Simon Merz and Welcome To Paradise
Simon Merz is a graphic designer and practicing artist working in the field of print publication. Welcome to Paradise is a project he began as a means to an end: It gave him the ability to document what he was seeing, and manifest tangible interpretations in the form of magazines and apparel.
Today we catch up with him to hear about his journey to where he is now, the role education played in developing WTP, and how he approaches a process-driven work ethic.
WTP: Before we get into this, can I first ask how you all came across my work?
MW: It’s funny because one of our roommates was the first one to find out about you. He ordered a bunch of your stuff and was showing it off and we’ve been keeping an eye on you ever since. I don’t even know how he found you, but you’ve been growing like crazy since we first saw your work.
WTP: That’s interesting to hear. Sometimes it just happens like that. But I’m glad I’m here. I’m such a fan of your guys’ work.
MW: Simon, I want to hear a little about Welcome To Paradise, and how you would describe it all. It doesn’t sound like it’s your full-time job just yet.
WTP: No, I’m not quite there yet. Hopefully that will change though. On a side note, I was reading your journal on Tambourine, and I stumbled across my name being mentioned in there. And that was just such a crazy moment for me. Especially being mentioned next to someone like Spector Books. It’s funny, because they’re huge. They probably have 500 books on their site, while I’ve published three. But what a good feeling. The internet is a crazy place. Circling back to your original question, Welcome To Paradise started as a Zine I did back in 2014. I visited America for the first time, and being from South Germany, that was a really big deal. I had a passion for photography, and documenting what I was seeing. So the Zine was just moments from that trip. I made like 20 copies and gave them all to my friends. The idea of making a magazine and self-publishing it all sounded fun to me. I made a little online shop for it just for the sake of doing it, you know? Because why not? Through that, I realized that I really enjoyed the process of making something physical. I printed the magazines on a copy machine, lined all the pages up, bound them all together. The whole thing. I just dove all the way into it. I started my Master’s degree, and for my final thesis explored publishing as an artistic practice. I’m a graphic designer by trade, but making these publications feels like the perfect way to bring it all together under one roof: The photography, the typography, covers, layouts.
MW: It sounds like you’re just doing what you want, and people are receiving it well without you having to beg for their attention. There’s no better feeling than that.
WTP: Yeah, totally. And I don’t know how to express this without sounding lame, but WTP is really such an integral part of my personality. It’s just an expression of myself and my tastes. So to that extent, I’m just doing what I want with it. It’s been around for a few years now, and I've only recently started to think about it a bit more seriously. I'm working a 9 to 5 at the moment, so it can be hard to find the time and energy for it sometimes.
MW: Do you feel like your Master’s program was productive? We always have a hard time gauging whether or not higher education is something worth investing into, and we’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
WTP: It’s tough. I think I tend to give education too much credit, if I’m being honest. I think the context surrounding my upbringing also plays a part in this conversation. My family was very much working-class. None of them were creatively-inclined, so being a kid who was into art, had a band, and was skateboarding every day, I felt like I had some convincing to do as far as making my parents feel like I was going to pursue a career. And maybe convince is a strong word, because they understood that our interests were very different and they have always been incredibly supportive of me and my endeavors. But that piece of paper for my Bachelor’s studies was really something to fall back on. And that feels like an older, more conservative mentality now that I look back on it. But the Master’s program is a different conversation. I don’t think WTP would exist if I didn’t pursue my Master’s. I know it wouldn’t. At least not the way it exists currently. The value of time felt so important. I mean, I wrote an entire book for my Thesis. Who has the time to do that? I had everything I needed at my fingertips. But I would never pay the price it costs to study in America.
MW: So you got your Master’s in South Germany, but now you’re in Vienna. What’s Vienna like? How did you land there?
WTP: I finished my Master’s last March, and my girlfriend is from Israel, from Tel Aviv. I met her through a workshop during my program.. So another credit I have to give to getting that degree. We were considering moving to Tel Aviv, but honestly it was just too expensive. And I couldn’t really find my own spot for my design work there. I think there was a disconnect between my approach and the current practices there now. Nothing was really clicking, even though we both had some infrastructure and connections there. It was unfortunate. But I did an internship in Vienna years ago, and had a bunch of friends there. And it’s also incredibly affordable. I’m not sure if you know this, but Vienna is consistently voted the most livable city on this planet. And if I’m being honest with myself, the size of the city feels right to me. I can still be myself here. Somewhere like LA, for example, I feel like I would get lost in the noise. It’s like that idiom, the whole small fish in a big pond thing.
MW: How do you see WTP operating if and when it becomes your full-time job?
WTP: The way I imagine it right now is operating a studio practice of my own, and WTP is just the shop and publisher that lives underneath that roof. It serves as the space that I can put the objects I want to make and the publications I want to see into the world. I guess the only shift involves doing that on a more consistent basis, and trying to make some profit out of it.
MW: Simon, I want to touch back on a point you made about Vienna being a really livable city. I think it’s interesting because Los Angeles is not a livable city, like at all. It’s so expensive, there’s all these different perceptions of who you’re supposed to be. Luckily, we’ve found a place where we can be comfortable within ourselves, we have a good group of friends looking out for our best interest. Do you ever consider how your location affects your output?
