When Belgian automotive journalist Bart Lenaerts and his wife Lies De Mol, photographer, started Waft exactly ten years ago, they did not have a roadmap for success in mind. Bart wanted to do something original with cars and publishing books, only because he had a gut feeling that there was an unserved audience amongst car lovers. He started with a blank canvas and ten years later it led to a series of unconventional, inspiring car books, several prizes, international recognition by the most famous brands and car designers and the crown on their latest jewel; the international prize for ‘Best car book of the World’. Being a fan of their work from the beginning, we thought it was about time to have a ‘cars & coffee talk’ with the people behind Waft.
Bart, you have produced a series of books about cars, cult, travel and designers by the name of Waft. What’s the idea behind the series?
Waft 1, our first book, was just a series of stories we wanted to produce and not really a masterplan. It was a bit weird and it is difficult to explain. In the book publishing world, most car books are quite focused on one model or brand. Our book is neither a magazine nor a typical book. After the launch, we discovered that our audience was one that had remained unserved until then. Most of our clients share a love for cars, but not for the stereotypical setting around it. They are not a member of a car club, nor do they visit F1 races or car fairs and they do not fancy car merchandise either. Our audience for the most part comprises of architects, people from the advertising or film industry, but also people with more normal jobs. People who enjoy their hobby, simply on their own without the need to share this with the rest of the world. They dislike events like the Gumball Rally or the fanatic Petrolhead talk. They share the love for cars and the stories around them. Our first book did not even have a car on the cover but an oil spill instead; we tend to be as ‘atypical’ as our audience.
When the first book was published, did it lead to immediate success?
After publication, we have sent it to several car magazines for a review. Most of them initially disliked it; only Paris Match understood our different approach and gave it a great review. The first book, although in English, therefore had tremendous success in France. Afterwards it grew organically, our business originates from 80% automotive journalism and 20% editorial work, but these days it is the other way around. Waft became a real brand and a series of books, which was not our objective at all. It would be cool to claim we had spread out a secret masterplan for success, but sometimes things just fall into the right places. After all, books are a serious business.
Does the name ‘Waft’ have a meaning?
Yes, it does in English, you cannot translate it to other languages. ‘To waft’ is an old English verb that means ‘gently move through the air’. You can use it for certain music, laughter, perfume, etc. Rolls Royce used the word to explain that their cars do not just drive away, but ‘waft’, slowly moving away, almost gliding. It is the contrary of drifting and the word has elegance all over it. As a remarkable side note: most native English speakers are unfamiliar with the old verb. But the word just fits our style.
Companies focus more and more on digital platforms and social media. How does that make you feel as a pure print publisher?
We do worry about this evolution. We have a love for print, but the heyday for general mass print publishers is over. We used to work a lot for several car magazines until the crisis struck in 2008 and subsequently a huge number of magazines simply disappeared. Print has been punched away in a dark corner, and internet and social media have taken over. We do notice that big car brands are very slowly coming back to printed media and they start to realize that clicks are not selling more cars and that feedback on Instagram does not equal real life feedback from buyers. We strongly believe that there is a need to give something ‘real’ to customers. Our believe is that paper remains stronger than a computer screen.
What is your unique angle and market approach?
We always keep the people behind the cars and the cultural aspect in mind. There is no focus on facts and figures at all. In everything we do we aim for the best result possible without making any compromises. We operate in a small niche, selling directly and via 6 dealers worldwide. One guy once told me: your marketing is brilliant! Extremely funny, as we have no marketing plan, maybe that is the brilliant idea (laughs)! We have mixed feelings about our organization, on the one hand we remain small, independent and flexible, but on the other hand, we could use some extra hands to promote our business and follow-up on our organization. Besides the two of us, we collaborate with two excellent art directors. Most of our clients like this lean and mean approach.
What is the latest project you’re working on?
Currently we are working for Aston Martin. We are extremely proud that they asked us to create an exclusive series of seven books, all connected and comprising 1.200 pages in total, about the new Flagship car the Valkyrie they are co-creating with Red Bull. Every buyer of one of the 150 Valkyries will receive an exclusive series of seven books all dedicated to the design, details, visons, manufacturing and the team behind the car. When one episode is published every client receives a new book, which is a chapter of the series. We just released part one. It is a really insane but cool project for a small company as Waft. We participate in the design meetings, meet all the people behind the brand, really a marvelous story. To be involved in a project about a car that will become as iconic as the McLaren F1 or the Ferrari 250 GTO, makes our hearts beat faster (laughs).
Your picture book ‘276.864 kilometres’ recently won the prize of ‘Le plus beau livre du monde’. This must mean something to you.
Absolutely, Waft 2 was awarded the same prize in the past. It is a prestigious concours focusing hard on car design, which works well for us. We just have a good general understanding with designers.
Why do you have such a strong focus on design?
It is my conviction that people do not buy cars anymore because of numbers and figures. The current technology reached an absurd level of performance that outperforms most drivers. Therefore, I believe that good car design leads to emotion and a state of beauty.
What about your inspiration? Does it never end?
Apparently, it does not. Our biggest frustration is that at the end of the day we lack some hours to execute all of our ideas (laughs). I will never be able to write all of the stories that are still pending on my bucket list. Our inspiration comes from travelling, doing new things that we have not done before, visiting expositions, concerts, opera, etc. It is a matter of scrapping ideas and never settling until you are satisfied.
© Pictures: Lies De Mol