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IDEA, London. A bookseller and publisher with an eye for printed wonders

David Owen and Angela Hill refined their ability to perceive an image’s potential through a process of trial and error. Their intuition and broad-mindedness define their approach to selecting titles

The meaning of an acronym

IDEA’s founders, David Owen and Angela Hill, were living together and had two children before they started working as a team. It was when 2009 Hill saw an empty retail space at the front of London’s Saint Martin’s Lane Hotel, Philippe Stark’s Golden Kiosk, which used to be the hotel’s gift shop. Hill, who had been selling vintage books in Colette and Dover Street Market, asked the hotel about it. They were given the space as a three-month pop up store, which they turned into a bookshop. It needed a name, and Owen and Hill’s daughter Iris came up with IDEA. An acronym born from the sequencing of their family’s initials – Iris, David, Edit, their youngest daughter, and Angela – the name described the openness of their ethos, and IDEA was founded. IDEA is not to be intended as a collection of items. Its selection exists in flux, and is built on the seeking, buying and selling of books with consistency. «I had to calculate it once: a book is bought every twenty minutes», Owen recalls. IDEA is a way for him and Hill to distract them from buying books for themselves while being a source of revenue.

IDEA’s Superbooks – from Ibiza to Japan

Titles that sell well are bought by the duo on repeat. Those that keep selling through the years become IDEA’s superbooks, which they write about online. «The fun is the first time you see them», Owen notes. «Angela once bought a book called Ku, Kiss Me Darling. It was a blind purchase and it wasn’t cheap. When it arrived it was a revelation. The whole of 1980s Ibiza opened up to us and we found several books and artists from that time». Following that discovery, IDEA made a radio documentary on the phenomenon, published books with the same theme, and in 2013 had an exhibition at the ICA in London, titled Ibiza: Moments of Love. The show created a picture of Ibiza as it was in the Eighties through a collection of club posters, books and original photographs. Known as the island of freedom and pleasure, Ibiza was a haven for the Spanish people during Francisco Franco’s rule. During that decade, Ibiza was home to three of the most renowned nightclubs in the world, and Ku was the largest outdoor discotheque, built around an Olympic-sized swimming pool – Ku, Kiss Me Darling was published in 1992 to mark the club’s ten-year anniversary, celebrating it through a Fiorucci-inspired art direction and a wink at its dress code disobediences. Among the treasures that elicited the owners’ curiosity are a 1983 book about Apple titled The Two Steves and a pocket guide named Hallucinogenic Plants. Owen and Hill have to buy all copies of finds like these before platforms such as Amazon Marketplace and online booksellers raise their prices to four-figure amounts. Hill bought IDEA’s first ikebana book, which has since become an area for them to work in with books, shirts and notebooks. The founders’ passion for Japanese books derives from the uniqueness of their design, concept and realization. The Cine Icon series includes books about celebrities like Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Molly Ringwald and Rupert Everett. Japanese photographers active in the Eighties expressed their dedication to Miles Davis by seeking him out in the US and taking shots of him at home. An attitude to caring for details characterizes Japanese book production; to Owen, every now and again the interests embodied by those books resurfaces and crosses over with people’s obsessions in the present.

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1994 by Drew Jarrett in collaboration with IDEA

Angela Hill and David Owen

Hill’s background is in fashion, having previously worked for Comme des Garçons and Browns and assisting fashion editors and stylists. She later pursued a career as a photographer and co-founded a magazine. Owen began to work as a journalist and editor of magazines on graphic design, photography and advertising. «I have a degree in Drama from Manchester University. My professor taught a course called Quasi Theatrical Leisure, which I didn’t take, but my friends did. They went off on field trips to study MacDonald’s restaurants, EuroDisney and department stores. I understood the basic tenet of his teachings: everything is considered, designed and experienced. Everything can be creative». For Owen, that became a guide – or an excuse, as he says – for building a career that involved retail, music business, writing books, producing television and radio programs, founding online projects and bookselling. Owen’s background in writing pales when compared to the output of IDEA: there are now 30.000 Instagram posts on its account, and more than 500 newsletters have been sent. Copywriting has relevance in their activity, as «the pictures sell the books, but copy works as an affirmation that the buyer is right in wanting the book», Owen explains. 