WTP: Yeah, I think about it all the time. It plays a huge role in my output. I feel like no matter where you are, big or small, you find your friends, your community. Like you said, a group where you’re comfortable and can be yourself. I think we all live in those social systems no matter where we are. To me, Vienna feels small because I’m living within that system. It’s where I spend all of my time, so I’ve become quite comfortable in this little environment. But like I said before, I really enjoy the feeling of living in a city that doesn’t feel oversaturated. If I made a shirt in Los Angeles, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d have a hard time wondering who cares about it besides my immediate circle of friends. And obviously social media turns that conversation on its head, but it’s just nice to not be surrounded by graphic designers all the time. I would go insane.
MW: I think we talk about this a lot when we’re trying to decide if we should make something new. “Does the world need another shirt?”. “Do people need a new magazine from us?”. And it’s a good thing to be considering those questions, even when we make one anyways.
WTP: First and foremost, do it for yourself. Nobody is ever going to need another graphic t-shirt. So do it for yourself, because you want to see what it looks like. If you’re going to please anyone, please yourself first. I find it’s really hard to go wrong if you have that as a priority. Odds are, if you like it and you want to see it, someone else does too.
MW: We couldn’t agree more. So WTP started with magazines and your publishings, but how did the clothes come into the framework?
WTP: I guess tracing my roots back to skateboarding is where my passion for design stems from. The first shirt I did for WTP was because it was something I wanted to see. You know, I did it, showed it to my friends, and naturally they wanted one too. The next shirt I made, I did 10 prints. Then 15 for the one following. It’s also kind of weird, but I’m a skater who never really wanted to wear skating brands. It felt redundant to me. I had all these other interests that I wanted to bring into the mix. If I’m skating, you already know that it’s something I’m interested in. Wearing a shirt that sends the same message seems unnecessary to me. Bringing in these other influences and combining all of my interests just seems so much more fun and exciting.
MW: I want to circle back to your Thesis for your Master’s Program. You wrote and published this book, Meta, that was really well-received. Can you tell us a little more about it and how it was made?
WTP: Yeah, so going into it, I knew that publishing, and the practice of publishing, was already well investigated. I knew I didn’t want to be another guy who just revisited those conversations. And so I was considering ways to maybe reevaluate and explore a different side to those dialogues. I ended up spending a year researching, writing, and designing this book. The concept is pretty straightforward. I was spending a lot of time going through artist’s books, and just noticed that they were obeying and following this predetermined pattern of explanation. A way to send information. The patterns are built into our reflexes and it’s something we don’t even recognize anymore because we’ve been trained to digest information that way. At first glance, Meta is just a blank book. What I came up with was an easier system for viewing. You look at the blank book and observe it as a container. You better understand it as an object: How it feels, what it looks like, for example. The pages are perforated, so that once you’ve examined the book as a container, then you can begin to digest the information and the content inside. You can’t get to the information without interacting with the structure of the book. You have to really rip it open to get to the content.
MW: So you’re forcing the reader to focus on shape and form and material first, before digesting what is actually being written. So they can’t just pay attention to one or the other.
WTP: Yeah, precisely. You explained it better than me. A book about a book. But what’s cool is that I had this idea in my head before I ever started writing it. Even after a year of working on it, I never changed the idea. And even now, I don’t think I’d change anything about the project, and that feels really special to me.
MW: Going forward, do you want a lot of your publications to be conceptual?
WTP: Definitely. It’s the way I work. My artistic practices feel investigatory. I think over time I’ve just gravitated towards exploring programs and systems, and bringing those into the medium that I’m working in. And developing some sort of commentary in or around them. And that all starts with research and is really process-driven. And it definitely takes up the largest portion of each project I do, trying to conceptualize whatever it is I want to work on next, but I think the final product is always better when there’s that emphasis on process.
MW: So what’s next for WTP?
WTP: It’s hard to say. I guess right now, the shop is actually closed, so a lot of my focus is bringing that back by June, and spending some time on some smaller runs and maybe doing a few reprints. I’d really like to do a makeover of the site and the shop when I get the chance, but I’m not sure when I’ll have the bandwidth to take on something like that. More than anything, it feels like it hasn’t really started yet. Which is crazy because I can feel it starting to snowball and gather some attention. But for now just biding my time. And I’m just trying to have fun with it all. Keeping it small, doing little things in between. Hopefully in no time at all you’ll see some of the stuff and be like: “Wow Simon is really doing it”, you know?
MW: I feel like we’ve been saying that already, so you’re definitely right where you need to be I think. We’re really excited to see your trajectory as things start to really take off for you. We see a lot of overlap between our practices, and I’m really interested in seeing how we can collaborate in these upcoming months. We’ll have to work on a short run of apparel or a publication together.
WTP: I’m excited. We’ll make something fun together, for sure. And the next time you’re close to Vienna, we definitely have to link up.
MW: The same for you and Los Angeles. You’ll have to come see the big pond for yourself.