Entries in Elle Decor (1)

Friday
Feb042011

Architectural Digest, Margaret Russell, Daphne Guinness, Digital Publishing Futures 

[ED: The article that follows, published in yesterday's Times, contains a quote from the incredible and ever-fabulous Joan Kron, author of the classics "HIGH-TECH" and "Home-Psych", and also of the article "The House & Garden Blues", which I've reprinted here with her kind permission. Read both. The images are of Daphne Guinness' Manhattan apartment, taken from the March issue of Architecural Digest and included only as an example of work that most likely would never have appeared under the direction of Paige Rense.]

"'The Age of Elegance' states the cover of the March issue of Architectural Digest, sounding somewhat hopeful. The bright pink affirmation declares a new brief for a once-mighty title that has been struggling, and a statement of intent from its new editor, Margaret Russell, who was until last summer the very steady helmsman of a competitor, Elle Décor.

Like the wardrobe of a successful movie mogul of a certain age, Architectural Digest telegraphed money, but not always taste. Its new editor, Margaret Russell, hopes to add both.

Like so many shelter magazines, Architectural Digest has not been a happy home of late. Once the leader in its glossy domain, it has lost market share — nearly half of its pre-recession ad dollars — as well as its relevance to buzzier titles, or what’s left of them, anyway. And when its longtime editor, Paige Rense Noland, retired in June, it wasn’t much of a surprise when Ms. Russell was announced as her replacement. The only question was to what degree she would renovate the iconic magazine, which had rolled out inexorably month after month, decade after decade, largely unchanged. Would she gut the place? Or just repaint?

It was noon on a recent weekday, and Ms. Russell, telegenic and wasp-waisted in a black-and-white wool dress, pivoted neatly about her silvery new office on a high floor of the Condé Nast building at 4 Times Square, wearing one black surgical boot and one knee-high Prada platform boot — a mash-up of footwear that was part lady editor, part X-Games survivor. (Ms. Russell, 52, is a former jogger who has spent the last two years in a cast for various foot injuries.) 'Tell me I don’t look like "That Girl," ' she said to a photographer, raking her dark hair with her fingers.

In a world where appearances are currency, it is worth noting that the not-quite-finished office, designed by Michael Smith, President Obama’s decorator and one of Ms. Russell’s best friends, presented mostly reflective surfaces." [1]

"There were purple peonies on a mirrored desk and a hunk of pink crystal on a mirrored side table. White narcissus nodded over Ms. Russell’s lunch, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich sitting on its white paper wrapper. When she was done with it, Ms. Russell decanted two bright red Tylenol capsules from a silver pillbox, a present from the decorator Rose Tarlow, and swallowed them with some Diet Pepsi, noting that on the card accompanying her gift, Ms. Tarlow had written, 'Bigger job, bigger headache.'

But it would be a mistake to think that Ms. Russell is in any way hobbled. With a reputation as a disciplined steward of Elle Décor, her home for 21 years (10 of which she spent as editor in chief), she is tough enough for her new responsibility: a complete housecleaning of a powerful magazine that has lost much of its wattage. Thrifty (note the peanut butter and jelly) and exacting, Ms. Russell is also well poised to enter the corporate culture of Condé Nast, which is newly schooled in belt-tightening.

'Someone asked me, when I got the job, if I was scared,' she said, the March issue sitting on a table before her. 'Why would I be scared? What possible decorating disaster is going to come my way?'

The magazine’s white-bannered cover and manly title still look familiar, vaguely European, like an auction catalog. Michael Smith had the money shot on the cover, with a sumptuous gold-and-silver living room.

Inside, the pages have been tweaked — lightened and brightened — for a 21st-century reader. A slightly younger reader. Captions, once clouds of adjectives and atmosphere, now briskly emphasize sources.

