Ben Olins, co-founder of Herb Lester, is the creative cartographer who publishes maps of cities the world over, carefully curating a selection of quirky and unusual destinations. He has a knack for melding vibrant contemporary illustration with witty editorial content resulting in unique, fold out pocket guides. We’ve been avid collectors of theirs for many years, so we were thrilled to talk to Ben about his hidden gems and growing collection of postcards.
Hello Ben! Tell us about Herb Lester and how it came to be.
Jane and I decided we’d start something ourselves after working together in other companies. We began by creating a guide that solved a problem we were experiencing, which was where to meet and work when you don’t have an office. That guide was called You Are Here: The Best Places To Meet And Work In London.
Quite quickly we realised that people liked it, and so we decided to do more. Now we’ve published 60 or so guides, a set of fictional hotel notepads, playing cards, phrase books, three books and there’s much more to come.
We think Herb Lester sounds like a very worldly, dapper gentleman. Tell us more about this fascinating character and how you execute such a knowledgeable tone of voice.
That’s kind of you to say. I think of the Herb Lester persona as a bit like a mask that Jane and I can both wear; he has aspects of each of our characters and our taste, but he’s a bit more than the sum of those parts. It’s hard to talk about him without sounding slightly crazy or wildly pretentious, as I may have just demonstrated.
We look at a lot of work online, and saving portfolios and people we think might be good to work with in the future. When we have a project almost ready we try to find someone we feel has some connection or affinity with the idea. We’ve been really fortunate with the people we’ve worked with. May we have an Oscar acceptance moment? Jim Datz, Martin Azambuja, Kelli Anderson, Mike McQuade, Peder Bernhardt, Brent Couchman… we couldn’t have done it without you.
Herb Lester HQ looks like a fun place to work. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Unsurprisingly, we look at a lot of old books and magazines like Holiday, The New London Spy and Kate Simon’s travel books. We also like new design and often find new designers online on book cover sites like The Casual Optimist and the Book Cover Archive. We also go to bookshops to see new titles in their natural setting and how they compete for attention.
By the looks of your bookshelves and pin boards, we imagine you’ve collected some brilliant printed matter and ephemera over the years. In what way does stationery and / or paper play a part in your creative process?
It’s the end product of course, but like most people we spend most of the time staring at screens. In the office paper is used for sums, notes and checking proofs. We stick things up on the wall and boards too, which is mostly ephemera that we gather as we travel - napkins, coasters, business cards and postcards These are things that strike us as interesting, beautiful or just particularly redolent of the place they come from. Quite often we’ll send things like that to the illustrator as a reference.
We love the look of ‘Good Times With Maps’, what’s the story behind this intriguing title?
We collect old maps and guides and this was one that we found some time ago. It’s an American children’s book that explains how maps work. The title promises so much, but whether it really delivers on good times I’m not sure!
Why did you choose London as the city to base Herb Lester? What is it like as a city for working and creating?
We didn’t really choose it – it’s home. It’s a wonderful base in many ways, there’s always so much to do and new things to see, even after a lifetime here. On the other hand, it’s a punishingly expensive place to live and work, and the pace of change can be a little alarming.
Do you get the opportunity to visit many of the cities you publish your maps on?
We go to most of them, and if we can’t, we have someone there to write for us.
We have the person who’s using our guide in mind all the time - we know what it’s like to trek out to a place that’s been recommended and then be disappointed! By going ourselves we hope that other people won’t have the same experience. We work hard to make sure that you’ll have a great trip if you use one of our guides!
What is your favourite hidden gem or fascinating fact about a city that you’ve discovered?
I ate some pretty good currywurst in Hamburg at a tiny counter that’s been open since 1961, which is the sort of experience we look for everywhere we go. I love independent businesses that do one thing well, and that was a textbook example.
At the other extreme, in London, on the banks of the Thames, Two Temple Place is a late Victorian gothic mansion that’s only open to the public for a few months a year. Built for William Waldorf Astor, who was at the time one of the world’s richest men, it’s beautiful and a little crazy: carved mahogany panelling, stained glass, marble and parquet floors, a staircase with carved figures from Robin Hood as newel posts. It was a fairly new discovery for me, and an immediate favourite.
We love the new maps on Helsinki and Venice. Are there any new destinations on the cards?
Yes, always! Next up are Porto and Valencia – both great cities for a quick break. Then Milan, Hamburg and Liverpool. There’s a new London book in the works too, and much more. As long as people are interested, we’ll keep suggesting great places to go.
Thank you Ben!