We sent Laurel Charles, a junior staffer at loud paper, to hear magazine-publisher-of-the-moment Tyler Brûlé speak as the final installment in Commodity and Delight, a series of talks about graphic design put on by the SFMOMA. She took BART from our East Bay headquarters and sat in with the fabulous and the fantastic at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. What follows is more than the story of Wallpaper* magazine. It’s the story of a man, a vision and ultimately, a brand.
The Canadian urban modernist with peculiar fitting pants stared into the lights of the Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens and began to recount his war stories from Afghanistan. "I made the driver stop and pile metal ashtrays in the shape of MIGs into the trunk. They were beautiful and about twenty-five cents apiece." Sadly, the ashtrays were lost after gunfire riddled the car and Mr. Brûlé.
It was while convalescing at his parents’ house that he came up with the idea for Wallpaper*. His vision: "It should be a magazine about the stuff that surrounds you...." Apparently, the stuff that surrounds Mr. Brûlé is not standard-issue chintz and clutter, but cool modern design and models with beautiful milky skin. No Nan Goldin-chic for Wallpaper*. Brûlé’s goal for the magazine is to be "upbeat, positive and optimistic." It is the perfect poolside companion for any urban modernist or global navigator.
I love Martha Stewart’s Living, but my friends and I don’t have golden retrievers and garden parties, we live in the city.
That is the crux of the publication. It is a male-inclusive, urban version of Living (both a man and a woman are featured on the cover each month.) Only this magazine takes into account the reader so entirely that it demands only the most beautiful advertisements. Those not up to Wallpaper* snuff are simply sent back. The advertisements are returned for redesign not by sheer whim, since a budding magazine cannot afford to alienate its advertisers, but for the integrity of the whole magazine. The first half of "the book," as Tyler calls the publication, is designed "against the ads."
The look of the magazine merges with advertisements to create a seamless experience for the reader. In order to maintain the high quality of design in the magazine and to drum up some extra cash for his design staff, Brûlé began Wink Media. It is a spin-off of Wallpaper* that acts as an advertising agency for needy Wallpaper* advertisers. This handholding between the media and the advertiser is, as explained by Brûlé, entirely innocent and in the best interest of the reader, since nobody wants to look at ugly pages. But the blatant reality of this union is a bit unsettling.
Features and copy are also designed to incorporate product. The feature section entitled The Space (Tyler’s favorite section) takes a newly built architectural masterpiece a David Chipperfield or something, and adds models, vintage and new modern furniture and a load of stylish accessories. A Danish glass ashtray, a Calvin Klein linen napkin or any piece in the photo spreads is consumable. Prices, in local currency, are listed as well as a place for purchase.
Anyone looking for celebs should look elsewhere. Wallpaper* doesn’t show what they have; it shows what you could have. There are no one-of-a-kind curios, only consumable products. The Wallpaper* philosophy calls for anonymity and projection. The spaces are nameless, the dreams and desires are your own. The houses are literally stripped bare of all furniture and filled with new things for shoots. Brûlé feels that celebrity houses are best left to In-Style magazine, which, as Tyler says, isn’t half bad for that sort of thing.
Imagine my surprise when, late in the talk, Mr. Brûlé revealed his true aspirations for the magazine - brand Wallpaper*. I had naïvely thought that WP was driven from a designer’s perspective. That would explain the amazing interiors, graphics, and Albert Frey/ Palm Spring resurrections. (When asked about his architectural motives, TB diverted to marketability and style. It would seem that, packaged a la 1960, buildings sell magazines. Tell that to Architectural Record.) But Wallpaper* is as much of a product as the items it promotes within its full bleed, glossy pages. It targets a narrow market that is seeking a vicarious, up to the minute lifestyle. Of the twenty people on staff, only one and a half (Tyler and his art director) lead the Wallpaper* life. The poor souls who haven’t flown on the Concorde are out of luck. But if Brûlé’s pants (shiny, creased and ill-fitting Prada things) are part of the lifestyle being sold at Harvey Nichols, then I, for one, will keep to the loud paper life.