Herb Lester interview

Herb Lester Associates, aka Ben Olins and Jane Smillie, work with some of the best designers and illustrators out there to produce wonderful maps and guides to the smashingest cities in the world (so far: lots of London, a bit of New York and Paris). Only a few quid each, they're beautiful little things that can turn a weekend away into a great adventure.

I pestered them to find out a bit more …

First of all, why "Herb Lester"?

Because we wanted a boss. Someone to offer advice and encouragement, who’d know what to do when things get sticky, and when to give us a push. We had a list of characteristics and requirements our ideal employer would have, and that seemed like the sort of person who’d be named Herb Lester.

So, the maps. Everyone has Google maps and a web full of city guides in their pockets these days. Why make old fashioned, foldy, inky things?

Old fashioned, foldy, inky things have personality, something which Google maps and web guides lack. But the limitations of the format also force you to be selective, to only recommend things you genuinely believe to be good. It’s a fallacy that comprehensive listings are useful, when really they’re just confusing – it’s so much easier when someone makes a decision for you.

The other great thing of course is that you can write notes on paper. We met someone the other day who’d taken Where The Sidewalk Ends to New York and added her own notes and comments, it was lovely to see.

They're wonderfully specific (I particularly like the idea of the new Uncle's Guide to London) – how do you decide what would make a good theme for a guide?

It’s pretty much down to what we find interesting or intriguing. We try to find a slightly different way to approach a familiar subject, which is what we’ve done with our Uncle’s Guide to London. That could be “kids London”, but the way we approach it editorially, we hope, shifts it from the mundane into something you might enjoy reading.

Other times, like a B-movie producer we’ll have a title we like and then fit a map to it.  There are several of these waiting to be brought to life.

You must always be looking for places to map. Do you now see the world in a slightly different way, with every moment you spend outdoors full of cartographic potential?

Not in an obsessive way, but certainly we are always thinking about maps, and places we might include. There are some places which we love but can’t think of a suitable map for, so that’s how we try to use Herb Visits on our website.

Are you surrounded by old maps for inspiration? Do you have any particular favourites?

Old guide books rather than maps have been the main inspiration. The more opinionated and eccentric the better. There are a lot of favourites. Betty James wrote a series of London guidebooks which we love. She’s bossy and intolerant and also really funny, she begins a chapter on art galleries with this: “More esoteric twaddle is reeled off about Art even than about wine.”

The New London Spy is wonderful and Geoffrey Fletcher’s many books, obviously. We collect issues of Holiday magazine, which had crazy features like Jack Kerouac writing about New York (cover art on that issue by Herb Lubalin), and regular contributions from Ronald Searle. We have a small stockpile of some favourite guide books which will go into our shop soon.

Any hints for what to expect in the next batch of maps?

The next one is another Companion - look far north! We have a few more London maps planned, but we’re definitely heading back to continental europe and the USA before the year’s end.

Pop over to the Herb Lester Associates shop to get your hands on some maps.