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.”
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.”