Shelf Sessions: Emilia Terragni
‘If you want to show your work, a website is so much better.’
It’s about 26 degrees celsius in Laglio, Como. It’s beautiful. Crickets are chirping, old men are walking with their groceries, and other men—slightly less old, but still relatively old—are racing down the hills in platoons of racing bikes. MENDO is invited to visit the vacation home of Emilia Terragni. Emilia is a publisher at Phaidon, responsible for interior, design, and cookbooks such as Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef, and NOMA. Before we got there, the photographer and yours truly were a little lost. Apparently there are two streets with the same name in the area, and upon asking inside an hair salon, one of the old Italian ladies points us towards the “George Clooney neighborhood”. We follow her directions, and see the houses become more impressive by the number.
Check some of the culinary books published by Emilia Terragni.
The Clooneys bought a lakeside villa in Como a few years ago, and when someone of such fame moves into a small area like this, you can imagine something like that doesn’t go unnoticed. Upon arrival the day before, it was hard to miss the ubiquitous postcards of George Clooney’s estate. The Comaschi are proud of it, and when we pass what presumably is his house, we evidently see why.
Only a few houses later we arrive at a nineteenth-century house on the bank of the lake. It’s safe to say that Emilia has the perfect holiday home. It has been in her family for decades. “This is my paradise,” she says. “I come here a few times a year. Especially in the summer it’s great to sit here at the lake, and for me it’s a perfect environment to isolate and get a lot of work done.”
Emilia’s father was an architect, and so was her great uncle, Giuseppe Terragni, a pioneer in Italian Modernism during the thirties under the rule of Mussolini. They paved the way for Emilia to pursue a career in architecture as well, but Emilia chose otherwise: “I actually never wanted to be an architect, but I also never thought I would be doing this. I grew up here in Como, and there are many iconic buildings designed by my great uncle here. For my first degree I did my thesis on his work. We have an entire archive here.” That thesis was written for Emilia’s degree in Art History. After working on several exhibitions, as well as the Venice Biennale, she ended up at Vitra’s Design Museum, helping curate the exhibition of Luis Barragan, among others. “That’s where it kind of started for me. To a large extent, publishing is like curating, of course.” Still, she describes the transition from art history to publishing as “painful”. “I hated writing. I’m a team worker. Writing is such a lonely activity. I prefer to work with talent around me, although it’s not a punishment to sit here and write, of course.”
Indeed it is hard to find a place that is more perfect to write than this. However, Emilia spends most of her time at the Phaidon HQ in London. Divided over her house in London, Como City, and this holiday palace at the lake, she has a personal collection of hundreds of books. At the London headquarters, Emilia is the head of publishing for design, architecture and cookbooks. “My role is to invent books together with my team,” she says. “It’s not only about commissioning an author, but also to think about what is a good concept. 80% of the books we do, we make them in-house. We approach interesting subjects or collaborators ourselves. I believe that’s the role of the publisher. To look for interesting opportunities that others don’t see.”
Started in 1923 in Vienna, Phaidon has sold more than 42 million copies worldwide, and its catalog counts over 1500 titles. It’s up to Emilia to find which titles miss in that catalog. “Phaidon now publishes around 80 books a year,” she explains. During the course of the season, you want to have a variety of titles: one that will be very popular, one that is very niche, one that has a specific targeted audience. One thing’s for sure: you absolutely need the best seller.” Emilia is in charge of the cookbooks, design books, and architecture. In the eighteen years that she’s been at Phaidon, she has worked on roughly 500 titles. “I started as a commissioning editor for design and I gradually moved towards being a publisher. Design is really my passion. I grew up with all the post-war design staples because my father was also really a design-buff. So when I ended up working for Vitra, it was a complete immersion in the world of my heroes. It’s the reason why I ended up at Phaidon in the first place.”
