Autumn 2018

For the love of food and print

Michele Outland, creative director of Bon Appétit, also co-founded and designs the indie mag Gather Journal. Steven Heller reports

Food is all the rage on TV, the web and social media. Star chefs are celebrities. The best restaurants are coveted. Cookbooks have never been so popular and great recipes are gold. Forget erotica, today’s turn-ons are food mags and books, and one of the sexiest is Gather Journal, a recipe-based bi-annual, co-founded and designed by Michele Outland. Her enticing art direction is a gustatory delight.

In 2012 Outland started Gather with editor Fiorella Valdesolo. The pair met at Nylon magazine, where Outland was art director and Valdesolo was a deputy editor. A couple of years after leaving they launched Gather ‘as a combined love of print and food,’ Outland told me. Since December 2017 Outland has also been the creative director of Condé Nast’s high-circulation Bon Appétit. ‘I would call myself a very passionate person when it comes to food publications,’ she says. ‘I think it stems from a life-long love of food, which started with my Texan and Korean family roots.’

Bon Appétit is the grande dame of food magazines and goes back before ‘foodies’ were referred to as such. And it used to live up to its title – it was like bringing a gourmet restaurant into the home. In fact, its former competitor, Gourmet (now defunct) was even more so. But in today’s foodie world, sandwich fixings are as important as the perfect roast. Outland’s design allows for the high and low, which adds to its current accessibility. Photograph by Emma Fishman.

Outland was born in Lubbock, Texas, to an American father and Korean mother, and grew up in Golden, Colorado. ‘My mother is a wonderful cook of Korean cuisine and I’ve learned a lot about cooking from her … but I definitely credit so much of my training to working at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia on many of its magazines and books.’

Outland started out interning at a small design studio in Denver, Colorado, when she was sixteen. After graduating from Rhode Island School of Design and a short stint in Boston, Massachusetts, at the studio Moore Moscowitz, she spent a little time in the UK before taking a design job at Martha Stewart Living magazine. For twenty-plus years she has been ‘devoted to the magazine industry’ at such titles as NYLON, Everyday Food, New York, The New York Times Magazine and More.

‘Throughout my career I’ve worked at quite a few studios and companies helmed by women: from my first internship with Chris Weber in Denver; to Jan Moscowitz in Boston; to Janet Froelich and Gail Bichler (see Eye 96) at The New York Times Magazine to Martha Stewart and the many talented women at the company, including Gael Towey and Deb Bishop … and of course Martha.’

The magazine is not your mother’s Bon Appétit but rather presents its contents with the aesthetic of a do-it-yourselfer and the feeling of a passionate cook. Outland’s design is a tasty blend of established food display with a little attitude for flavour.

Gather’s title comes from the concepts of gathering ingredients to cook with and gathering around a table, with the often magical experiences of a shared meal. What distinguishes Gather from other food titles is a focus on recipes from the front of the book onward, the painterly artfulness of the photography and a sense of subtle humour. ‘Gather is a passion project for everyone involved with it,’ Outland notes. ‘When I concepted the creative direction, I didn’t want it to look like any of the food magazines out there. Cinema is a huge visual influence on me and I wanted to create a world that is more cinematic than the nice daylit style of food photography. We can take bigger risks with photography because … why not? I love the idea that a visual can transport you to a very vivid place and time – similar to how the smell and taste of eating something can do – so why not try to do the same in a photograph?

‘We like to play with our food, which is sort of the motto for Gather in general,’ Outland adds. ‘We try not to take ourselves too seriously and have fun with it.’ An important part of Outland’s concept is that everyone has a food memory or story. ‘It’s been fun to transmit those via contributed written pieces and publishing various family recipes. I’m so thankful to have these recorded. Gather, at the end of the day, is also quite personal to Fiorella [Valdesolo] and me – an accumulation of our varied experiences and interests.’

It is also on another end of the food (magazine) chain from Bon Appétit. ‘I know Gather’s photography direction wouldn’t be appropriate for the content we’re doing at Bon Appétit as the circulation there is 1.5 million and needs to reach a wider audience,’ she says. ‘Gather is artful, whimsical, adventurous.

While Bon Appétit shoots for the amateur chef, Gather is for the art-food fan. Outland’s covers are artful delights, piquing the imagination and serving up a virtual gustatory experience. Even jelly, that most common of desserts, looks like a weirdly contemporary art installation.

Bon Appétit is more “food forward” with a touch of cool.’ In Gather, Outland takes risks with the way a recipe is shown. Sometimes the food is not even on a plate. There are times when we see the item dissected, as a single bite, or held dramatically in the hand (as in the ‘Magic’ issue, Fall / Winter 2015).

‘Because Gather is a playground for experimenting with the visuals of food, it takes us to some fun and wild worlds. With Bon Appétit I definitely want the food styling to represent the most tactile and delicious version of itself, so that people want to cook that recipe right away.’

Gather seems more like a lavish cookbook than a periodical – something to savour rather than eat and run. ‘We crafted it to have more of a cookbook structure, so one could return to it over and over, cook from it, read it, dream from it. And then I wanted it to be a super luscious and tactile experience, so we print on quite nice paper with Hemlock Printers in Vancouver. They’ve been printing us since day one and are awesome to work with.’ Gather is such a personal extension that Outland believes the magazine ‘is quite often for us and our friends. For Bon Appétit, it’s really about the cook.’

What makes Gather, well, Gather is that Outland has broken a lot of food photography norms. ‘We’ve done a couple of stories almost entirely in black – maybe not the most appetising to the food but I still stand by it! I really credit this to a lot of our creative teams.’

What distinguishes Gather from Bon Appétit is the difference between relishing and enjoying. The latter is about cooking and the layouts work perfectly in this regard. But Gather is about food magic. Outland’s photographic depictions are at once impressionistic and descriptive. They are not haute cuisine, but they are ‘hot cuisine’ – they represent the delicacies the audience cannot wait to consume. Who wouldn’t want to have a slice of pie while watching an episode of The Walking Dead?

What also defines Gather are its covers. They are more sensually beckoning, unlike Bon Appétit’s, which are aimed to sell. ‘With Gather, newsstand sales were never the objective. It’s been a creative outlet from the get-go, so we’ve definitely taken some non-conventional directions with our covers,’ she says.

‘For Gather I’m also looking for an image that will hopefully stop you in your tracks, maybe make you smile, or maybe just appreciate the beauty of a food moment. I just like to capture the food in the best way possible.’

Steven Heller, design writer, New York

Read additional articles in Eye no. 97 vol. 25, 2018

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.