Winona T-shirt

IDEA’s writing speaks to their audience by making – and playing with – assumptions about who their customers are, what they know or don’t know, and what they might be doing while looking at a platform like Instagram. At IDEA, the duo looks at a picture and imagines the response of the audience, which they either write down or take for granted. In that case, they give it a swerve. «If you have a picture of River Phoenix, for instance, and you think 70% of your audience will recognize him, then don’t bother saying it is him. Say something that only 30% of your audience will have thought. In the first example, 70% of the people who do recognize River feel included as they didn’t need to be told. In the second example, 30% of the people are told something they knew and their knowledge is affirmed; 70% are pleased to learn something new. It’s a rule that works». Speaking of the role of written content in IDEA’s communication and the relationship between text and image form, Owen mentions their WINONA T-shirt. It’s a text-based item that evokes an image. «The look of the letters in that word is the foundation for its appeal. We sold 10.000 of those T-shirts. The majority of the people who wore it like Winona Ryder or like the idea of being seen to like her enough to wear a shirt with her name on it. It is not a photo of Winona Ryder, even though that is how she is considered most of the time, in film or photographs. The irony comes from having only the word. In contemporary communication the picture comes and communicates first. The WINONA shirt plays with that standard and subverts it. No picture of Winona Ryder will compete for space with the singularity of her first name in block capitals»

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Derek Ridgers, The Others, 2015

Print is not dead

What allowed Owen and Hill to refine their ability to perceive an image’s potential was a process of trial and error: posting pictures every few hours made them learn which ones get the likes, and sales helped them understand which images and books hold power. For IDEA’s marketing strategy, they pick single images from books to focus on and promote. When it comes to publishing other people’s work the duo tries not to interfere with the editing process – they let the artist figure it out for themselves, as Owen remarks. Their criteria for publishing titles balances risk with sales, which is the principle they start with. It means they can publish Glen Luchford’s Prada campaigns from the Nineties or a young photographer’s first book, like Brianna Capozzi, because they believe they’re going to sell. «In the case of Brianna, it helped that it had Chloë Sevigny on the cover», Owen comments. For artists such as Nadia Lee Cohen, a British, LA-based photographer who debuted with her monograph Women, Owen and Hill didn’t have the certainty it would sell, but it sold out in twelve hours. The result of a six-year long project, Cohen’s book is a compendium of a hundred portraits of women, drenched in surrealism, honesty, and pop culture iconography. According to Owen, film and cinema influence image-making to this day. Standing in parallel to fashion photography, the history of film is a source of inspiration for shoots. It is possible for photographic works to be inspired by novels or songs – it isn’t visible as they don’t match as media. Aesthetics aren’t the reason for cinema’s greatness and relevance, the founder argues. «The cinema or film works we focus on are able to communicate their essence in stills. Paris, Texas is a feature film which finds its power in a close up of Harry Dean Stanton’s face, or in Nastassja Kinski in the red mohair dress looking back, over her shoulder». They found that people buy books of the films that have an emotional resonance for them. There’s an element of nostalgia for the age they were when they saw them, as is the case with films like The Royal Tenenbaums, whose followers’ dedication means they are willing to buy any commemoration of it. 

How to choose a book in a bookshop

Owen and Hill buy and choose books to publish following the belief that a person will want it and take or have ideas from it. «Quite often we know exactly who that person will be – we know how to communicate books to people. I might see it in terms of which pictures or what positioning we would go for in a newsletter or on Instagram, or what jokes I could make. Angela might see it as which images she would show in an appointment with a customer». Owen’s favorite aspect of the job is the sense of discovery and surprise that comes with opening parcels when he can’t remember what they had bought – something he gets to do every morning, he adds. Highlights of IDEA’s day-to-day management include putting passwords on product pages and inviting people on waiting lists to buy. «Our website isn’t capable of having a password, so you could just type anything and it will let you buy it. When people find out about it, they make password attempts – all of which work of course. That is fun to watch from the back end of our site». To Owen, the act of shopping is split between the mundane, as buying groceries or renewing one’s car insurance, and the creative, that is made up by items that represent the maker’s or the buyer’s personality. «I hope that the peculiarity of what we sell leads them to be bought by creative-minded people who want to lead fuller lives». In the last twenty years, as the founder observes, people’s relationship to printed matter and images shifted in a way that prioritizes seeing over possessing. «Everyone now expects to see everything. Seeing is the new ownership. You wouldn’t say you owned The Godfather II, you would say you have seen it. It is the same with photographic images. Some people buy photobooks, but most will say they have seen a photographer’s work. You sell less books, but the photographer may have an audience of millions».

IMAGE GALLERY

Run by Angela Hill and David Owen, IDEA is a publisher and bookseller. Its collection hosts a selection of books, magazines, prints, garments and accessories, and is displayed in Dover Street Market in London, New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo. The project works with designers, art directors, stylists and editors in the fashion industry to provide vintage books, magazines and references.

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