Ancient Industries: Where Classic and Modern Meet
My favourite products are those with a personal story attached.
Megan Wilson's day job is designing book covers, but she also moonlights as the proprietress of Ancient Industries, a site and shop featuring domestic "living + extinct" artwork, photographs, interiors, and products, mostly of British origin. Things she features are both classic and modern thanks to their enduring mix of form and function. Megan is also also one of the top shelter voices in the SAY 100 and a Remodelista contributor. In her spare time, this overachiever also showcases her amazing book covers on the blog My Book Covers. One of her claims to fame: two of her covers have appeared in the top left corner of the New York Magazine Approval Matrix (that's between Highbrow and Despicable, for those keeping score).
In addition to a great eye for products and design, Megan's got a fun sense of humor about everything from book covers and sartorial style to dead authors and e-books. We caught up with her via email from her current home in New York.
You're inspired by the ancient that is modern – can you give us some examples of what that looks like? Ancient industries feed into all aspects of living: fashion, interior design, dining, gardening, travel. I wear only ancient industries. That is, I never shop on the high street and never buy mass produced clothes made in China. Today, for example, I am wearing a Harris Tweed jacket, which is one of Scotland's most prized and ancient industries. Although it is a very traditional fabric often woven in muted shades, this tweed is dyed sky blue, and cut to a flattering feminine style. With that I am wearing a Fairisle sweater, also a very traditional Scottish ancient industry; the colours, like those of tweed, are a response to those found in nature e.g. heather, grass, wildflowers, sand and sea. I am also very fond of tartan kilts, covert coats, Barbour waxed jackets, argyle socks, Breton shirts, paddock boots, espadrilles, Liberty print shirts, seersucker, L.L. Bean tote bags - these have all been around for decades, centuries and millennia and yet every year they look fresh. I have been dressing this way for years - it makes shopping so much simpler.
What are the key well-designed and useful items every household should have? If one is interested in saving energy whilst injecting pleasure into the tedium of laundry then the Sheila Maid is essential. Wooden slats, rope pulleys and embossed iron - it's Victorian utility chic yet contemporary in its sleek lines. Another essential energy saver is the humble hot water bottle, positioned at the foot of the bed. Europeans turn the heating off completely at night, because they know that once the feet are warm, the rest is taken care of.
You also sell many of your finds in the Ancient Industries store. What are some of your favorite items that you sell and why? I suppose my favourite products are those with a personal story attached. The Marché St Pierre tea towels are something I discovered in Paris (at the Marché St Pierre fabric emporium in Montmartre) when the idea for my shop was still just an idea. I was thrilled to then find them at the Maison et Objet trade fair in Paris in January. Another is Ian Mankin ticking, which I grew up with, as my mother was one of Ian Mankin's first customers. Persephone Books are a pleasure to sell, not only because they are re-discovered once-forgotten classics but because when I wandered into the shop in Bloomsbury, I felt so profoundly at home that I started telling the owner about my shop plans and this blossomed into an enduring friendship. When the manufacturer/distributor is pleasant to work with then I enjoy selling the products more.
Book cover design and design blogging – how do they relate for you? An awareness of art history and ancient industries informs both my book cover designs and my blog. I tend to stick with the dead authors when possible, concentrating on Vintage Classics in particular and this enables me to get into history a bit more. A favourite image source is the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. An Ancient Industry in itself, it has dusted off its crusty Victorian image and brought the very British and unique collection into the 21st Century. They have photographed their incredible costume collection in a way that brings out the colour and texture, forcing you to look at the clothing in a totally new way. Some of this makes it onto my blog eg a set of shoes made in the C18th century which look like something you'd see today. Or a very Marc Jacobs pink silk and netting party dress made during the Napoleonic Wars which I put on the cover of The Annotated Emma. I am about to start working on Thomas Hardy and will concentrate on the traditional aspects of country life in Dorset which Thomas Hardy evokes so well.
What are some of your all-time favorite book covers that you've designed? Again, the dead authors feature because they are well behaved, and there is very little copy to add beyond the title and author. Because a lot of money hasn't been spent there is far less focus from editorial and sales and one can get away with a lot more. So I would have to say the Vintage Classics are favourites and also the two Cecil Beaton Unexpurgated Diaries which I designed for Knopf, because I love all things Cecil Beaton, not least his book cover design and hand lettering. It was very fun to conjure him on these two covers. The Nancy Mitford covers were great fun to work on because the National Portrait Gallery in London had just added a lot of unseen portraits by Bassano to their website and I do try to use images that have never been seen before. Through this project I got to know Debo, the last surviving Mitford sister and was invited to stay at the inn she owns in the village of Swinbrook where several of the books are set. A thrill beyond dreams.
What about all-time favorite book covers, period. Any favorites and what do you love about them? I do very much like book covers designed by artists e.g. Cecil Beaton, or Vanessa Bell's covers for Virginia Woolf, or William Nicholson, or Edward Gorey's covers for Anchor Books or Andy Warhol's early illustrations from the days when he was still Andrew Warhola. All of these non-designers draw their own typography which marries seamlessly with the image. On the few occasions that I get to work with an illustrator I always encourage them to create the type too.
Talk about e-book covers. Do print book covers translate or do e-books need something different? Must I?! So many of our existing covers are already reduced in size when you see them online or in print ads, so I don't see why e-book design needs to be any different.
How do you feel about e-books in general? Whenever I see an unattended Kindle I throw it to the ground and stamp on it!
What's on your summer reading list this year and why? Thomas Hardy (see above) and Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, due out in May. It was an amazingly evocative book, tracing one of the most incredible times in English history. Though I'll have to buy the U.K. edition because it has a better cover!