Lovely new Idler Academy book on the wonder of electricity

Date
5 April 2012
Reading Time
3 minute read

When Vauxhall sat down to decide how best to launch their new electric car, the Ampera it’s safe to assume the usual ideas were thrown around – billboard ads, TV spots maybe some social media work. Meh. But how they came to commission The Idler Academy to produce an excellent, beautifully-designed book of essays about electricity is far more interesting.

“It all came together quite randomly,” Tom Hodgkinson, founder of The Idler Academy told It’s Nice That. “We were asked if e had any ideas about how to promote an electric car and it just popped into my head to do a book about it.

“Electricity is so fascinating. I read Jenny Uglow’s book about early industrial pioneers like Wedgewood in the 18th Century who loved doing these experiments with electricity and big theatrical presentations round the table after dinner for the ladies.”

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The Idler Academy: We’re Electric

That sense of awe and excitement is present throughout We’re Electric (after the Oasis song). Uglow has written a piece as has Will Self, stand-up poet Murray Lachlan Young, music journalist Bob Stanley and Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of The Cloud Appreciation Society. Pamphleteer Peter Willis has done a series of portraits of famous electricians and there’s eye-catching illustrations from Alice Smith and Sam Green among others.

“It’s so great to be able to pay people properly,” Tom says. “People like Pete Willis do amazing work mainly for love – the pirates are taking over and everyone is expected to work for nothing.”

But did this funding from a multinational car company compromise the creative integrity of the project? No, according to Tom. “We had complete freedom – occasionally they would say ‘Perhaps we could mention the car?’

“It felt like having a patron – we had to please them but they had no problem with anything we wanted to do. It was a very harmonious and creative collaboration which maybe you wouldn’t expect.”

“People might accuse of us of selling out in some senses, but we are an independent book shop that runs talks and has a little cafe. In an ideal world I would like to sell hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of books every week and be completely independent but it isn’t going to happen. And I don’t really like the strings that are attached to state funding – it all feels a bit Leninist.”

"We had complete freedom – occasionally they would say ‘Perhaps we could mention the car?"

Tom Hodgkinson

And his pride with the finished product is not in any way misplaced. Designer Christian Brett is a typesetter by background and inclination and brings this sensibility to bear in the ages of this tome.

“He spends all day in this building with old Heidelbergs and draws of draws of lead type and that’s the aesthetic he will bring to design on a computer too. There’s a great quote from Tschichold  that says something like graphic design enhances the content while typesetters quietly bring out its qualities. The idea is that typesetters are a little more humble but you can still have beautiful touches like drop caps or the odd letter in red. I think it looks absolutely gorgeous.”

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Christian Brett: Front cover illustration

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Conrad Shawcros’s work (courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery)

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Pete Willis: Nikola Tesla

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Pete Willis: Michael Faraday

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Pete Willis: Count Alessandro Volta

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Pete Willis: Thomas Edison

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About the Author

Rob Alderson

Rob joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in July 2011 before becoming Editor-in-Chief and working across all editorial projects including itsnicethat.com, Printed Pages, Here and Nicer Tuesdays. Rob left It’s Nice That in June 2015.

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