Interview: "Creating Something out of Nothing" A hipster lifestyle magazine makes recycling chic. by Jennifer Hattam
Shoshana Berger presides over a magazine that tells readers how to make purses out of plastic bags and wine racks from old box springs, but don't call her a crafter. That word's Popsicle-stick-and-Elmer's-glue connotations make her cringe. And the hip (but not haughty) thirtysomething hardly fits the stereotype of a granny crocheting her doily.
Born and bred in Berkeley, California, Berger found herself drawn to people who were cutting unconventional paths in the world. A freelance writer and editor with a pop-culture and high-tech bent, she and her artist friends would get together on weekends and "make stuff"—dragging furniture off the street to strip and sand it, turning old tea tins into clocks, and sewing blankets out of vintage sweaters. The "do it yourself" (or DIY) ethic was a big part of their lives, but despite the glut of media created for their age group, Berger realized that "there was no magazine on the newsstand that really spoke to us and for us."
So in December 2001, Berger and a former colleague, Grace Hawthorne, launched ReadyMade magazine with a print run of 35,000. Initially a quarterly publication, it went bimonthly in early 2004 and now has 300,000 readers, many urban tinkerers who submit most of the ideas shown in its pages (and often model their own designs). Part home-improvement manual and part lifestyle-magazine satire, one typical issue of ReadyMade featured an aviation-industry junkyard, instructions for making a skirt out of old umbrella panels, a nonprofit that builds wheelchairs from scavenged materials in developing countries, and a Mad Lib to "create your own Nigerian email scam."
The magazine's emphasis on creative reuse rather than shopping may seem to be swimming against the tide. But as editor-in-chief, Berger is trying to make innovative recycling as sexy and fashionable as the latest styles from SoHo.
Sierra: Where did the magazine's name come from?
Berger: "ReadyMade" comes from Marcel Duchamp, who took an industrial artifact—a urinal—stood it on its back, called it Fountain, and exhibited it as art. The idea of his readymades was to take an everyday object and to reinvent it, to imbue it with meaning. For us, it's the same project, but we believe it shouldn't be relegated to the gallery—it should be part of everyone's everyday mindset that the built world around us is not disposable; that the things in it were made at the expense of great energy, and they should not be just blithely cast off. They should be reused, down to the gristle, and they should be honored by being reinvented in interesting ways.
Sierra: Unlike other lifestyle magazines, ReadyMade doesn't promote lots of stuff. Is reducing consumption a deliberate part of your mission?
Berger: Absolutely. Magazines like Real Simple and Organic Style have this cloak of simplification, but really they're pushing more product on you. ReadyMade readers are not anticonsumerist per se, but they have a certain reverence for objects, and believe that purchasing choices are important. That's part of our mandate: to look critically at this cultural moment and what it's producing.
For instance, ReadyMade has a section where we also push products, but they have to meet two criteria: great design and sustainability. We firmly believe that environmentalism has to come through example, rather than through pedantics. We try to make our projects and products cool enough that readers are going to want them, whether they're interested in sustainable design or not. The magazine has to be fun, and cheeky, and have the same attitude you would expect from a friend or peer.
Sierra: Does your reluctance to push product create problems with advertisers?
Berger: Advertisers see our readers as budget-minded, and interested in creating rather than buying. So it's been a challenge to convince them that these people do buy, they just buy in a conscientious way. Our "typical" reader is 24 to 39, and this younger market is suspicious of corporate hucksterism, over-marketed products, and sweatshop labor. Young people are quite well informed about these issues—in many respects, more so than their parents ever were.
Sierra: Sometimes it's hard to tell if an article is serious. Is that a deliberate attempt to steer clear of environmental earnestness?
Berger: Yeah, it's adding a little bit of levity to everything. The This Old Houses and the Martha Stewarts of the world are about creating domestic perfection. Their editorial voice sounds as if you're in a home-ec class: "It's very important that you do it just this way, and if you mix your dry ingredients with your wet ingredients, you've created disharmony in the universe." ReadyMade is about getting your hands mucked up. Its voice is like, "Look, this is going to be a learning process, you're going to screw up." It's more realistic, friendly, and accessible; it's about the fun of process rather than the perfect result.
Sierra: Is the DIY movement just the latest incarnation of a back-to-land-type fad, or part of a real change in how we think about the way we live?
Berger: In our society, it's all about getting everything you need—and a lot of stuff you don't—right now. So there will always be people who feel like that is a kind of gluttony. But in another way, I think [the DIY movement is] very specifically part of the DNA of our generation, the first generation to grow up with personal computers and this huge saturation of media geared toward us.
Young people grew up sitting in front of one screen or another, which takes us away from the more tactile, artisan world that our grandparents lived in. We hanker for that feeling of reward when you make something with your hands, creating something out of nothing.
Sierra: Does "do it yourself" with home improvement lead to DIY in politics and social change?
Berger: I'm very encouraged by the galvanization of people in their 20s right now around politics and environmental issues. I think that it's a combination of a do-it-yourself mindset and personal computing. The blog generation is used to creating their own media—creating a voice for themselves in the world—by putting their diaries online. They're used to being able to show real political might through the Internet; the [Howard] Dean campaign was an incredible example. So the do-it-yourself mentality of this generation, although in a way it's a reaction against technology, is also bred out of an autodidact mentality common to people who grew up on personal computers. That's a very empowering thing.
Sierra: How can environmentalists better appeal to people who want to live a more sustainable lifestyle, but don't want to leave out the "style"?
Berger: The idea of linking environmentalism to denial and compromise is an old stigma that the movement has to shake off. That's part of what ReadyMade is trying to do. It's giving some sex appeal to sustainability and reuse.
Any kind of heavy-handed message is doomed to fail. You have to give people a reason that is more concrete and tangible to them than that they're saving the earth. They might feel powerless to do that, or they might not think the earth needs saving. So you have to give them another incentive. And you also offer them alternatives that are equally comforting and fulfilling.
If you push environmental products that look like crap, people are not going to accept them. I think that's been a great lesson with hybrid cars. The better-looking they get, and the more like "real" cars they get, the more consumers accept them. It's kind of a no-brainer. I drove in a Prius for the first time about a month ago, and I was completely blown away by how well-styled and comfortable it was. It just felt like a luxury car. And I was like, sign me up!
Sierra: So we can't really make self-denial cool, but we can make environmental choices more palatable by making them more pleasurable.
>Berger: Absolutely. With ReadyMade's projects, it's also about putting an individual stamp on things: You made this thing that's specific to you, and part of your personality has come out through it. There's definitely something to not wanting to have the same Pottery Barn table that everybody else has.
For example, in one issue we ran a "MacGyver" challenge asking readers to do some kind of creative reuse with blown-out speakers. People came up with the most ingenious solutions—lighting fixtures, planter boxes, shelves—and they are very handsome, high-end-looking pieces of furniture. When someone walks into your apartment and says, "That is the coolest thing I have ever seen! Where did you get that?" you can tell them you made it. There's so much more sex appeal to that than in saying you bought it down the street at Ikea.