The magazine is also, for the first time, rather stylish. There is work by Commune, a California design collective, and a feature about the home of Muriel Brandolini, a decorator known for her high-bohemian style, tucked in among more-sober offerings, like a traditional-looking Mississippi house by Richard Keith Langham.

Architectural Digest has been many, many things: a record of power, of the good life as lived by presidents, titans of industry and Hollywood royalty, a catalog of important historic homes. But it has never been exactly modish, particularly in the last two decades. Its photography had begun to seem unsophisticated, too flat and bright; its layout stiff and dated, redolent of the 1980s, its heyday. Like the wardrobe of a successful movie mogul of a certain age, it telegraphed money, but not always taste.

As one decorator observed, 'Everything looked like a hotel lobby.'

Not that it mattered. Ms. Noland once told a reporter, 'People are much too concerned with having good taste. I mean, it’s not a character flaw if you don’t have good taste.' " [1]

"Joan Kron, a journalist whose 1990 profile of Ms. Noland in The New York Times Magazine described a gutsy, largely self-invented businesswoman who ran away from her adopted parents at 15, recalled a Tina Brown dictum to describe AD’s gestalt. 'It’s the idea that every issue of the magazine has to have something vulgar in it,' Ms. Brown said. 'I think Paige understood that intuitively, and so there were always these over-the-top places. The whole thing about AD was that it was like some kind of dream.'

 

Advertisers, noting an affluent readership that was nearly 50 percent male, doted on it. And so it was that Architectural Digest enjoyed a long, long run at the top of the shelter heap. 'It owned the upscale shelter category,' said Martin Walker, a media consultant.

 

Thirty-five years ago, when it was a trade magazine covering the building industry, Ms. Noland reconfigured it as something more luxurious, and by the 1980s, advertisers were flocking to the Los Angeles-based publication. In the middle of that decade, House & Garden was redesigned in imitation of it, infuriating Ms. Noland. When Condé Nast bought Architectural Digest in 1993, it folded House & Garden, for the first time. The company exhumed it a few years later, and Ms. Noland reportedly said, 'I killed it once, I’ll kill it again.'

 

Her focus was simple — she showed the work of the designers who were outfitting the halls of power — and she ran the magazine fiercely, like the head of an old-fashioned Hollywood studio, rewarding her favorite architects and designers with regular features, enfolding writers like Judith Thurman, Peter Haldeman and Nancy Collins in generous contracts. She offered golden handcuffs, and her contributors and the designers themselves were grateful to be encircled by them.

 

'There was that sense that you owed your best work to Paige,' said Victoria Hagan, a Manhattan decorator first featured in AD in the mid-1990s." [1]

"Being in Ms. Noland’s glossy pages could make a career. Or at the very least, it could bring steady work, Ms. Hagan said. Other shelter magazines came and went, but Architectural Digest was a magazine people kept on their coffee tables. Inevitably, there emerged younger designers who had no interest in paying homage to Ms. Noland, preferring to spread their work around; as a result, AD began to show its age.

 

'Decades ago, I was inspired by it,' said Steven Gambrel, 41, whose work has been published in Elle Décor and House Beautiful, among other magazines, but not Architectural Digest. (Not, that is, in Ms. Noland’s version; a Long Island house of his once appeared in the German edition.) 'It was an icon of the moment, for a long moment,' Mr. Gambrel said. 'Then it became something I found mostly unhelpful because I thought the images were based more on personality than on design content. You want variety and energy, and that was something that was not encouraged at AD. We don’t have to comment on whether that’s a good system or bad system. It just limits what you see.'

 

Robert Couturier, an AD veteran, was more blunt: 'It had been turning into a really nasty magazine in the last 10 to 15 years. And yet I think it’s a very important magazine, because unlike the others, it’s read by men, and if you were in it, it was always recognized and noticed.'

 

Mr. Couturier, who said he had no great liking for Ms. Noland ('I don’t think she liked me very much either,' he added), was nonetheless awarded a place in the AD 100, the magazine’s guide to design professionals. Like a kind of high-end Zagat of design, the AD 100 was a priceless imprimatur, the gift that kept on giving.

