Les Mason – Epicurean magazine 1966 – 1979

Published:  October 12, 2010
Brendan McKnight
Les Mason – Epicurean magazine 1966 – 1979

Art director, photographer, artist, enfant terrible… Les Mason is a seminal figure in Australian graphic design’s brief history.

Curated by Dominic Hofstede, ‘Les Mason – Epicurean magazine 1966 – 1979’ is currently showing at Melbourne’s The Narrows and is the first significant exploration of what many regard as Mason’s defining work. This exhibition displays all 77 issues ofEpicurean designed by Mason, as well as examples of original artwork and miscellaneous ephemera.

Under the watchful eye of owner and founder Alan Holdsworth, Epicurean has spread its influence across both the design and food worlds, inspiring young chefs and designers in equal measure.

We caught up with Dominic Hofstede to find out more.

Epicurean 36

Epicurean 36

Epicurean 27

Epicurean 27

Hi Dominic, how did this exhibition come about, and what inspired you to curate it?
I had been interested in documenting the industry’s history for a while, specifically the formative period between the 1960s–1980s. There is a dearth of information available and Les’ passing last year really highlighted the need for some form of acknowledgment. I met with Warren Taylor (director, The Narrows) late in the year and we discussed doing a project together at The Narrows. Epicurean was a perfect fit for the space.

The thing that stood out the most for me is that the mastheads were completely different from issue to issue. Was this a common hallmark for magazines of the time – or is this something that was particularly unique to Epicurean?
A magazine’s masthead has long been its key signature (Vogue, for example). I think Epicurean was quite unique in the way it changed not just its masthead, but also the cover treatment every issue. Sometimes a photograph, sometimes an illustration, sometimes both. Interestingly, the covers also had little or no connection to the internal content. I asked Pat Grainger, who worked with Les for many years on the magazine, about this and she simply said it was an opportunity for experimentation too good to miss. I think it also was expedient as they may not have received editorial content until quite late in the piece.

Epicurean 17

Epicurean 17

Epicurean 71

Epicurean 71

Do you think this would help or hinder a contemporary publication’s brand / shelf familiarity?
I think it’s probably more common these days (Monster Children comes to mind), but not in the food and wine area, and certainly not in the mainstream titles. As to whether it helps or hinders familiarity, a title like Monster Children has a very specific market who no doubt connect with the notion of constant change and recognise the magazine because it is always in a state of flux. Horses for courses I guess.

Each cover looks completely different to the next, however as a collection they work together perfectly and seamlessly. Why do you think this is so?
Because they had a single creative overseer. Mason was given complete freedom by his client so there is very little evidence of his vision being disrupted. I think they are also united by their inconsistency. They are predictably unpredictable, and curiously that makes them a family.

Alan Holdsworth had a great deal of trust and confidence in Mason, giving him free reign to experiment visually within the publication – what was their relationship like?
From what I have been told (Holdsworth died in the 1970s), it seems they had a relationship based on trust, and without the complication of money. Holdsworth seems to have placed a great deal of faith in his designer from the very beginning, but he also paid only a very small fee. This meant Les always had the upper hand creatively, but I think over time they developed a mutual respect. This quote from Mason sums it up best:
‘It is rare in a designer’s life to feel as if he is making some sort of contribution to society or his own life. I was very fortunate in 1966 to have a man come into my studio who was to become my client and my friend. He was going to start a small wine and food magazine; no money and especially no money for me. I was thrilled. We worked together and drank wine together for the next 11 years until his death. I give tribute to Mr Alan Holdsworth who enabled me to do some of my best work.’ (First Choice, 1989)

Do you have any plans to continue the nature of this exhibition – championing great Australian designers from the past? What are some other great designers / publications from yesteryear that you believe deserve significant recognition?
There are many who deserve recognition, but these projects are a large commitment in time and energy. That is mainly because of the amount of energy involved in research; as I said before there are very few publications available about the industry’s pioneers. In terms of who those people are, the best place to start is probably AGDA’s Hall of Fame.

Epicurean 32

Epicurean 32

Australia does not have a permanent collection / museum space celebrating Australian design (ala The London Design Museum or Cooper Hewitt). Why do you think this is, and do you believe that there is a need for one?
It’s a cliché, but the relatively small size of the design community means that it is difficult to attract funding or sponsorship for such a venture. There is an ever-increasing need for such a space here, as many collections are disappearing simply because there is no obvious place for them.

Besides for Mason’s work on Epicurean, what other legacy and impact has he left behind for the Australian design community?
His legacy is perhaps best understood through his work on Epicurean. Mason inspired his colleagues to aim higher in their work, to push things further. He introduced a completely different dynamic to the industry, an energy that is visible in those covers. He was very outspoken, and people respected his directness, though it also made him a target.

Epicurean 41

Epicurean 41

Through your research in curating this exhibition, what have you learnt and what do you believe contemporary graphic designers can learn from it?
Ideas, ideas, ideas. When you look at the covers, you see Mason’s intellect at work. I think many contemporary designers rely on their hard drives for answers; Les’ generation had to think and visualise their ideas. The other thing that seems obvious is that much of his inspiration came from outside design. You can see art behind much of his thinking, and that’s a good lesson for many young designers who reach for the latest ‘World’s Best 1000 Logos’ book for solutions.

‘Les Mason – Epicurean magazine 1966 – 1979’ is currently showing at Melbourne’s The Narrows until November 13.

14 Responses

  1. JR

    covers looks wicked, i’ll go check it out next week.

  2. julia

    I went to see this last week, such a beautiful collection of covers. Very inspiring!

  3. Pingback: box » Blog Archive » Les Mason / Epicurean Magazine 1966–1979

  4. I remember the magazines very well. Always exciting awaiting each new issue. Great stuff. Brings back some great memories of great Australian graphic design.

  5. Haydn Deane

    I have many copies of Epicurean Magazine in my collection of wine associated publications. If anyone interested in them send email at address provided. HD

  6. I just found a complete set of these issues at my grandma’s house – Each is more amazing than the last!

  7. I should mention if anyone is looking to purchase them please email info@sophielord.com.au

    • Eric Burrows

      Hi Sophie

      If they are still available, we would be very interested. But your email address no longer seems valid. Could you please update it? Regards

      • Leigh Batchelor

        I have 92 volumes of The Epicurean starting from Vol 31 April 1971 through to Vol 135 Autumn 1989 (which may have been the last before morphing into Gourmet magazine) which I would like to sell. All in excellent condition in original “The Epicurean” binders.

        • Michael Hince

          Hello Leigh

          Am researching Epicurean and would love to gain access to your collection if you still have it.


          Michael Hince

  8. Eric Burrows

    Have only just seen your message, and would be very interested in the volumes – just hope you still have them!

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