The Thing About The Thing

By Matt Haber
Photography: Nick Kova

Before The Thing became a thing—and way before it became The Thing: The Book and started attracting big companies like Levi’s and Nike—it was just an unnamed project that Will Rogan and Jonn Herschend talked about while in grad school at U.C. Berkeley in 2005. They were drawn to each other’s art—Rogan had been working with old magazines, Herschend with PowerPoint—and they wanted to collaborate on something that involved language. Maybe it would be a magazine. Maybe something more. It was all very unclear back then.


“We’d say, ‘Hey, let’s meet about the thing,’” recalled Rogan recently from their storefront office and gallery space in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

The name never materialized, but The Thing did. Almost ten years later, it’s a quarterly art subscription service that features objects, usually combined with text, created in collaboration with artists like Miranda July who conceived a pull-down shade, Starlee Kine, who offers an onion-cutting board designed for crying, and James Franco, whose tribute to the late child actor Brad Renfro includes a lipstick signed mirror and print of the actor-writer-poet-director-artist having Renfro’s name carved into his flesh.


The Thing now churns out art with the regularity of a small publication and has started working with companies like Levi’s and Nike to create Thing-like marketing projects. They also just launched their own book imprint with a collection of art flyers titled S.F. Trippy Mission: Lives & Art 1989-2002 and are currently hosting an Evel Knievel ephemera show in their gallery.


This month, Chronicle Books releases The Thing: The Book, a handsomely-produced clothbound omnibus featuring work by old and new collaborators. In many ways it’s a retrospective of The Thing’s first decade, but it’s also a way to the present their work to a larger audience and, hopefully, grow their business in the process.


Yes, their business. “A big part of keeping the creative thing going is the business,” Rogan said. “And a lot of that stuff is a total pain in the ass. Taxes suck. Payroll sucks. At the end of the day, we want to be involved with the artists and the things, but over the course of making the decision to treat it like a business, we’ve found lots of pleasure points in that activity.”


So, how do a couple of artists run a business?


Like a big art project, it turns out.


On a Wednesday night in September, dozens of subscribers, friends and fellow artists packed into The Thing’s space to wrap issue #24, a gatefold record made as a collaboration between the fashion label Rodarte, Los Angeles-based band No Age, and photographer Todd Cole. As an old Nancy Sinatra record spun on the hifi and beer flowed from a mini-keg, each issue was wrapped in foam and slid into a box. The feeling was loose, collaborative, and very lively. If the assembled cohort felt like they were doing scut work, no one complained for a second. It felt more like a party than work—and that was exactly the point. (The pizza probably helped.)


The next day, hundreds of issues sat in boxes lining the walls as Rogan and Herschend talked about this Thing of theirs. “At this point, we’ve acknowledged we’re a business. There are things that are at stake that we have to respond to in order to keep the creative part going,” Rogan said.


“We’ve had to catch up with the business aspects, how to work with an accountant and a lawyer and all of these things,” he said. “Most of the time it’s fun and creative, it’s an interesting challenge. Sometimes it’s weird.”


“In some ways I’m still attached to thinking about it as ‘this project.’ And in some ways, maintaining that perspective on it for us has kept it feeling like it’s ours. It’s important for this business feel authentic,” Rogan said.


“The nature of what we’re doing here, it’s hard for it to feel too work-y. You have to creatively think. I think we still come at the issues with the same spirit we had at the beginning.”


One way they keep that spirit alive is cultivating an informal workplace. There are no walls at The Thing: Everyone works side-by-side and phone calls are occasionally interrupted by colleagues handing each other notes. If the founders need to have a private conversation, they go for lunch or a bike ride. If anyone wants to make a private call, they go into the bathroom or the storage room.


“Everything feels really transparent,” said managing editor Sarah Simon.


“It’s a cafe,” Herschend said with a laugh.


The day runs from 10am to 5pm. “We try to hold those hours. That’s when work gets done unless there’s a deadline,” Herschend said. “There might be a Saturday text, but I feel like we’re all apologetic.”


“Everyone trusts everyone else. If I don’t come in because I have to go out of town, I’m assuming everyone knows that I’ll get my load done,” Herschend continued.


Each member of the team is encouraged to pursue their own side projects. Rogan and Herschend still work on their own art. Simon plays in a band called Magic Magic Roses. “There’s a nice respect for peoples lives. A space to cultivate our own thing,” Simon said. “Isn’t that like the French way?” (“Print that!” Herschend insists)


French way or not, so far, it’s been the best way for The thing. “We started it resisting a predominant structure,” Rogan said. “We were already not fitting in.”

“I like to work, but I don’t want to be in a situation where people feel like they just have to work to show that they’re working,” Herschend said. “We’re running a business now. We get to make the rules.”