During my interview with Joerg Koch, editor-in-chief of German magazine 032c, we’re repeatedly interrupted by groups of 14 year olds ringing the downstairs doorbell. They come in droves to the biannual “art and commerce” publications headquarters located inside the Brutalist St. Agnes complex, a former Catholic church in a far-flung, residential part of Kreuzberg, Berlin.
Koch, a towering 6’5” 40-something in camouflage pants, lets them in without a break in our conversation, as if this were the most normal occurrence in the world. The kids stream in purposefully and, without ceremony, head to the back of the studio where official 032c merchandise hangs on a metal rail. A few weeks ago, Yeezy’s Pablo pop-up in Berlin took place here, so trekking to this remote church has become something of a pilgrimage. Furry iPhone cases in hand, today’s pack scour the branded jackets and tees looking for XS or XL. It’s taken me three cancelled interview requests and numerous phone calls to secure a meeting with Koch; now I’m wondering whether I should have simply rung the bell in the guise of a blasé teen vlogger.
This year Koch and his team are celebrating 15 years of 032c, a title with a 55,000 print run (this is a solid circulation for an independent: a magazine like Kinfolk will print 80k per issue). In February he took on the role of editor for Canadian fashion e-tailer Ssense (pronounced “essence”), known for a discerning selection of products by brands like Common Projects and Alexander McQueen, and for its likeminded online editorial content, which reaches a staggering 22 million per month. Meanwhile Koch’s wife, Maria, who lives with her husband and their two children at the back of the church-turned-studio/home, has been designing a companion clothing line that you can purchase on the 032c website, on Ssense, or in the office itself, which explains why groups of American teenagers have found their way to a very sleepy part of Kreuzberg.
With the magazine’s graphics printed onto crewnecks, blankets, and tees, and because of its collaborations with fashion designers like Gosha Rubchinskiy and Alyx, and artist Cali Thornhill DeWitt, the 032c merchandise marks (or perhaps compounds) the cult status the magazine has cultivated since it first began in 2001 as a humble yet fervently ideological newspaper zine named after a hue of Pantone red.
032c found its critical voice publishing writings by cultural icons like Hans Ulrich Obrist and David Woodward, and its visual language grounded in early collaborations with Juergen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans. Its graphics play exceptionally well with the vocabulary of Mike Meire’s lauded 2007 redesign, an editorial revolution of stretched and collaged type—the spark of a graphic revolt that spurred the popularity of “the new ugly.”
“With 032c, we have created our perfect print Utopia. This is the place for us to take risks because everywhere else you always have restrictions,” says Koch.
The new merch isn’t just a way to expand the 032c cult, it indicates a whole other world its unexpectedly influencing. Kanye West was one of the first to wear the magazine’s long-sleeved “Sade Love Deluxe” tees as well as the “Romy Schneider Memorial” sweatshirt writ with gothic lettering, which was designed by artist DeWitt.
“We started our merchandising last year,” says Koch. This is evidently his favorite topic of conversation; after landing his new job at Ssense, he’s become fascinated by the relationship between merchandise, editorial, and brand more than ever.
“We learned a hard lesson with the first T-shirt, namely that it doesn’t make any sense to print black on black these days because kids buy stuff to stage themselves with on Instagram.”
And why start a clothing line? “To make money,” says Koch, who’s emphatically and unapologetically embedded in the rhetorics of marketing and social engineering. “I feel like a crack dealer. The interesting thing with the merchandise is that you generate a completely different kind of energy. You also reach a younger audience. A lot of kids don’t necessarily know what 032c is, but they take the red labels off the T-shirts and then put them on their clothes with safety pins.” He’s certain that new consumers find their way back to the magazine through the merch: the last issue was the fastest to ever sell out yet.