That venture started with a design book titled Spoon. But a little while later, Emilia would have her first big success with The Silver Spoon, recently reissued as The Silver Spoon Classic. “That was totally by chance, but it was design related. We were talking with the Italian lifestyle magazine Domus, and they had published it before. In 1950, they compiled all the traditional local Italian recipes in a book. I knew it very well, because everyone in Italy has this book. It’s the bible everyone in Italy grew up on. It’s a typical wedding present, or what you give your children when they move out of the house for the first time, so I knew it would sell well. But Phaidon didn’t do cookbooks, and my boss was very hesitant. The original version was very big, with over 2000 recipes. Translating it all into a commercially attractive international edition was like hell.” Yet, Emilia and Phaidon managed to do so, and it became an instant bestseller. “The biggest difference was that in Italy the ingredients are listed in order of importance. In the Anglo-Saxon world, you list them in order of appearance. Also, for many Italians some things are so mundane that it doesn’t need explaining. The Italian version would say something like: “Take the fish, put it in the pan.” Then people would ask me why we don’t wash it. Of course you wash it! Apparently you have to tell people that.”
The Silver Spoon became an immense success. “We didn’t know. I was 100% sure that the recipes were good, because I’ve eaten them all my life. People said we were crazy, also because of the design of the book. We didn’t put food on the cover, just an illustration of the spoon.” It has become a trademark for the Phaidon cookbooks. In a series of thick cookbooks, of which Emilia’s Como kitchen currently has The Turkish Cookbook and the Italian edition of Eataly, Phaidon collects national cuisines from all over the world. These staples of the Phaidon cookbook line are complemented by smaller books focused on specialty dishes. Like the Greek Vegetarian Cookbook. On the question if she considers herself to be a good cook she answers affirmative without hesitation. “Even before I started working on cookbooks I was already a pretty decent cook, but when we started with Ferran Adrià on the elBulli book, that really opened my eyes.”
‘Being a good publisher is two things: knowing what not to publish, and printing the right amount.’
The El Bulli series were a seminal work in monograph cookbooks. Since then, Emilia and Phaidon have worked with many internationally renowned star chefs like Massimo Bottura, René Redzepi, and Magnus Nilsson. “I need a story, and it has to be good,” she says. “Last year we made Chicken and Charcoal, and that’s a perfect example of an interesting story: a Canadian skater (Matt Abergel, ed.) who has a Yakitori restaurant in Hong Kong. There are so many restaurants I’d like to visit, and I’ll definitely enjoy the food, but that doesn’t mean I think we should make a book about it. You need something really special, something that challenges the general idea of gastronomy. These chefs are like artists.” That comparison isn’t that wild. Today’s chefs are, also thanks to Netlfix’s show Chef’s Table worldwide superstars and celebrities. As we continue our tour through the house, Emilia calls them all by their first names, as she is close to many of them and known in the world as “the queen of cookbooks”.
“Ferran actually introduced me to René (Redzepi). When we first started working with him, he was just a very talented Danish chef who was changing the world of gastronomy. He wasn’t as famous as he is now. He showed that the locality of a restaurant should be reflected in the menu. It gives it its own character, and a surprising element that you can’t find anywhere else. Ferran was the great innovator, and he was followed by the generation of René and Massimo who changed the world forever.” Massimo refers to Massimo Bottura. Also one of those contemporary superstar chefs. He made two books with Phaidon, Bread is Gold and his monograph bestseller with the catchy title Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef. “We were discussing a lot of titles at that time, and we were still deciding which direction to go. Massimo was in LA, and a man looked at him and said: I can’t trust a skinny Italian chef. That became the title. The cover is literally nothing but the title. But it still works very well.”
As the queen of cookbooks, one might expect Emilia to simply walk in every star restaurant in the world and immediately be pointed to her table. “I’m very privileged, but the key is to maintain good relationships with the people you work with. Making a book is a very long process, and in that process, you get to know each other very well. That’s why it’s important for me to have a good relationship with the person we work with, and to think very carefully about what our next project will be.”
