An exclusive glimpse into the largest collection of magazines in the world
The archive in London contains over 5,000 titles and 150,000 editions. Here, we sit down with founder James Hyman to talk all things magazines past, present and future.
Don’t worry, this isn’t another article certifying that, contrary to popular belief, print is not dead. You’re probably familiar with the argument – the internet has diminished that beloved inky smell and papery feel that’s only been around since the beginning of civilisation – yada yada yada. It’s a subject much discussed in conferences, art schools and, we must admit, It’s Nice That articles galore. But don’t worry, this article is not another one. Let’s get on with it. Welcome to Hymag, formerly the Hyman Archive, the largest collection of magazines in the world as declared by Guinness World Records.
Based in London, Hymag is testament to how print has never even been close to dying. Today we have the likes of Elephant, Flaneur, Kajet, Migrant Journal, Gal-dem, Wallet, The Happy Reader, The Gentlewoman, Riposte and so many more, not to mention platforms such as magCulture and Stack which exist to pay respects to the wonders of independent publishing. But back when James Hyman – founding collector of the archive – first became interested in magazines, it was a different landscape altogether. Prior to him collecting over 5,000 magazines, brochures and publications, and over 150,000 individual editions, the young James was more into comics. The kind you’d imagine someone born in 70s England to read: The Beano, The Dandy and Whoopee!.
At first, it was the visuals that grabbed him. But as he got older, it was the jewel-like nuggets of information that you couldn’t find anywhere else that drew him in. “You gotta remember,” James tells us, one lockdown afternoon over a video call, “there was no internet or mobile phones.” Magazines were much more than an absorbing story, they were filled with details that today, are not even readily available on Wikipedia. As the conversation unfolded – almost like “a nice kind of therapy session,” as James put it – he told us how the collection started: with a stack of mags piled on a chair by his childhood bed, a precursor to the trunks filled with Smash Hits which occupied his early teenage days.
Beneath the physical structures that appear in a memory, there is always a more poignant, underlying emotion holding it intact. In this case, for James, it was a deep love of collecting. He continues: “I love having this reference material, having all this stuff.” The archive really took off when James secured a job at MTV as an intern. The year was 1988 and MTV was one of few places where you could watch pop videos and generally engage with “cool stuff all day long.”
James admits things back then probably “sound a bit archaic to the new generation”. If you were researching for a juicy piece on Madonna, back then, the only place to acquire such information was in a magazine. And it was through this research that James found his voracious appetite for magazine-collecting. He’d make trips to a place called Tower Records in Piccadilly, home to a range of magazines from the weird to the wonderful. Soon enough, he built up an Aladdin’s cave of knowledge and became the go-to guy at MTV for providing niche information on artists. The collection stretches far from the reaches of pop culture too; there are publications themed around all sorts: cars, music, design, asteroids, fashion. You name it, it’s probably there. Despite this variety, there is one publication that holds paramount importance for James amidst the archive’s labyrinthine canopies of print.
“So obviously The Face,” he says in response to which magazine comes to mind when he thinks about the collection. There are waves of favourites but the core remains the same. “The Face is such a bible,” he adds. “It was, and is, still so relevant. It’s still accessible. It’s content that people want to constantly tap.” And as Hymag moves into a new stage of being – digitisation – it’s The Face’s entire back catalogue that’s first to undergo web-based preservation.
There are all kinds of people who visit Hymag in its London base. Researchers, students, design historians, those simply looking for inspiration. “I love it,” James says about the multiplicity of people coming in to view the archive. These days, it feels as if there’s an endless flow of visual references available online, but if you’re looking for a particularly niche piece of information – say, 80s Vogue Italia Givenchy campaigns – Hymag is the place to find it, intact, in physical resolution.
While Hymag offers a wealth of references for the aesthetically minded, there is an offshoot of the archive, acquired by Hymag in 2018, holding a different kind of data, taking the form of approximately six million press cuttings. These documents were collected by German archivist Edda Tasiemka and her husband Hans, Edda having passed the vast library to Hymag a year before her death aged 95. Used extensively by authors and journalists lucky enough to know about the immense catalogue, the Hans Tasiemka Archive features rare content from magazines and periodicals dating back to the 19th Century. “What she did from the 60s to the 2000s,” says James, “is, if you were looking for something on a person, celebrity, place, object or brand, she had cuttings on it.”
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Vague, Issue 18-19, Courtesy of Hymag
Organised by date, the Hans Tasiemka Archive, similarly to Hymag, documents matters from differing perspectives. Depending on the type of publication, the context in which it was published, not to mention the writer or creative conveying the information, the archives present an alternative record of history. They proffer how culture and society were perceived by those living during that time, offering a personal account beyond historical fact, visually communicated through a design unique to its situation. As magazines, pamphlets and journals come and go in their respective runs, this is one constant that promises to always make the magazine interesting. Regardless of sociopolitical leaning or esoteric visual expression, magazines hold a distinct point of view.
As Hymag enters a new phase of archiving – digitising – it hopes to employ the benefits of both media to easily access its content. In a mammoth task, it plans to systematically tag all its images so the user can search for any number of key terms which will in turn pull up a range of images. Imagine, says James, “I want to see any picture that Rankin did of Amy Winehouse,” or “David Bowie wearing Kansai Yamamoto,” to have an academic research tool as powerful as this, picking up any kind of image or story in the vicinity across thousands of publications, it would be an invaluable resource.
