up on the idea of having some kind of Buddhist enlightenment, yet, in a very practical way, I’ve realized that meditating in a daily practice is very helpful in slowing things down and looking at the minutiae of one’s life. And so, for better or worse, what I do with books is quite simple, and has to do with examining, with circling back. This recursion, as you say, is about trying to understand more about whatever the subject is, but also more about who I am and what I am.

Who and what are you?

It’s very simple: I make books and I sell them. From my point of view, I’m not a serious scholar, nor do I have any interest in being institutionally affiliated. I’m independent, I don’t hew to any design theory or philosophy or clique. I’d say that my methodology is more like that of an artist. Artists define the problems they want to solve, and in the process, they create their own universe, which somehow reflects their mind. I think that’s what I’ve done. 

If I want to sound pretentious, I could say I make conceptual tools for people to use in their work – most of my books, I think, provide some thoughtful material for other creators. But also, I’m just the person who makes the books that I like to make, or know how to make.

And how do you make your books?

There are, let’s say, a dozen or so ideas that are flowing into my mind at any one time that I’d like to make a book about. The trick is to reconcile all those. The way I visualize it, it’s like a strange combination lock. All these elements have to align, and then the lock opens up. 

So I come up with concepts. Then it’s a question of, how do I communicate these concepts? I’m more visually oriented than I am rooted in the word. But I would say in my last two books, all of a sudden, something clicked. I realized that the words are so beautiful, as a medium and as things. There isn’t a one-to-one relationship between words and the real world. It’s a synthetic reality. 

I’ve noticed that you’re precise with words, and that you often write your own definitions. The new book, On Creating Things Aesthetic, opens with the meaning of “to create.”

You know, when I started working on the book, I threw it away six or seven times because it seemed false. At this stage of my life, do I really want to put more untruth out into the world? I want to be truthful to others, as a way of being truthful to myself. So it ended up having fewer pages than I intended, but that was the most truthful way of presenting it. It’s a book on creating “things aesthetic.” It’s about methodology. It’s in no way prescriptive, but it provides some insights as to what you can do at various stages of the creative process.

Why this concept at this moment?

I’ve long observed that the methodologies we use to create things determines, to a great extent, the nature of the things we bring into existence. So after a year of living in Italy and at a loss of what book to make next, I wasn’t surprised that this particular subject popped into my head. I realize retrospectively that I needed to make this book — a non woo-woo elucidation of the creative process — so I could move on to explore how we can use our creative energies in ways that promote emotional intelligence.

The essay is incredibly personal, thoughtful, but at the same time applicable to all sorts of artistic practices. It runs alongside some provoking images too, most of which you took yourself. How do you go about pairing text and image?

The metaphor I would use is that it’s a little bit like creating music. It’s rooted in feeling. It’s totally operating on intuition. I don’t try to articulate why this image and that text should go together. It just pushes emotional or psychological buttons. I just think I know how to tell stories with images, or juxtapose them with words in order to emphasise certain points, or to increase mystery or clarity.

Talking of mystery, you mentioned Salone inspiring a new project. To close, can we get an exclusive?

My next book? I have an idea, but I prefer not talking about it just yet. For my process, it’s better just to keep it in my mind.