 

'Any list that you’re on is always nice to be on,' said Mr. Smith, who, like Mr. Couturier, was listed in the AD 100 but did not consider himself an AD loyalist. 'Architectural Digest used to be the shelter magazine of record. I once said to Paige that I wouldn’t be a decorator if it wasn’t for AD. I pored over the magazine as a kid. It was this glossy thing, more like a book — a bookier product! — that seemed otherworldly, and that she created from nothing. But in the last 20 years, there have been so many other venues mining the same territory. Not just shelter magazines, but places like Departures or W or Town & Country, that were getting into the decorating game.'

 

And then the recession hit." [1]

 

 

"The last few years have not been kind to any of the shelter magazines. Advertising pages, the measure of a magazine’s financial health, have plummeted in double-digit percentages, as companies with dwindling revenues scrambled to pare their budgets in a recession-pinched economy. Many titles disappeared, from century-old grande dames like House & Garden to scrappy upstarts like Domino, which closed just shy of its fourth birthday, and copycat upstarts like Martha Stewart’s Blueprint. When the dust cleared last year, Architectural Digest was one of a handful of high-end survivors, that is, national shelter titles with affluent readers publishing more than six issues a year, along with Elle Décor, Dwell, House Beautiful and Veranda, each with a distinct ethos and readership (recessions are nothing if not clarifying) and a markedly different financial back story.

Ms. Russell’s fashion-forward Elle Décor and the practical, sunny House Beautiful, which had been rebooted in 2005 by a new editor, Stephen Drucker, finished last year with ad pages close to their 2007, pre-recession highs; Architectural Digest, Dwell and Veranda were down by almost half.

Circulation, however, was less volatile. For the most part, readers stayed loyal to their domestic bibles. Some titles, like House Beautiful, even drew new readers, growing to 906,349 in the first half of last year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, from 873,278 in the first half of 2007.

'The category has rebounded if you’re sitting at House Beautiful or Elle Décor,' said Jack Hanrahan, a media consultant and publisher of CircMatters, an industry newsletter. 'If you’re sitting at Veranda or Architectural Digest, you’re waiting for that second wave to come.' (Mr. Hanrahan described Dwell as even more troubled. Citing circulation figures that many media buyers view as questionable — numbers padded by giveaways — he included it in his 'Troubled Ten,' a list of magazines on shaky ground.)

Elle Décor is now in contract to be bought by Hearst, the publisher of House Beautiful and Veranda, as part of a package that includes a portfolio of media. All three magazines have new editors. Mr. Drucker, who had re-imagined the dimly suburban House Beautiful into a very successful ideas book, was assigned by Hearst to rework another struggling title, Town & Country, which he will turn over to Jay Fielden, editor of the short-lived Men’s Vogue, at the end of this month. Mr. Drucker’s style director, Newell Turner, took his place at House Beautiful. Elle Décor’s new editor is its longtime executive editor, Michael Boodro. And Veranda hired Dara Caponigro, who worked at House Beautiful and Elle Décor before becoming a founding editor of Domino.

'It’s been really sad to see some of the magazines closing,' Mr. Turner said. 'And it wasn’t a good thing for the industry. But I think it’s allowed the remaining magazines to find strong positions that distinguish themselves from each other.'

Tom Wallace, Condé Nast’s editorial director and the man who summoned Ms. Russell to an exploratory interview lunch last June, noted: 'No business succeeds by standing still. Particularly one that is devoted to design.'

'If it’s any good at all,' he continued, 'it will foment progressive change within the design community.' He praised Ms. Russell’s 'refined aesthetic and sound judgment,' as well as her hardiness, resilience being as valuable a quality in the editor of a shelter magazine today as an eye for a nicely appointed room. Certainly it’s a quality that her predecessor, Ms. Noland, had in abundance." [1]

"'After spending 10 minutes with Margaret,' Mr. Wallace said, 'I could tell she had the constitution that could handle the rigors of publishing.'