Whatever that project may be, Phaidon has a knack for delivering great design, regardless of the subject. In Emilia’s living we find several examples like Annie Leibovitz At Work, last year’s magazine photography book Issues and the beautifully designed Vitamin T, which celebrates “Threads and Textiles in Contemporary Art”. “I look at every single page of every single book I publish, but I prefer to give the designers as much freedom as possible, so it’s really key to find the right person for the right project. We work very hard for that. It usually means that the designer comes with a concept that I wasn’t expecting, and that’s exactly what I want. For the cookbooks we have a guideline in terms of size, and the graphic covers, but they’re all done by different designers who understand the subject. You recognize them as a line because of the size and the covers, but they all have a very distinctive and unique design that keeps surprising.”
Great cookbooks are often balancing between utility and design. We often get remarks about photos of recipes that look amazing, but are impossible to make at home. Emilia sees a strong distinction between a recipe book, like Simple & Classic for instance, and a chef book like Aska. “If it’s a home cookbook, it has to have great recipes, natural photography and simple design. If it’s a chef book, to me it’s not about reproducing these recipes at home. It’s about inspiration, it’s about the story behind the restaurant and its recipes. If you buy a book about Richard Serra, you’re not going to make a 40,000 kilogram sculpture at home the next day. The recipes in Massimo’s book, for instance, are there to make you understand the dish or the technique, but an amateur cook wouldn’t be able to make it at home. It’s inspiration.”
As inspiration, or anything else, Phaidon’s cookbooks have proven to be quite successful. You can see it in our flagship store as well; the majority of the books you’ll find in our culinary section come from Phaidon and thus, from Emilia. She says: “I think that being a good publisher is two things: knowing what not to publish, and printing the right amount. For me success is when you sell the entire first run, so you’re able to decide whether you want to reprint. Sometimes that’s 50,000 copies, and sometimes that’s 2000. You have to understand how much the market will absorb and how much you can influence that. Publicity and marketing are very important, but also the booksellers. It’s a fine line between what people want, and what they would like but that they don’t know of yet.” Something that might have been easier when Emilia started in the publishing industry at Phaidon eighteen years ago. In nearly two decades, she has seen radical changes within the industry with sales numbers regrettably diminishing. “If you’re lazy, you’re out. There’s no way you can survive in this industry without a good idea. And if you have a good idea, you have to make sure that you find the right talent to execute that idea. That’s really all there is. Which may sound more simple than it actually is. But we’re no longer in the same market as we were twenty years ago. Everything is more fluid. Snarkitecture is a great example of that; are they artists or architects? Who cares? That’s what makes them interesting.”
Those multi-hyphenate artist identities like Snarkitecture’s Daniel Arsham, or fashion polymath Virgil Abloh, indeed seem to shape the direction in which we’re going. That is why their books, respectively, are more about sharing a vision, rather than simply showing their work. Emilia agrees: “If you want to show your work, a website is so much better. The archive of a website is much more easy to organize and browse through. That’s why for me monographs have to show a specific way of looking at the world and the work. Snarkitecture is not architecture and not art, you can’t really transpose that vision on a website. So that’s a great example of what makes a great book. It shouldn’t be objective at all, it should be very subjective. You can like it or not like it, whatever, it’s the vision of the artist, or cook, or architect, or designer.”
As we wrap up our tour through the house, the smell of great cooking waves through the hallways. The house help is cooking what seems to be a great pasta, but there surely is no cookbook involved. Here and there we pass a title we recognize, Where Chefs Eat for instance, one of Phaidon’s absolute bestsellers, and another book Emilia has worked on. With over eighteen years of experience and more than 500 titles under her name, we leave with the question what the future holds. “I just really want to learn something new everyday,” she says. “That can be a new recipe, or the work of an artist, or looking at photography—it’s the power of knowledge that makes it interesting for me. And books are undeniably the best way to do that.”
Check some of the culinary books published by Emilia Terragni.
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