These younger readers will probably find the fashion and art title accessible: a cover featuring Rihanna shot by Inez & Vinoodh will sit alongside an interview with French philosopher Michel Serres. The magazine is fluid and versatile, for the pop-culture obsessive, the digital vagrant, and the speculative art critic, and it’s through Meiré’s iconoclastic layout that the versatility in tone, topic, and style can take shape.
“Mike’s design has given us a bandwidth. We can be punk rock fans or look like the super glamorous side of Vanity Fair; we can decide with each story how we want to play it. It’s been a while since we did the redesign with Mike, but we don’t feel the need to change again because there are still so many variations and ways to make the design powerful.”
So how did the magazine originally land on its specific blend of art, fashion, and business—what is now the go-to formula for generic-content generating platforms that’s become so prevalent that even e-commerce sites are now calling on Koch to recreate it for them? The title’s inconspicuous location in Berlin, as well as its creator’s willpower and vision is surely a part of it. Instead of starting a fashion and art title in London, Paris, or New York, Koch started 032c here in the German capital, at the time without any dominating, cutting-edge fashion industry around to lay the foundation of readership or financial support. But this meant the magazine could grow organically without any other voices around to infiltrate its sense of self. From there it was able to move out of the city to source its advertisers and collaborators in order to cultivate global influence.
“At first it was easier to create an impact in Japan than in Germany,” recalls Koch. “Only because of that did Germany then recognize the quality and reputation of 032c. It’s always had a global outlook—that’s why it’s English language. America is our biggest market and it’s distributed in 28 countries. But Berlin has always housed 032c; it has shaped it, but as a theme or topic, it’s not dominant.”
The latest issue of the magazine, it’s 15th anniversary special, was the first time an explicitly Berlin story was included—a 70-page photo story shot by Ralph Schmerberg, which originally was born as a classic, 10-page fashion editorial. “This is how it often happens. We start somewhere and end up somewhere else,” says Koch.
“Our process is like a black box—we’re not conscious of how things happen. It’s a bit like being a sculptor. You start with a big chunk of marble and then you chop off stuff and then at the end you have some sort of figure.”
Over the course of its history in Berlin, the 032c team has always been housed in brutal concrete. The first office was in the back of the German foreign ministry in the city’s center; the second in a space-age gray block designed by Arno Brandlhuber. Now, Koch lives and works in Werner Düttman’s mid-60s St. Agnes, his neighbor and landlord is gallerist Johann König. The 032c staff sit together in one large room above an inviting white lobby speckled with red spines. Koch can be found here, sitting at his blood-red desk (designed by product designer Konstantin Grcic) in an office decorated simply with an Afghan war carpet, a Supreme crowbar, and boxes of Art Forum. Or he is very far away, in a city like Montreal prepping his Ssense team, or in Hong Kong, finalizing a brand collaboration. These are the two worlds of 032c—entrenched in the local, but with eyes on the rest of the world.
“It’s important to be able to communicate certain ideas and values of the magazine in the architecture of the office,” asserts Koch. “The people that work here appreciate that they’re not at some random desk. We also have our openings here, we transform the office into a vodka bar.” For these launches, it’s not uncommon to watch 500 people crowd into the concrete block, spilling out into the street filled with silent tower blocks. “It’s important for 032c to create energy. We’re obsessed with energy, and I think our openings generate that.”
The Utopian dream of brutalism pours forth from Koch when he describes 032c, which, like the architectural surroundings, is honest, to-the-point, possibly ugly, but also possibly beautiful. But the magazine is also wrapped up in both observing and participating in 21st-century decay: the decadence of millennial hype, branded art star parties and events, and in perpetually securing and refining its self-image.
Like the Brutalist builds it wraps its team up in, there’s more than one angle to look at 032c from. That’s why it’s so continually tantalizing though, and why it can house so many different kinds of readers and consumers. It has its red fingers on the pulse in terms of the messy, troubled, irresistable contradictions inherent in what is currently the inescapable co-dependency of artistic production and commerce.
All photos by Ina Niehoff