Which?, April 1971, Courtesy of Hymag
Raygun, 10, Courtesy of Hymag
For now, it’s just The Face that’s undergone this treatment but James hopes other publications can follow suit depending on how much its current crowdfunding campaign raises. “I just love the notion that all this content is there for the whole world to access,” the founder continues, explaining his hopes to create a new kind of YouTube or Spotify but for magazines.
The way James talks about magazines is reverential – as if they are symbols of personal timelines. A magazine’s rebrand or any specifically themed issue, for that matter, can punctuate a meaningful moment in life to the extent that, with time, the magazine can embody the instance altogether. Like how a song can trigger a lingering memory, for the collector of magazines, they do the same but are coated with aesthetic signifiers to past tastes or visual trends.
Even though sales may have dropped in the magazine industry due to “the beast that is the internet,” one interesting aspect that makes it distinct is the fact that the magazine remains “un-pirated”. While music and film have suffered massively due to pirating, magazines, in their physical forms marked by thoughtful design and content, prevail. Private Eye is just one example of a magazine that’s had its best circulation figures ever in recent years, James notes. Elsewhere, Pentagram’s Matt Willey crowdfunded over £178,000 to launch a new literary annual Inque, dedicated to diverse global writing with some art, design and photography thrown in the mix.
After decades of observation, for James, a magazine’s ability to become a success story today lies in its adaptability. “What is a magazine ultimately?” he asks. “It’s a brand,” and how that brand connects with the wider world and, in turn, adapts with it is paramount. These days, it’s rare that a physical magazine exists as the sole output of a publisher. Podcasts, merchandise, live events and more come hand in hand to form other channels of revenue to mean magazines can survive in the online era. Additionally, social status can also come into the equation; magazines can have a head start if attached to a famed studio, designer, or celebrity endorser.
“Things change,” says James. “I mean, you’re not going to sell what Smash Hits did in its heyday, something like 800,000 copies at its best.” Such figures are a long shot in today’s context but, at the same time, it’s not the be-all and end-all of what makes a successful magazine, nor is it the ultimate intention of those making them. The industry may be different now but at its roots, the magazine’s function is pretty much the same; to tell interesting stories in interesting ways, and as James puts it, “you’ve got to synergise the physical magazine with the digital environment.”
Here to provide you with an inside glimpse into this new alliance, James presents seven unique publications from the depths of Hymag. It includes the catalyst issue responsible for James’ collector spirit, a type-centred magazine founded by David Carson and Marvin Scott, psychedelic covers galore, a publication described by Steve Jobs as “Google in paperback form” and the ultimate showcase for type fans which ran for 30 years involving the late Milton Glaser. Here’s James with more.
The Face, no.49, Courtesy of Hymag
Raygun, 10, Courtesy of Hymag
The Face Magazine
“May 1984, Issue 49 with Neville Brody’s art direction. This is possibly one of my favourite magazine covers ever because it recalls one eureka moment that was a catalyst in my magazine collecting when I noticed it in the window of the sadly now defunct Vintage Magazine Store that used to be on the corner of Brewer Street. That simple striking ‘Fresh Electro’ led me down to their back issue basement, a pivotal moment in Hymag’s journey.”
“A seminal early 90s magazine, founded by Marvin Scott Jarrett and David Carson. with an absurdly heavy emphasis on type design. We loaned the uber-rare issue, No. 21 from 1994 to the Design Museum for their 2017 California: Designing Freedom exhibition featuring an interview with Bryan Ferry in ‘Zapf Dingbats’ font, as a result of David Carson finding the interview a tad boring!”
Oz Issue 31, Courtesy of Hymag
Whole Earth, Winter 1989, Courtesy of Hymag
“Tory Turk (curator of Hymag) and I teach at London College of Fashion as part of the Fashion Interfaces unit, which involves students revamping a long-gone publication for the now. This title always garners so much intrigue and interest not only for its phenomenal psychedelic covers; it’s still so heavily referenced and revered, 50 years after its demise. There’s a deep history behind it too – for example, its founders, such as the brilliantly eccentric Felix Dennis, went on to rule magazine publishing. A brilliant culture flip for the magazine to be on trial for obscenity (“conspiracy to corrupt public morals”) with its 1970 Kids’ issue and then was acquired by the V&A in 2017 to become part of the establishment it was always fighting against – counter-culture countered!”
Whole Earth Magazine
“It doesn’t get much better accolade-wise than Steve Jobs giving props to your publication, which he did in a 2005 Stanford University speech, describing it as “Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along”. At the end of his speech he quoted the farewell message from the 1974 final issue’s back cover: “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” This magazine has a captivating design which also got the nod from Wired magazine.”
Page, Issue 38, Courtesy of Hymag
i-D, number 7, Courtesy of Hymag
“I picked this up once in a favourite magazine haunt, Notting Hill's Book & Comic Exchange. It’s so beautifully raw and basic, a May 1977 issue of Page 38, ‘bulletin of the computer arts society‘.”
“We had the superb collage artist, image maker and animator Alice Isaac visit Hymag recently to research some briefs and we went back into some early i-Ds. You can go back to magazines time and time again, and still find rich content, graphics, type, images and so on that you missed previously.”
U & LC Magazine
“A lovely chap called Mark Law donated a bunch of these UC/LC’s (upper case / lower case) to Hymag along with some 70s Queen & Vogues, circa September 2018. Many type-titans such as Milton Glaser, who sadly passed away recently (most famous for designing the I Love New York heart logo), were involved in this mag that lasted for about 30 years (1970-1999) and was a showcase for typefaces; a designer’s dream!”
U&LC, 1981, Courtesy of Hymag
U&LC, 1981, Courtesy of Hymag
Courtesy of Hymag
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.