The latest title from Workman Publishing’s Flow series is The Big Book of Less, encouraging mindfulness and decluttering, not just of physical stuff but of emotional and mental stuff as well. It will be on the shelves in April 2019, in time for Mother’s Day, executive editor Megan Nicolay tells me. We are sitting in her office in New York, surrounded by the delightful and colorful graphics that appear in the book.
The series is a partnership with Astrid van der Hulst and Irene Smit, the creators of the Dutch magazine Flow. The two editors were working at Marie Claire in the Netherlands when, 10 years ago, they were asked by parent company Sanoma, one of the biggest media companies in the country, to think about a new magazine. They were both working mothers struggling with time and responsibilities. “We sat together in Irene’s attic with piles of ideas and developed the concept for Flow,” van der Hulst says. “We wanted a magazine about us: real lives, real people, about embracing failures, daily life, tiny pleasures.”
A key to the magazine’s concept was paper. “We have a good gut feeling for what is happening, what the zeitgeist is,” Smit says. “And we both love paper. It’s such a simple, basic product, but when you turn it into something, it’s suddenly a gift. How good does it feel to receive a handwritten letter, to wrap a present in beautiful printed paper? And, of course, we love the smell of it and how it feels.”
The creation of Flow is a bit of a love story—with paper, with the tactile, with discovering what’s important. Nicolay says the magazine resonates in an increasingly digital world. It publishes six international English-language editions per year (in addition to German and French editions) and special editions, one of which, Flow: A Book for Paper Lovers, “with more than 300 pages of paper Goodies” (which is what van der Hulst and Smit call the mini cards, paper dolls, wrapping paper, postcards, and other inserts in the book), led to the serendipitous relationship with Workman.
A photo director at Workman stumbled upon Flow: A Book for Paper Lovers, which led to a meeting with van der Hulst and Smit, who were in New York for a Barnes Noble event. The agreement to collaborate began via email and video chats, and when Nicolay went to Amsterdam in 2015 to see her sister, the visit gave her the opportunity to look through the Flow archives with the two editors to determine the direction of the first projects.
The line launched in 2017 with A Book That Takes Its Time, The Tiny Book of Tiny Pleasures, and the 2018 Year of Tiny Pleasures Page-a-Day Calendar. It’s since expanded to include more calendar versions and a line of stationery. Workman has world rights except for basically anywhere Dutch is spoken. A Book That Takes Its Time has 205,000 copies in print to date.
The Big Book of Less continues the theme of simplifying readers’ lives. It is, according to Nicolay, about finding balance, cleaning out, leaving room for what matters. “It’s nostalgic—an anti-page-turner,” she says. “It revels in idleness, in the joy of delicious nothingness.”
Smit explains that she grew up with two working parents and a “very feminist” mother. “She always told me if I studied and worked hard, I could have anything I wanted. I became a real perfectionist, thinking there would be a sort of pot of gold waiting for me at the end of the rainbow: a happy family life, nice house, great job, lovely children, and lots of friends. By the time I was in my late 30s, I had almost everything on my wish list, but I wasn’t happy. I felt stressed all the time, and then I started following a mindfulness course, and I started to look at life differently.”
Van der Hulst had the traumatic experience of losing a child when she was eight months pregnant. “I used to be a reasonably optimistic person, but after that I turned into a real coward, terrified that something bad would happen,” she says. “And then Irene jumped in. We were working together, and she invited me to go with her to a mindfulness course. And so, every Tuesday, for eight weeks, we drove from our work as magazine editors in the city to a village in the woods and ate not-so-tasty sushi or salad from the supermarket on a park bench before we went in to the mindfulness course. I immediately found it a relief and learned that you can think differently about things, and the advice was practical and applicable in daily life. For me, it was the beginning of so many beautiful things: making Flow with Irene and—something else that mindfulness gave me—a love for nature and for silence.”
Smit and van der Hulst live their philosophy, enviably. Every Wednesday, Smit says, they sit together “in a nice coffee shop with a latte and no smartphones or computers,” talking about their lives, what’s happening in society, and about friends. “That’s when the best ideas pop up,” she adds. “We call these our golden hours.”
And the loveliest piece, to me, of their collaboration? “We sometimes feel overwhelmed and need some time to unplug, to walk in the dunes”—both women live close to the sea—“or some time for our family, for instance,” Smit says. “Whenever we feel like this, we tell each other, and the other person takes over for as long as necessary.”
Smit and van der Hulst agree that Workman is a perfect fit. “The vibe in their company is amazing,” Smit says. “We never could have dreamed this would happen when we started making a magazine 10 years ago. Last spring, in New York, we were saying, ‘Oh look!’ all the time, because we kept seeing Flow products in windows, on magazine shelves, and in bookstores everywhere. We had to pinch each other’s arms to make sure it was real.”