'She’s from Connecticut,' is how Jonathan Adler, the designer of cheeky home accessories, describes Ms. Russell’s smiling toughness. He and Ms. Russell bonded as judges of the Bravo series 'Top Design,' and she was on her way to dinner at his West Village apartment two years ago when she broke her ankle getting out of a taxi.

'She stiff-upper-lipped it all night,' Mr. Adler said, waiting until the following day to visit an emergency room. 'Cut to two years later, and she’s still hobbling around in a high-heeled cast. The thing about Margaret is she’s so gorgeous you expect one thing, but then you find her sweeping up after the DIFFA Awards,' he added, referring to the ceremony held by the design industries’ AIDS charity. 'When you’re that good-looking, people project onto those high heels. But, my God, she’s a hard worker.'" [1]

"Ms. Russell now lives in a formerly rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper East Side, off-limits because she is wary of too much intimate scrutiny from strangers. (Her role on 'Top Design' brought unwelcome admirers, she said.)

'It’s very white,' she will tell you. 'White upholstery, Saarinen table, a very white bedroom. The crazier my life in the office, the more I wanted my home life to be serene.'

Not that she’s home much. She’s up at 6, at work by 8:30. 'I go out every night,' she said. 'Some of the best stories come from running into people at parties. The day doesn’t end at the end of the day. And, in truth, I’m not a great cook.'

She is seeing someone, she said, and smiled a Cheshire cat smile. Ms. Russell is not an over-sharer.

The new Architectural Digest comes with a new staff, which she hired this summer, some of them Elle Décor alumni. The generous writers’ contracts are gone. 'I did not renew them,' Ms. Russell said. 'And the company exercised its right to terminate contracts that were still current. It was determined that they were not a feasible business model.'

An inventory of articles, about four years’ worth, may or may not find its way into the magazine. For its archives, however, Ms. Russell imagines limitless digital forms. 'There’s a wealth of material that can become iPad apps,' she said. 'Our biggest project is the Web site. That reader is a different reader, and for them we can be so much more service-oriented.' [1]

"'Evolution, not revolution,' she added, 'is what we keep saying. Preserving and respecting the brand’s DNA. At its essence, AD is still a dream book: it’s about the dream of living well.'

Last November, Ms. Russell’s employers held a party for her at Riverpark, the new Tom Colicchio restaurant. Tucked into the bottom of a glassy high-rise on the East River, the restaurant shares space with pharmaceutical and biotech companies like ImClone (a company made famous by another media personality, Martha Stewart).

For those who didn’t come in town cars, it was a bewildering hike to the far eastern edge of the city. Andy Cohen, a senior executive at Bravo; Richard Meier; Bunny Williams, Jamie Drake and Nate Berkus were among the guests who paused politely for a photo op with Ms. Russell, who was wearing her uniform: a black satin Prada dress with a nipped-in waist, one black surgical boot and a high-wattage smile.

Later, S. I. Newhouse Jr., Condé Nast’s 83-year-old chairman, shyly toasted Ms. Russell in a speech marked by long pauses. After a particularly extended silence, Mr. Newhouse drew a breath. 'House & Garden is dead,' he declared finally. 'And AD isn’t.'

Wherever Ms. Noland was that night, she must have been smiling." [1]

 

ALL TEXT [1] AS IT ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN "MARGARET RUSSELL UNVEILS THE NEW ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST" WRITTEN BY PENELOPE GREEN FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES, FEBRUARY 3, 2011; ALL IMAGES OF DAPHNE GUINNESS' NEW YORK APARTMENT, PHOTOGRAPHED BY THOMAS LOOF, PRODUCED BY JAMES REGINATO FOR ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST, MARCH, 2011